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For a big picture strategic review: simplicity and realism

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In this first of a five-part series on the place of defence in the future EU Global Strategy, Jolyon Howorth makes the case for a more realistic strategic review based on clarity and simplicity.

(Photo credit: Gotcredit, Flickr)


For a big picture strategic review: simplicity and realism

Any attempt to devise a new European Union security strategy requires clarity on three essential elements: the context; the objectives and the means.

The Context

The world around us may indeed be, ‘more complex, connected and contested’, as the Global Strategy drafts indicate. But there is a danger in making the strategic review too complex. When we parse concepts like multi-cluster, multi-level, mini-lateral, multi-layered, multi-plex and inter-polarity; when we suggest that polarity no longer exists; when we try to include in the review every aspect of current global intercourse, we are in effect creating a context that is almost certainly unmanageable. In one important way, the world is not ‘more complex’ than in the past. It is not more complex than under bipolarity (1949-1989) or under uni-polarity (1990-2010). But multi-polarity has always been the norm in international relations. There is merit in sticking with the parsimonious interpretation of the world that has always inspired realists: system anarchy; the fundamental role of states; the centrality of the distribution of power; balance of power. Indeed, power itself. These basics remain the crucial elements of International Relations (IR). The EU tends to avoid dealing with the currency of power. It can no longer afford to.

The currency the EU prefers and believes it understands – multilateralism, international law, international institutions, diplomacy, soft and smart power – have all come into their own since 1945 and they have a vital role to play. But there should be no illusions: positive sum aspirations have not replaced zero-sum realities. The events in Crimea and Ukraine have surely brought home that truth with a vengeance. The 2003 European Security Strategy coined the notion of ‘effective multilateralism’. It was never entirely clear what the word ‘effective’ was intended to convey. I believe everybody has already concluded that the EU’s attempts at multilateralism in the neighbourhood have been the opposite of effective. The Barcelona Process and then the Union for the Mediterranean in fact amounted to a Faustian pact with a handful of dictators whereby they kept Islamists and migrants at bay while the EU disbursed relatively modest sums of money and turned a blind eye to their human rights abuses. That all blew up in the EU’s face in 2011, when it turned out that the Union had zero influence over the course of the Arab Spring. Similarly, the Eastern Partnership was a misguided attempt to suck into the EU’s orbit a number of very different countries from the former Soviet bloc with no sense of strategic objective.

The ‘level of ambition’ seems to have been to generate a ‘ring of friends’. But there was never any clear indication of how this was to be achieved. Alas, it does not work. The context now is infinitely more threatening than it was in 2003. The EU needs to be clear about its own responsibility in the generation of these threats. Europeans may think they have turned their back on colonialism and embraced a role as a normative power. But many people from the former Empires do not see it like that. The phenomenon of radicalised youth flooding to Syria is not primarily Europe’s fault. But neither are European states entirely blameless. It was they who created the modern Middle East and it was they who armed Saddam Hussein. It was they who cozied up to Mubarak, Ben Ali and even (eventually) Gaddafi. What impact did all that misspent aid have on the unemployed youth of the Mashrek and the Maghreb? The phenomenon of Islamic State (ISIS) cannot be directly traced to European mistakes, but nor is it totally unconnected. Europe’s strategic re-think needs to start with a good look in the mirror.

Two points on the Eastern neighbourhood can illustrate this. The first is that NATO enlargement was arguably a geostrategic and historic mistake of massive proportions. In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, George Kennan, the father of ‘containment’, argued that: ‘NATO expansion set up a situation in which NATO now has to either expand all the way to Russia’s border, triggering a new cold war, or stop expanding after these three new countries and create a new dividing line through Europe’. His words have proven prophetic. European leaders, by and large, tried to resist NATO enlargement. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy went to extraordinary lengths, at the Bucharest summit in April 2008, to rule out membership for Georgia and Ukraine. But they failed to engage Russia in a viable trans-continental partnership geared to avoiding precisely the spirit of confrontation that has arisen from NATO enlargement. That should be a priority objective of European strategy.

