Europe in International Affairs: A review of the work of Christopher Hill

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 2743

Review of The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualising Europe’s International Role, by Christopher Hill

The recent furore over the ‘Reform Treaty’, which to some was a repackaged attempt to create and implement a European Constitution, has re-ignited the debate about the nature of Europe. What is Europe? What does it mean for a country to sign up to a supranational European collective? What role can Europe play in international affairs? These are common questions posed by experts and layman alike in pursuit of some sort of understanding about this constantly evolving political entity. Roy Ginsberg describes the complex nature of ‘Europe’ as a unique political actor. It is ‘neither a state nor a non state actor, and neither a conventional international organization nor an international regime’. What role can such a unique organization play in a world where politics is still very much dominated by states? Ginsberg argues that the very standing and prestige of the European Union (EU) depends on what it can do as a global actor- ’the effectiveness of EFP (European Foreign Policy) will determine the EU’s…presence…as an international actor’.

The objective of this essay is to review Christopher Hill’s article entitled: The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role, published in 1993 in the Journal of Common Market Studies, which deals with the potential international role of a united Europe. To make sense of Hill’s article and understand how his outlook and opinions were shaped, it is vital to place it in its correct historical context. This will be done in this essay.

The overall tone of Hill’s article is essentially pessimistic, which is understandable, given the events that were unfolding in Europe at the time. Hill opens his article by referring to the earlier works of Hedley Bull and Miles Kahler, noting that they opined in the early 1980s ’the Europeans would need to develop a military capability…if they were ever to be taken seriously on the great issues of international relations…’ – a view he calls ’coolly prescient’.Hill sets about supporting this view by analysing the ’actorness‘ of the Community, the possible international roles it may seek to play and its capacity, or lack thereof in Hill’s view, to successfully play those roles.

The concept of ’actorness’ is presented by Hill, who uses the definition provided by Gunnar Sjostedt, as having three conditions. An entity must be ’delimited’, ’autonomous’ and have the ’structural prerequisites’ to be able act. In his view the European Community is an international actor to a degree, but not wholly, in the way a sovereign state can be. It is, after all, ‘no more than the sum of what member states severally decide’.

The heart of Hill’s article is contained in the subsection entitled ’External Demands‘ wherein he lists the present and future roles of the European Community. Hill attributes four roles to the community in the current environment, and six future roles. The first of these is to act as a stabilizing force for Western Europe. This is wholly understandable given that the initial rationale behind the process of European Integration was economic integration to avoid further conflict; in the words of Jean Monnet, to break from a tradition of ’prestige politics‘.

Secondly, Hill regards it as a role of the European Community to help manage world trade. He notes that the combined Community is responsible for about 16% of global trade, and there is little doubt that any entity comprised of (amongst others) economic powerhouses like the UK, France and Germany would carry significant influence in any international trade system, especially as at the time of Hill’s writing, only the US and Japan would be economic powers of comparable might. China’s meteoric rise was not yet in full swing. In addition to the above two roles, Hill highlights the Community as a leader in relations between the developed Northern Hemisphere and the under-developed Southern Hemisphere, with special reference to its role in alleviating the chronic poverty of Africa. Finally, he notes that the Community has become a second Western voice in the international arena, increasingly distinct from that of the sole remaining superpower, the United States. However, this may not have translated into it becoming a capable second Western actor, as highlighted by its failure in the Yugoslav crisis of 1991–92.

On the perceived future global role of the Community, six possible functions are highlighted, and are listed below. The development of each will be analysed in this essay.

  1. Replacement of the USSR in the global balance of power
  2. Regional peacekeeper
  3. Global intervener
  4. Mediator of conflicts
  5. Bridge between rich and poor
  6. Joint supervisor of the world economy.

