If strategy is the pursuit of political goals—chosen after careful definition of one’s own interest, using  appropriate means, and executed over the long term—Europe is in for some nasty surprises. As a geographic region, and, more narrowly, as an institution in the form of the European Union, Europe is in inevitable decline. Its substance in terms of social  stability, economic strength, and the ability to innovate are undoubtedly still strong and its influence, especially in its immediate neighborhood, is still considerable. But compared to other regions, this Western annex of the Asian land mass is destined to slowly lose influence and standing. This loss of power will put at risk the freedom, peace, and prosperity that Europeans are so used to.

The unsettling thing in all this is that Europeans are at a cultural disadvantage for coping with their relative decline in a globalized world. They have never had to develop the proper mind-set for surviving the global competition they now face. Europeans have always been on top, either because of their own strength—until the 1940s—or as part of the West in alliance with—and by the grace of—the United States. This privileged position has made them lazy in their strategic thinking about the world and themselves.

The new world Europeans find themselves in is a scary place where the internal rivalries that still feature so prominently on Europe’s daily agenda count for very little. This new world will not only teach them a painful lesson about the necessity to cooperate if they want to retain the privileged lifestyles and the social cohesion they cherish, but also force them to learn how to be strategic players who use their limited means and limited influence in as smart and goal-oriented a way as possible.

The times when sheer wealth and cultural clout bought Europeans the possibility to improvise their external relations are over. So is the era when Americans would freely improvise it for them. In the long run, the only real hope for Europe’s dwindling number of citizens is that decline will make them smart. If it doesn’t, hard times are ahead.

Five elements need to be at the core of the future strategic European mind-set.

First, Europeans need the courage and openness to think about the world, themselves, and the future in more realistic terms. The current political debate in Brussels and other European capitals is still conducted as if nothing much will change, as if internal quarrels are really existential, and as if wealth and importance can be taken for granted. The financial and euro crises are just gentle harbingers of the upheaval that’s ahead of us.

A new-found European realism will have to be about developing a healthy sense of Europe’s own size and influence, its fateful reliance on globalization, and its geopolitical dependence on access to markets—for both imports and exports. It is also about an increasingly dangerous and disorderly world in dire need of stability provided by capable and responsible powers.

European realism needs to acknowledge that peace and freedom are hard-earned and that both rely on the willingness and ability to defend them militarily, if needed. These may sound like truisms, but Europeans—pampered by seven comfortable postwar decades—often show a bothersome reluctance to accept even rather basic facts. And their political leaders show little appetite to speak full truth to the people.

Second, Europeans need stability and cohesion at home if they want to be strong abroad. This has two dimensions: social cohesion at the national level and political integration on the European level. The glue that holds both together is the legitimacy of the integration project. Far more integration will be needed to cope with global challenges. This deepening of the Union can’t be based solely on output legitimacy—the ability to produce benefits for the people—as it was in the past. It will need a lot more input legitimacy—the possibility for the people to have a say.

If Europe continues to be an elite project, the people will revolt either openly or by silently withdrawing their loyalty and support from both the EU and their home nations. Populism, extremism, isolationism, and potentially even violence could be the result. The EU will need a participatory revolution to boost legitimacy for integration, not only because it needs to become strategic, but also for its very survival.

Third, Europeans need to stay rich if they want to matter in the world. The reason why Europe is still relevant today is its immense economic power. This is due to an unprecedented economic integration process that created a single market, turned the EU into a global trade powerhouse, and generated the wealth to pacify Europe’s notoriously incohesive societies. It also made Europe attractive for immigration—the needed and the unneeded kind—and gave European nations the ability to heavily co-finance the institutions of global governance—the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and World Bank. It also allowed Europeans to become the world’s primary aid donors for international development.

All of this bought global influence. With budgets in tatters, many economies unreformed, and sub-standard growth rates considered normal, however, this influence is now dwindling. Europe needs to drastically revamp its economic model if it wants to count for something in the future.

Fourth, Europeans will have to accept that their own strategic posture will be untenable without a close partnership with the United States. Washington crucially underwrote the European integration process—a fact comfortably forgotten by many Europeans—by providing both the capital and security umbrella that made it possible. It still provides the defense guarantees that keep Europeans safe from political blackmail and allow them to dramatically underperform militarily. In other words, there would be no peace, no stability, and no wealth in Europe without America.

Even in times of austerity, Americans are unlikely to give up on Europe entirely, but they will need far greater contributions, more political creativity, and a stronger sense of responsibility from Europeans in order to justify the expense of propping up the old continent. This will be expensive, but still much cheaper than the alternative, because the uncomfortable truth is that while America is possible without Europe, Europe is impossible without America.

And finally, Europeans need to develop a limited but ambitious agenda for their external affairs. The key to this will be the ability to make tough policy choices. “Global Europe,” a catch phrase from the more ambitious past, is over. This is the age of Strategic—read selective—Europe. The top issues on Europe’s strategic agenda must include:

  • Europe’s neighborhood, including Turkey—Europe’s coming great power;
  • Europe’s military capabilities;
  • energy, including its related issues of climate, Russia, and the Arctic;
  • EU-Asia relations;
  • North Africa after the Arab Spring; and
  • global trade and international finance.

As this list implies, European “strategic-ness” must by definition combine the internal and the external dimension of the integration process. The old dichotomy that played internal cohesion against external engagement is no longer useful. What’s new in today’s world is that Europeans don’t have a choice anymore. Integration without an active role in the world will fail. A role in the world without integration is impossible. It’s time for Strategic Europe.

To reinvigorate debate over European foreign policy and Europe’s role in the world, Carnegie Europe is publishing a series of essays from leading policymakers, diplomats, experts, and journalists on Strategic Europe over the coming weeks. A new essay will appear every day.