The second point is that the Eastern Partnership experience has revealed that Putin and his supporters are probably even more afraid of the socio-political consequences, inside Russia, of the ‘Maidan spirit’, than they are of NATO. The question is: how should the EU handle this new situation? Should it try playing Maidan-style politics inside Russia? Should it gamble on a future political uprising and the overthrow of the Putin regime? That would assume two things. One is that the EU has a Putin problem rather than a Russia problem. I believe that is false. Europe has had the same ‘Russia problem’ for about 300 years. Secondly, it assumes the EU would know how to play that internal political game. The record to date suggests, on the contrary, that Europeans are hopeless at it.

The context therefore is terribly threatening. What are the EU’s (realistic) objectives in that context?

The Objectives

Here, the issue of the level of ambition is absolutely fundamental. In the introductory Food for Thought paper, the authors speak of ‘taking the lead in stabilising Europe’s broad neighbourhood, including the neighbours of the neighbours’. This is indeed the challenge. But what does that mean in practice? We need a clear answer to the following key question: not so much what should the EU aim to do, but what is it that the EU can realistically hope to achieve in the neighbourhood – including, indeed, the neighbours of the neighbours. The geographic focus is important. The immediate neighbourhood is challenge enough – way into the future. So while the Union should do what it can to help with securing sea-lanes and contributing to the activities of the UN, the region is the absolute priority. The EU is a global trading actor – but in terms of the deployment of crisis management power, it should not for the foreseeable future aspire to be anything other than a regional power. That should be stated unambiguously. What might the EU hope to achieve in the neighbourhood?

It should avoid over-reliance on discourse. We have heard an enormous amount,discursively, about the EU’s values – which it seeks to export. But do Europeans seriously think they can ‘export’ their values to the South and to the East? Lucidity about the EU’s real leverage is essential. In my view, the most the EU can hope to do in the Southern neighbourhood is to assist local and regional political initiatives aimed at stabilisation. Federica Mogherini has begun to focus on this. Tunisia is, of course, an interesting case and I salute the decision of the Nobel Prize Committee to award the 2015 prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia. But let us not forget that Tunisia – in part because of the relative openness of political debate since the Jasmine Revolution, has sent morejihadists to Syria (proportionate to the population), than any other Arab country. Libya is a place where the EU has put in a lot of effort. But so have the UN, the Arab League, the African Union and key Libyan actors. The EU should try to be helpful when asked. It should not focus primarily on exporting values. Charles Kupchan (currently President Obama’s advisor on Europe) argues that there will be many pathways to modernity and that the pathway followed by European states from the 16th century onwards was unique. These Southern rim countries are highly unlikely to embrace specific European principles of democracy, or of the market economy or of the rule of law. An earlier paper from the High Representative correctly spoke of ‘rethinking the EU’s transformative agenda’. That is a crucial objective. And that includes the Middle East, which, since the early 2000s, the EU has effectively sub-contracted to the US. Alas, US policy has seriously backfired in the Middle East and Europe urgently needs to start thinking what it could possibly do to help douse the wildfire in its ‘near abroad’. Military instruments are unlikely to prove to be constructive in this regard.

The EU needs to focus much more on interests. It is encouraging to note that the High Representative is now stressing interests rather than simply values. The received wisdom has been that member state interests clash on national grounds. I would argue, on the contrary, that, in the context of a rapidly changing globalised system marked by power transition, the interests of the member states are massively convergent rather than divergent. The EU needs to recognise that, to quantify it, to act on it.

