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Remember the revolution: an agenda for EU foreign policy

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Sven Biscop argues that the EU’s foreign policy goals are nothing short of revolutionary but that they can only be achieved through pragmatic idealism.


This commentary appeared in European Geostrategy on 9 November 2014.
(Photo credit:  Håkan Dahlström, Flickr)


Remember the revolution: an agenda for EU foreign policy

It may not fit in exactly with how most European diplomats see themselves, but the European Security Strategy (ESS) of the European Union (EU) outlines an agenda for what in political science terms is called a revolutionary power. To state that ‘the quality of international society depends on the quality of the governments that are its foundation’ is to say in very couched yet clear terms that we do not think that quality is now assured. To add that ‘the best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states’ and that ‘spreading good governance, supporting social and political reform, dealing with corruption and abuse of power, establishing the rule of law and protecting human rights are the best means of strengthening the international order’ is nothing less than a call for regime-change across the globe. Gradually and smoothly may be how we would like to see this happen, and certainly not by force of arms, but a revolutionary agenda it is.

Yet in contrast with its ambitious rhetoric, in practice the EU more often behaves as a status quo power. The clearest symptom is our addiction to partnership as a way of conducting international relations. It sometimes seems as if just about every country has a partnership of some kind or other with the EU. In reality of course partnership cannot be the beginning of a diplomatic relationship but is its desired end-state. For effective partnership is only possible if there is sufficient consensus on foreign policy objectives and the way to achieve them to enable systematic consultation and regular joint action. Even with many of our so-called strategic partners that is not the case – unless one counts the fact that Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has stimulated Europe’s defence efforts as an emanation of the strategic partnership. Rather than stimulating its ‘partners’ to change (for why would they as they are on the list of the ‘good guys’ already) the EU itself has become tainted by associating too uncritically with all kinds of unsavoury regimes. That is the consequence of something that happens rather too often in the EU: after a while it begins to mistake an aspirational notion in one of its policies for reality. Thus Brussels ended up believing that all those which it had dubbed partners really were partners (or that the way its policies divided the world really reflected reality on the ground, as if there was ‘a line in the sand’ marking the borders of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)). Our southern neighbourhood is a case in point: the EU gave up on its reform agenda in favour of a status quo policy that seemed to meet its concerns over terrorism, migration and energy supply. And then came the Arab Spring… The resulting image is one of a timid and reactive EU.

The easiest way to overcome this problem of double standards would be to simply give up on the high-flown rhetoric and pursue a status quo strategy in words as well as in deeds. That however is not an option for the EU. Why? Because the notion that ‘the best protection for our security is a world of well-governed democratic states’ is absolutely true. Only where governments equally provide for the security, freedom and prosperity of all of their citizens can there be lasting peace and security: this is the core idea of the ESS. The EU itself aspires to live up to these egalitarian values (which the Lisbon Treaty has enshrined in the Treaty on EU), and is indeed the most egalitarian region on the planet (which is a greater source of legitimacy than many realise). Stimulating governments outside the EU to do likewise for their citizens effectively is the best way of ensuring our interests in the long term. The EU should not, cannot give up on this agenda of the ESS, but must find better ways of achieving it.

A middle way thus has to be found, neither dreamy idealism nor unprincipled pragmatism. The revolutionary agenda has proved to be far too optimistic. If change does not emerge organically from within a country, it cannot be engineered from the outside – all attempts to do so have ended in disaster. In such circumstances playing a reforming role is extremely difficult. But an external actor can still attempt to play a moderating role, aiming to curb excesses by exerting pressure (with the Responsibility to Protect as the ultimate emergency break in case of the gravest violations). However, a pure status quo policy has also proved to be harmful to our interests. Regimes that do not provide for the security, freedom and prosperity of their citizens are inherently instable and will eventually implode or explode – one cannot count on long-term cooperation therefore. When change does occur, driven internally, we have to be on the right side of history.

The middle way could be an activist strategy of pragmatic idealism. To remain consistent with ourselves, we have to adhere to the long-term overall objective of ‘a world of well-governed democratic states’, but in the knowledge that it will only be reached through mostly incremental steps.

Where for the time being the situation seems impervious to change, we should at least not do anything that puts even more obstacles in the way of achieving ‘well-governed democratic states’, hence a pure status quo policy of cooperation with the powers that be is not an option. This does not mean that we cannot cooperate at all with them. On the contrary, we should seek to continuously engage all relevant actors in such countries, the opposition and civil society as well as the regime – but we cannot cooperate with any regime in ways that strengthen its authoritarian foundations. To put it very bluntly: rendition of terrorist suspects to be ‘interrogated’ by the security services of an autocracy while preaching about human rights is not good for our credibility. But we definitely ought to engage economically: trade and even more so investment leading to job creation are the best ways of permeating a society. And while Europeans invest around the world, it is notably in our southern neighbourhood that investment has been lagging behind.

When a situation is unfrozen and change does occur, it can be for better or for worse – but then at least there will be a chance of improvement. This is when, building on the legitimacy that a policy of pragmatic idealism ought to have endowed us with, we can actively attempt to generate multiplier effects, and to steer change in a direction that is beneficial to our interests. While our preferred instruments are diplomatic and economic, military intervention is an option if change creates security concerns. A cost-benefit evaluation must determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether European military involvement is called for. If we do not intervene, will there be a threat against our vital interests? And what will be the humanitarian consequences for the population of the country itself? If we do intervene, what are the chances of averting the threat and creating the conditions in which change for the better can be consolidated? And what will be the risk of creating negative effects (such as escalation to other countries), of incurring casualties among our forces and collateral damage? In our own broad neighbourhood it will certainly increasingly be up to us Europeans to make that calculation, to take the political initiative to develop a response, and to forge the coalition that can deliver it – for the US will no longer automatically do that for us.

Trade-offs are inevitable. When choosing to intervene militarily against IS in Iraq and Syria, one cannot do without regional actors in the coalition, even if many of those countries themselves sustain practices (such as decapitating criminals and hanging homosexuals) that are absolutely at odds with universal values. Academics may try and develop elegant strategic concepts, but unfortunately elegance cannot always be preserved when conducting foreign and security policy. And yet these strategic concepts can help us to make decisions, to assess what is important for us and what is not, which responses are possible and which are not, and which resources we ought to allocate to them. Pragmatic idealism ought to ensure two things: that the EU remains true to universal egalitarian values and thus to itself, and that it plays an active, leading role. Sometimes taking the lead will lead to failure, but oftentimes it will lead to success – passively accepting the course of events will never.

Prof. Sven Biscop is a Senior Editor of European Geostrategy. He is also Director of the ‘Europe in the World Programme’ at Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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