A belief that the world is plunging into multiple crises is now commonplace, at least in Europe. Continued Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, the Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb told the BBC on Thursday, could be “the end of the end of the Cold War.” Mainstream economists have raised the chances of a Greek exit from the euro to high, and of a collapse of the euro to more than possible.
All these are possibles, could bes, question marks. We are in Donald Rumsfeld land, where there are known unknowns, unknown unknowns and few knowns. And because the stakes are so high, and so much for so many millions hangs on the outcomes of the present crises, efforts at resolution keep throwing up more known unknowns.
This week, two crucial meetings — one in Brussels on Greek debt and the other in Minsk on the Russia-Ukraine conflict — rolled the unknowns over to a future date. We don’t know if Greece, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund can get an agreement on debt and reform that they, and their constituencies, can stick to. Nor do we know if an outline agreement to end the fighting in Ukraine’s east, arrived at in Minsk, Belarus, in the early hours of Thursday, can hold when a more or less identical one didn’t.
One thing we do know: All the principals in these two crises — central to the future stability of Europe and to the world — are in different ways weak. None of the players are able to deliver strong, consistent backing for whatever is agreed, or even to get any kind of agreement at all. The country that can still claim to be the world’s superpower, the United States, hovers anxiously over these crises, especially that in Ukraine, but is for the moment detached from both. This is European business, and there’s a European superpower involved. That is Germany, which, willy-nilly, has a hegemonic position over both crises. But if it’s a hegemon, it’s a hapless, hobbled one.
First, Ukraine. It’s where blood is being spilt, in increasingly large quantities. Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president, is “weak and politically beleaguered,” with a badly equipped and trained military, a still-corrupt society, a desperate economy, and turbulence and dissent within his administration. He has failed to hold the advance of the separatists, failed to mobilize enough pressure on President Vladimir Putin of Russia to stop supplying the separatists and failed to convince the West to supply him with advanced weaponry.
Putin seems much stronger. He has taken and holds Ukraine’s Crimea to the point where the annexation isn’t even raised other than formally in negotiations. He has equipped and supported the rebels to the point where they have been able to fashion themselves into a force capable of defeating a relatively large, if inefficient, army. He’s still at 80 percent popularity in Russian polls.
But he’s also trapped. His economy, hit by sanctions and low oil prices, is moving steadily into recession. If he continues to support the rebels, the next round of sanctions could cut Russia out of most connections with global finance. If he doesn’t, he’ll be quickly accused of treachery by his resurgent right wing. Eduard Limonov, the most prominent spokesman for those who believe in Russia’s continuing imperial mission, said in an interview (in Italian) last weekend that were Putin to let down the separatists, his popularity — still buoyed by the taking of Crimea — “would melt like the snow in the sun.”
French President Francois Hollande, who along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel has sought to hold Ukrainian and Russian noses to the grindstone, has recently gotten a ratings boost after his dignified reaction to the Charlie Hebdo murders. But his newfound popularity is fragile and may sink if the French economy doesn’t pick up, which it refuses to do. His party held on to a seat in a by-election in Doubs against a challenge from Marie Le Pen’s National Front — but by the skin of its teeth. She hailed it as a victory, while leftists warned of the growing danger they think she represents. Hollande wants a quick success in the talks with Russia to bolster his shaky new standing; the risk is that any settlement will do.
As for the other crisis (krisis is a Greek word), the meeting of the eurozone finance ministers in Brussels on Wednesday didn’t even produce an agreed statement. Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis had seemed to agree to an EU proposal, then after consultation with aides (more likely, a reining-back from the harder-line Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras), he turned it down. Tsipras sees himself leading a movement of revolt against imposed austerity not just in Greece but also in Europe. He told a rally in Athens on Wednesday that, “In the cities of Greece and Europe, the people are fighting the negotiation battle. They are our strength.” But his weakness is more obvious: the dependence of Greece on European Union and International Monetary Fund support, the bleakness of the consequences of a “Grexit.”
The German hegemon looks on this, and despairs. Hard work and relatively clean government have propelled Germany into de facto leadership of the European Union — and Merkel into the role of supreme arbiter. This was not the polity she came into 25 years ago, when, as an apparently shy daughter of an East German Lutheran pastor and a scientific researcher, she won a seat in the united German parliament. There, she was adopted by then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and pushed rapidly up the ladder of the center-right Christian Democratic Union. To everyone’s surprise, she took the leadership of the party and, in 2005, the chancellorship. She is now the go-to leader of Europe. She, not the British prime minister, has the really important talks in the Oval Office.
Yet, shrewd and tough as she is, Merkel’s a hobbled leader. Her party — and her voters — will not tolerate substantial concessions to the Greeks, who, they believe, have gotten too much already. She will not arm the Ukrainians, in part because of German war guilt toward a Russia through which the Nazis pillaged and slaughtered.
Leaders weakened and hobbled by their domestic pressures and political cultures, with powerful forces in their countries unwilling to allow them to conclude agreements, make bad negotiators. That’s why, this week, the unknowns remain as unknown as ever. Next week, there is a known. There will be more meetings.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.