To the East, where the ambition is to stabilise both the neighbours and the ‘neighbours of the neighbours’, that of course means Russia. Two points here. First, I believe that the Eastern Partnership has fundamentally destabilised the Eastern neighbourhood. Second, we have now helped to create, albeit largely through the lack of a strategy, a confrontational relationship with Russia, which is playing out in the Baltic, in Ukraine, in Syria (and soon in Iraq?). So what does ‘stabilising the neighbourhood’ actually mean? Tony Blair, in a speech in Warsaw in 2000, said that we have to have enlargement because we cannot have instability on the borders. That statement is illogical. The further the EU enlarges, the greater the instability on the borders. Any strategy for the East has to start (not finish) with Russia. Putin’s Russia is the latest iteration of the West’s Russia problem, which emerged 300 years ago when Peter the Great brought Russia into Europe as a great power. Russia is an essential actor in the European system that can neither be integrated nor (equally importantly) ignored. The level of ambition as far as Russia is concerned involves, first and foremost, a lucid assessment of the cards the EU holds. The EU has been playing identity politics in Ukraine, while Putin has been playing Thucydides. Yet Europe possesses many resources – technological, financial, commercial, scientific, demographic and political that vastly outweigh those of Russia. These should be deployed more overtly. It is no use hoping that the Americans will solve the Ukraine problem. They will not.

The Director of the Institute of World Policy in Kiev, Alyona Getmanchuk, argued that the EU underestimated both the pro-EU sentiments of the Ukrainian people and Russia’s capacity to thwart EU plans, concluding that: ‘It is now crucial that the EU should finally determine where it wants to see Ukraine in the long-term: within the European Union or outside it? One of the main problems contributing to this crisis is that Russia knows exactly what it wants from Ukraine; Ukraine knows what it wants from the EU; but the EU has no clear policy goal’. That is a fair assessment. What we have is neither enlargement nor stability on the borders. It is all very well saying that Ukrainians have the right to EU membership if that is what they desire. But the Union needs to be very clear on two things: 1) is Ukrainian membership in the EU’s interest? It is currently facing huge challenges managing the Union in its current form, and I believe strongly that we should stop all thought of further enlargement; and 2) however, assuming in some fit of madness the EU were to offer accession to Ukraine and Georgia, what sort of price would it be prepared to pay for it: the absorption of a truncated Ukraine, with a bleeding frozen conflict in its Eastern provinces, and an embittered Russia dangling a sword of Damocles over the entire arrangement. No: we need a strategy towards Russia that says very clearly: a) how our interests mesh with those of Russia – and they are many –; and, b) how far we are prepared to go to confront Russia over the issues where we disagree.

The Means

The Food for Thought paper says a lot about EU autonomy and it is right to do so. Yet almost 20 years after Saint Malo, the EU is more dependent on the US for its security than it was in the mid-1990s. The aspiration to autonomy is a political aspiration. It is the ultimate level of ambition. As the CSDP story has unfolded, and as the US has tilted to Asia, the noises out of Washington DC about the Europeans stepping up and assuming leadership in their neighbourhood have become deafening. What the EU has wound up with, however, is the worst of all worlds. It has a dysfunctional NATO that, despite the strong words of a succession of Secretaries General, is so ridden with internal contradictions as to be in a state of existential crisis – precisely when a credible deterrent is more necessary than ever. And it has a CSDP that has morphed into something very different from what was anticipated and intended during its gestation – which was precisely an autonomous military and civilian capacity that would allow the EU to ‘play its full role on the international stage’, including by being prepared to conduct high-end warfare.

The EU currently has not just one but two relatively dysfunctional security and defence entities, neither of which really knows what its role is in the threatening new world we inhabit. My answer to that, over the past five or six years, has not varied. We need just one security and defence entity in Europe. We need (and the Americans want) that entity to be increasingly led by Europeans and genuinely competent. The level of ambition should therefore be, as the Food for Thoughtpaper rightly suggests, for Europeans finally to emerge as the architects and guarantors of their own security. The Europeans keep stating they want to be autonomous. It is time to do something about it. Europe should progressively merge CSDP into NATO and take over primary responsibilities, both political and military, within the Alliance. That should be the level of ambition. Nothing less will be sufficient.