Hill wastes little time in deriding the European Community’s capability of becoming an international actor of such scope and significance. The proposals present a ’serious challenge to the actual capabilities of the European Community‘, forcing Hill to highlight the deficiencies of power in the Community that would make fulfilling the tasks expected of it by observers so difficult. His emphasis lies on the lack of defence capability. Indeed ’defence is the key to the development of the Community’s place in the world’. The causes of the weak defence capability are said to be due to a lack of agreement in forming an effective military compact, the fear of damaging NATO, which the US had underwritten since its inception in 1949, a low operational capacity and finally a lack of resources allocated to defence.

In short, Hill establishes that the expectations of an increasingly united Europe and its ability to play the international role predicted for it are poles apart. It was a thought-provoking article dealing with events as they unfolded in the early 1990s, but how was it received?


Reactions to Hill’s article varied. It presented a new concept in the field of European studies – and, indeed, a method which was applicable to any organisation at any time in assessing the roles it could play relative to its capabilities. Many criticised the overly realist emphasis on military power and the lack of emphasis on non-realist understandings of power. Perhaps the most famous criticism came from an article by Ian Manners, Normative Power Europe: A contradiction in terms? ‘I am a suggesting here is that conceptions of the EU as a…military power…need to be augmented with a focus on normative power of an ideational nature characterised by common principles. Indeed, much emphasis is laid on the ‘power of ideas’ as a supplement to traditional understandings of power. The furthering of causes such as human rights and democratic reform have become cornerstones of European policy, typically supported by a range of rewards such as trade concessions for compliant states or punitive measures, such as restrictions or cuts in development aid, for those countries that fail to achieve desirable levels of reform.

Nor was Manners alone in voicing such criticisms. Elisabeth Johansson-Norgues argued that normative power could become a potentially significant additional foreign policy asset for the Union’ although it hasn’t yet reached fruition as a policy instrument.

Fraser Cameron recognises Hill’s analysis as being sound for its time, although his article has the benefit of some ten years of hindsight. The gap between expectations and abilities is closing. He notes that the EU ‘has developed steadily as an international actor’. He, too, emphasises the normative power of the EU, whilst acknowledging that there is the need for a more capable defence capacity as some still ‘measure influence in the strength of armed forces’.


There are some obvious strengths and weaknesses in Hill’s article. Firstly, as outlined by the critiques of his article noted above, Hill takes an essentially blinkered realist view of the world with an emphasis on a balance of power and on defence capability as a standard bearer for the Community’s international role. In doing so, he limited his analysis to areas of politics traditionally labelled ’high politics‘ and ignored the role of EU non-state actor relations, a potential leadership position in dealing with environmental issues, and its role in dealing with the menace of terrorism and organized crime. Finally, Hill ignored the potential of Europe’s non-traditional power; what Ian Manners labelled “Normative Power Europe”.

In addition the article is at times overly pessimistic regarding the potential roles laid out for the European Community. Where Hill was accurate in his foresight was in his analysis of the EU’s lack of potential to replace the USSR as the balance of power with the United States.

Despite its economic might, the EU does lack the military capacity to engage in power projection and lacks a significant global influence in certain key parts of the world, such as the Middle East and Latin America, where it cannot shake US dominance. Moreover, despite an increasing convergence of views and policy, at times the EU does not act as a single actor – such as in Britain’s decision to join in the current Iraq war whilst other European powers, like France, refused. For these reasons, it cannot conceivably play the role of a superpower. It simply lacks the ’hard power’ or the complete political reach to enforce its will. To illustrate the point, it must be noted that not only were the Europeans unable to stop the genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s, and had to rely on American intervention, but they have meagre resources for defence compared to the US, which, under the current Bush administration, has often relied on hard power to implement its foreign policy objectives. The US defence expenditure is $623 billion while that of the rest of the world is only $500 billion, with China and Russia leading the way. This is a reality that will persist well into the present century.

As a regional pacifier and mediator, the European Community has had noticeable success. It has successfully integrated much of former Communist Eastern Europe into the Union, both politically and economically, through expansion of the Eurozone. It has enabled a peaceful transfer of politics in Europe in the post-Soviet age. As a global mediator, it is playing an increasingly significant role as one of the Big Four in the Middle East peace process. Importantly, the Community can rely on the specific historical experiences of the member states and offer a wide range of expertise in many of the world’s trouble spots – a soft power approach which is more obviously available in the EU then within the US.

