OP-EDS

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February 18, 2005

How do you say "bipolarity" in Estonain

For the past decade, pundits and analysts have been counting down the years until China awakens as the next superpower rival to the United States. Despite continued Chinese economic and scientific strides, the Communist Party leaders in Beijing still rule undemocratically, and it will be at least another decade or more before the tiger breaks loose from its cage. Across the ocean in the other direction, a new superpower is developing that has the potential to emerge as a bipolar rival even sooner, and some suggest that it might already have. With a population larger than that of the United States and an economy rapidly eclipsing America's, the new Europe is poised to beat China to a seat in the superpower club.

Most people, myself included, still expect to witness China's emergence as a strong superpower this century, but many on this side of the Atlantic have failed to take notice of the growing power of the European Union and its potential to create a powerful super-state on the continent that can equal the United States in economic and diplomatic power. Washington still foots the bill for European defense, and it is unlikely that the "Eurocrats" in Brussels will forge a common military structure anytime soon. But arms alone do not a superpower make.

T. R. Reid, in his new book The United States of Europe, posits that Europe has already surpassed the United States as an economic power. He cites the strength of the euro against the dollar and its rise as a potential alternative reserve currency. Reid's favorite anecdote is the case of Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, whose career-capping mega-merger with Honeywell was busted by the European Union's antitrust commission. Welch, as a result, lost his fortune, his marriage, and much of his dignity. Bill Gates's Microsoft Corporation is facing similar antitrust action in Europe today.

European states already hold a strong bloc of votes in nearly every international organization, and this gives Europe a ton of diplomatic weight. In addition, the governments of European states combined give more international aid each year than the United States. In the European Union's new constitution, a high-level position of foreign minister will be created for the first time in order to foster common policies. Europe has the advantage of being 25 states when numbers matter and one united super-state when size matters.

This coming week marks two critical events in the history of European integration. First, Spain will be the first state to hold a referendum on the new European Union constitution. Created to mold a system previously designed for 15 states into an institutional structure capable of harnessing 25 or more, the new constitution is a step in the direction of a more powerful and more centralized union. All of the member states' governments have pledged support, but several key states will hold popular referenda in the coming year and a half to ratify it. If even one of the larger states opts out, it will create a crisis that could endanger the future of the Union. Spain, whose population is expected to highly endorse the constitution next week, holds the first such referendum. There is significant Euro-skepticism in the United Kingdom and even France that threatens these states' commitment to the new constitution.

The second event is Bush's upcoming visit to Europe from February 22 through 24. Attending meetings in Brussels, Berlin, and Bratislava, Bush will use the first foreign trip of his second term to signal his readiness to reengage with those European leaders with whom he had wrangled over the Iraq war. Not only will this be an opportunity for the United States to win back friends, but this is also a moment in which Europe hopes to use its diplomatic clout to gain concessions from Washington. I would not be surprised if the Europeans were to push American ratification of the Kyoto Protocol as a gesture of reconciliation, though I doubt the Bush administration would go for it. Regardless, Bush's visit places Brussels in a very favorable negotiating position.

Europe's rise is evident in more areas than politics and economic growth. Jeremy Rifkin, in his new book The European Dream, contends that Europeans have come far closer to achieving the social and economic goals for which Americans have been striving. The American dream, Rifkin argues, has become a reality—in Europe. With free healthcare, unemployment benefits, free universal education, and a strong currency with a vibrant economy, Europe has a higher standard of living than the United States. According to Al Strachan, a columnist for Canada's SLAM! Sports, a group of European business moguls are trying to lure NHL hockey players to European teams, enticing them with the prospects of a better life and a livelier hockey scene. If and when the current NHL lockout ends, there is a chance that the league's finest may have long-term contracts not in Edmonton and San Jose but in Copenhagen and Prague.

It is important for policy-makers and students of international relations to keep a sharp eye on the goings-on in Brussels. Old Europe may have become irrelevant after the rise of American hegemony, but the new Europe has emerged as a powerful player on the world scene. As European leaders pool their resources, it is no longer possible to disregard the signals coming from across the Atlantic, and moreover it is unwise. The world must wake up to the new reality of this decade—that the end of American economic and diplomatic hegemony is right around the corner. The cost of ignorance is high, and it will be paid in euros.