This op-ed was originally published by Project Syndicate.
As we approach the end of 2021, the European Union is debating its choices and priorities in an increasingly dangerous world. Europe has succeeded since 1945 in realizing its foundational “peace project,” making war between old continental adversaries unthinkable and arguably reaching a Kantian “perpetual peace” within the territory of the Union.
Moreover, although many analysts attribute the communist collapse of 1989-91 to the Soviet Union’s inability to sustain an arms race with the United States, a deeper reason for the failure of the Soviet bloc was the success of the West European social market economy. And nowhere was this clearer than in the competition between West and East Germany.
Crucially, West Germany—and Western Europe more generally—demonstrated that it was possible to have a liberal democracy, a growing market economy, and policies that effectively redistributed income and provided comprehensive social protection. The success of Western Europe’s model of peace and the social market economy, as much as the weakness of the Soviet system, brought about communism’s ideological defeat and eventual collapse.
Today, with the world facing other formidable challenges, there are two global “missions” that Europe could embrace, in line with its postwar history as a project to ensure regional peace.
The first concerns climate change. True, the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow produced notable new pledges by countries and alliances of private actors. But, given the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, ambitious mitigation efforts have to be frontloaded this decade. It is the actual path to a carbon-neutral world, not pledges regarding the middle of the century, that is crucial.
Keeping global warming close to the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, as established in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, will depend much more on the U.S., China, and emerging and developing economies than on Europe, which accounts for less than 8% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite the promises in Glasgow and remarkable advances in green technologies, the race to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach is playing out on a course strewn with severe obstacles.
In the U.S., President Joe Biden’s administration is committed to ambitious carbon-mitigation efforts but is encountering strong resistance. If the Republican Party wins the 2022 mid-term elections and the 2024 presidential election, U.S. climate policies are bound to fall far short of the COP26 commitments, even if some conservatives are finally taking climate risk seriously.
China represents a further hurdle. Its current pledge to reach peak carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030 is incompatible with the need to frontload mitigation. Unless China curbs its emissions sooner, the climate race will be lost. Making matters worse, the two superpowers may base their climate actions on what the other does.
Finally, there are the emerging and developing economies, where much of the new climate investment will be needed. These countries’ ability to contribute to a frontloaded global mitigation path depends on financial help from advanced economies. Rich countries promised such assistance in Glasgow, but their past failures to honor similar pledges do not inspire confidence.
There is a reasonable chance that a combination of rapid progress in green technologies, favorable political developments in the U.S. and China, and financial help for emerging markets will allow for the ramped-up mitigation the planet needs. But there is also a significant probability that the 2020s will become a decade of “perpetual war” on climate issues, marked by backsliding, delays, and more broken promises.
But Europe can have a positive influence on U.S. and Chinese climate policies, particularly through a carefully implemented carbon border adjustment mechanism that imposes a levy on carbon-intensive imports into the EU. And it can have a more decisive influence on mobilizing the required resources for emerging markets by supporting capital increases for multilateral development banks in which European countries are large shareholders.
The second arena where conditions may lead to perpetual war—and thus call for a European “peace mission”—is that of dual-use technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology. Although such innovations offer humanity tremendous opportunities for longer lives and greater well-being, they also imply existential risks similar to those posed by nuclear weapons and climate change.
It is difficult to draw the line between these technologies’ peaceful use and their deployment to gain strategic superiority over rivals. The aggressive technological competition between China and the U.S. is already tending toward a perpetual conflict, in which permitting the other to move ahead would allow it to dominate the world.
What makes this danger even greater than the nuclear arms race of the past is that weaponizing today’s civilian technologies may not require significant additional resources. Civilian medical research, for example, has brought the world frighteningly close to being able to produce synthetic viruses that could potentially be turned into weapons of mass destruction. Similar scenarios are likely to arise in developing AI. Scarier still, in both cases, is the possibility that unintended accidents could occur or non-state terrorist actors could acquire the ability to weaponize innovations.
Europe could lead in this area, as it has on climate. In particular, it should constantly warn about these dangers and help design new rules and treaties resembling the arms-control pacts that previously helped protect the world from nuclear Armageddon. It can do so while safeguarding fundamental liberal democratic values against misuse of these technologies not only by states but also by private corporate leviathans.
On both climate change and new dual-purpose technologies, therefore, Europe’s foundational peace project should become global. Europe has great human and scientific capacity, and its devastation in two world wars has stripped it of the desire to dominate others. That makes it easier for the EU to act as a peace broker. While Europe certainly must continue to improve its citizens’ well-being, embracing global missions like those described here could provide fresh motivation for this and future generations of Europeans.