The Riga Conference is a highlight in my annual calendar and an antidote to the eternal self-obsessed ‘westerneuropeanitis’ which passes for strategy in Europe these days.  Sharing a platform with the Belgian, British and Latvian defense ministers I fulfilled my now traditional role as Europe’s strategic hooligan.  Dangerously I also sent my first tweet – Yorkshire finally enters the twenty-first century!  My plea was simple and heartfelt – do not confuse the defense of Europe with the deepening of the EU.  If the former has to wait for the latter it will die of political old age. 

The final panel of the conference did what the European elite loves most – talked about itself.  President Ilves of Estonia was joined by Europe’s two most impressive foreign ministers – Sweden’s Carl Bildt and Poland’s Radek Sikorski to consider the strategic outlook of the EU. A more oxymoronic session for a conference one could not imagine as Europe these days rarely looks out and does not do strategy.  And yet it must!

The brilliant Celeste Wallander the token American on the panel tried valiantly to intrude on Europe’s private grief but she was far too optimistic.  And to be fair to her fellow luminaries they are the most real world of all European leaders these days.  Indeed, the idea that ‘new Europe’ should hold ‘old Europe’ to account was refreshing, depressing and ironic (when will ‘new’ Europe simply become Europe).  I say ironic because in a few days the brand new HMS Daring will visit Riga, Britain’s and one of the world’s most advanced warships.  This is ‘old’ Europe investing in new military kit.

Syria was the elephant in the room demonstrating yet again Europe’s disconnect from the world and from each other.  In St Petersburg the Germans had just failed to sign the declaration of the several western powers present at the G20 meeting condemning Assad’s use of chemical weapons.  Now, Berlin could be forgiven for making a mistake given the thousand diplomatic shocks to which political flesh is heir to during an election campaign.  However, the Germans had demurred because Europe’s ‘President’ Herman Van Rompuy had prevailed on Berlin to wait until an EU meeting in Vilnius so as not to upset ‘les petits’.  Talk about tail wagging the elephant!

Overcoming my natural and habitual reticence I ploughed into the debate by suggesting that the Syria crisis is in fact far more than an issue of to intervene or not to intervene.  It is an essential struggle over the very nature of global governance with profound implications for those who believe in values and functioning international institutions.  Indeed, Syria reveals the most strategic of fights over the future of global governance between the ‘sovereignty at any cost’ lobby led by Russia and the ‘humanity at lowest cost’ lobby led by the Americans.

Now, there are a whole host of reasons why the strike the Obama administration is proposing will not work.  However, the crisis also reveals the extent to which whilst the Americans, Chinese, Russians and Indians et al play power poker Europeans continue to play integration chess.  What Europe refuses to understand is that the truly strong do not need strategy; it is the weak that need strategy.  However, the politics of European integration today makes Europe unique in international politics; weakness without strategy.  The whole process is making Europe’s big powers behave like little ones. Someone even proffered the idea that the Eurozone crisis is deepening European integration.  If so it is the integration of despair. 

The bottom line is that Europe could do far more in the world. However, Europe lacks the shared vision, will, both soft and hard power and the willingness to share risk at the point of contact with danger upon which strategy is made. 

This brings me back full circle to my panel of defense ministers (plus little old me).  Philip Hammond the British defense minister rightly said there will be no new money for European defence but Europeans must do more together.  However, there also needs to be strategic investment in twenty-first century military capabilities such as HMS Daring if Europe’s soft power is to have a vital hard edge.  Sure that will involve some cost.  However, a world that drifts back to the politics of grand cynicism will prove far more costly. 

There is a crisis of global governance today and European weakness is partly responsible.  Riga and its history attest to the consequences when European democracies choose to be weak.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.