Something that might augur a truly titanic shift in foreign affairs happened this week. It involves possibly sweeping foreign-policy changes in two of the world's five official nuclear states. It promises to alter the Middle East peace process, negotiations with Iran, and policies regarding Russian missile defense. It will likely necessitate scores of new embassies. It directly affects 500 million people and indirectly affects the rest of the world.
On Tuesday, Vaclav Klaus, president of the Czech Republic, grumblingly signed the European Union's Lisbon Treaty. His was the last signature needed to ratify the agreement, which streamlines Brussels's byzantine and slow-moving policymaking process and creates two leadership roles, an elected president with a 30-month term and a high representative for foreign policy.
Most focus has centered on the former position, whose precise responsibilities and powers EU leaders plan to hash out at a Nov. 11 summit. (The treaty comes into formal effect in December, and the new president is expected to take office on New Year's Day.) The somewhat sexy idea of a European president has led to wild speculation as to who might fill it, with dozens of potential candidates mentioned, most often the silver-tongued and internationally renowned Tony Blair and the barely known center-right Dutch leader Jan Peter Balkenende.
But it's actually the latter gig that has the most potential to transform how Brussels works and how Europe relates to the world. The president is likely to be just a figurehead rather than any kind of revolutionary leader. Just this week, a joint statement from the leaders of Denmark, Finland, and Ireland stressed that the president should be a "chairman," not a "chief." The characteristic most often cited as necessary is "consensus-building." For the eight years that the Lisbon Treaty and its prior incarnations have wended their way through various EU and European institutions, the concern has always been that the president might have too much authority, not too little.
The foreign-policy position and other structural changes built around it, on the other hand, are certain to bring real change. The point of the new role is to create a single, strong negotiator for the European Union. Currently, control over European foreign and defense policy is split between many people and institutions. NATO takes care of continental security, though each country is ultimately responsible for its own. Brussels deploys troops on peacekeeping missions, but doesn't keep its own army. The European Union does have common policies and a high representative for them -- currently, Secretary-General Javier Solana -- but it requires all 27 members to agree before action, a somewhat rare occurrence. As a result, European foreign policy and diplomacy is disaggregated and as diverse as Europe itself, a mishmash of foreign ministers, prime ministers, presidents, European council figures, and EU representatives.
This fracturing ensures that each country represents its own sovereign interests -- important, given Europe's diversity and the introversion of its foreign policy, which often consists of neighbors arguing among themselves. But many have lamented that Europe has no single, strong voice on the global stage -- increasingly dominated by the heavyweights China and the United States -- even despite Europe's economic heft, large population, and consensus on many issues.