Its capacity to intervene physically in conflicts remains small, but is increasing. Establishing EuroFor as a rapid reaction force and, more recently, the European Defence Agency should aid in the better coordination and utilisation of resources. Recent peacekeeping operations, such as that in Congo in 2006, can be expected to increase, presumably always with UN sanction. The embarrassment of having to run to the UN and US on the issue of Yugoslavia seems to have spurred the Community into a more proactive approach on defence matters.

Finally as mentioned, Europe can act politically to promote values of democracy, human rights and freedoms of speech and the press globally by employing a system of rewards and punishments for compliant states. Access to a single market for exports, the single biggest consumer market in the world, is a great incentive, as is the Development Aid that the EU controls. In this way, the Community can influence politics and events globally; a form of power totally ignored by Hill.

In summary, Hill’s article is useful as a gauge for how Europe has developed as an international actor. What has been achieved against what was expected? However, when considering times of turmoil such as when the Community failed in the Balkans, exerted little influence in the Persian Gulf and watched to see what would follow the unexpected collapse of Soviet supremacy in the East, one cannot be too harsh on Hill for his pessimistic outlook. The Cold War period had inculcated a realist perspective in most, and analysed through that lens, his conclusions were understandable.

R.H. Ginsberg, Conceptualizing the European Union as an International Actor: Narrowing the theoretical capabilities-expectations gap. Journal of Common Market Studies (September 1999 Vol. 37 No. 3 pp. 429-54) pp. 432

Ibid. p. 449

C. Hill, The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role Journal of Common Market Studies (September 1993 Vol. 31 No. 3 pp. 305-328) pp.305

Ibid. pp.306

Ibid. pp. 309

D. Dinan, Ever Closer Union: An introduction to European Integration (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 3rd edition, 2005) pp. 13

Op. Cit C. Hill, The Capability-Expectations Gap, pp. 311

Ibid. pp. 315

Ibid. pp. 318

Ian Manners, Normative Power Europe: A contradiction in terms?, Journal of Common Market Studies, (September 1993 Vol. 40 No. pp.235-258) pp. 239

Ibid. pp 238

E.J. Nouges, The (Non) Normative Power EU and the European Neighbourhood Policy: An exceptional power for an exceptional actor? European Political Economy Review (No. 7 Summer 2007 pp. 181-194) pp. 182

F. Cameron, The European Union’s Growing International Role: Closing the Capability- Expectation gap? (Conference Paper, The European Union in International Affairs, Australian National University, July 2002). pp. 26

Ibid. pp. 16 List of defence spending by nation from Global Security. UN press release detailing the deployment of European troops to the Congo. Bibliography


Caplan, R, 2005, Europe and the Recognition of New States in Yugoslavia, Cambridge University Press.

Dinan, D., 2005, Ever Closer Union: An introduction to European Integration, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 3rd edition.

Poggi, G., 2001, Forms of Power, Polity Press.


Cameron, F., The European Union’s Growing International Role: Closing the Capability- Expectation gap? (Conference Paper, The European Union in International Affairs, Australian National University, July 2002).

Ginsberg, R.H, Conceptualizing the European Union as an International Actor: Narrowing the theoretical capabilities-expectations gap, Journal of Common Market Studies, September 1999, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 429-54)

Hill, C., The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe’s International Role,Journal of Common Market Studies, September 1993, Vol. 31, No. 3, pp. 305-328)

Manners, I., Normative Power Europe: A contradiction in terms? Journal of Common Market Studies, September 1993, Vol. 40, . pp.235-258)

Nouges, E.J, The (Non) Normative Power EU and the European Neighbourhood Policy: An exceptional power for an exceptional actor?European Political Economy Review, Summer 2007, No. 7, pp. 181-194

Websites List of defence spending by nation from Global Security. UN press release detailing the deployment of European troops to the Congo.

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