The European Version of Realism and Restraint

President Donald Trump often gets credit for unwittingly pushing the Europeans to re-think their security and place in the world. He may have indeed contributed to that process in his unique disruptive way, by withdrawing from multilateral agreements championed by the EU, such as the Paris climate agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Yet the process of transatlantic geopolitical de-coupling did not start with Trump, nor is it likely to end with him. Voices spanning the political spectrum from the progressive left to libertarian right increasingly challenge the pro-interventionist consensus that underpinned decades of American foreign policy. The emergence of new think-tanks, such as Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, advocating for a new realism and restraint, is a sign of times. The rest of the world better be prepared to assume that this reflects long-term shift, unlikely to be reversed once the Trump presidency runs its course in one or five years.

This realization seems to increasingly dawn on European leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron was the most outspoken in articulating the need for a more strategic and “sovereign” Europe in his now famous interview to The Economist. But other leaders — such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while objecting to some of Macron’s more radical ideas (such as his description of NATO as “brain-dead”) —  also realize a need for Europe to stand on its own feet in a world where the American security umbrella seems to be in retreat.

Most Europeans appear to agree. According to a recent report by the European Council on Foreign Relations, they demand a more coherent and effective European foreign policy. The question that needs to be asked is for what end, and how to achieve it?

The conventional thinking these days in Brussels and national capitals is that in order to be a credible player, the EU needs to be able to project military power. A number of initiatives have been launched in recent years towards that goal: the French-led European Intervention Initiative, the EU defense cooperation agreement known as PESCO, and the new 13 billion euro European Defence Fund to promote research and technology.

However, there is noticeably less debate on the strategic purposes of these initiatives. Are they of purely defensive nature, aiming, for example, to reassure the Baltic states and Poland against potential Russian aggression? Or do they also include offensive intention consisting in enforcing specific political outcomes in conflicts outside EU territory? If the latter is the case, what legal basis exists for such operations? Would EU freedom of action be subject to the agreement of the sides involved in a conflict and/or authorization by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), or would it reserve for itself the right to intervene outside these legal constraints?

When answering these questions, the EU should not fall into the trap of associating credibility exclusively, or even primarily, with the military might. The foremost sources of EU global influence lie in its economic and cultural power, and its long-standing tradition of diplomatic engagement, including with adversarial state and non-state actors.

Particularly, in a region like Middle East, which arguably presents the most acute security challenges for Europe, militarization of the EU policy is likely to weaken, not strengthen EU leverage. The EU would be seen as following in the American footsteps, squander the goodwill it still largely enjoys among the region’s peoples and elites, and undermine its ability to pursue its interests and values. There is also the fact that the militarily most capable EU states, France and Britain, have a long history of colonialist meddling in the region. Increasing their military footprint would spark resentment. Instead, the EU has to maximize its ability to engage diplomatically with all sides in regional conflicts in pursuit of sustainable peace.

Take Syria, for example. Contrary to widespread assumptions, the EU’s irrelevance there is not due to a lack of autonomous military force that presumably could have forced the dictator Bashar al-Assad out of power, protected the Kurds against ISIS and the Turkish invasion, or achieved other important EU interests. It is because of an early decision to sever all ties to the Syrian regime, and refusal to pragmatically reconsider this position once it became painfully clear that the regime was having an upper hand in the country’s horrific civil war.

Likewise, contrary to the growing calls to take a tough line against Iran to respond to its progressive violations of the JCPOA, the EU is more likely to enhance its security if it maintained its diplomatic engagement with Tehran, and delivered, however partially, economic benefits Iran secured as part of the deal, first violated by the U.S. 

A broader de-militarization of the EU’s policies in the Middle East should include a halt of arms sales to some problematic customers, such as Saudi Arabia, that wages relentless war on Yemen. Such a long-overdue step would not only be in line with the EU’s own common position on arms trade, but also improve the EU’s diplomatic standing as a balanced and neutral player. 

Last but not least, just as in the U.S., for the EU, too, foreign policy begins at home. Taking stances consistent with the EU interests and values is not cost-free. The EU’s tepid response to the Turkish invasion of the northern Syria is linked to a fear that the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan might retaliate by unleashing flows of migrants to Europe. This vulnerability to authoritarian blackmail, however, is mostly self-inflicted: when the migration crisis hit the EU in 2015 and 2016, some EU member states showed an astonishing lack of solidarity in resettling the refugees, imposing a disproportionate burden on those who, like Germany, did their best to handle the crisis. A more responsible and harmonious way of dealing with migration within the EU would remove temptation for authoritarian leaders to weaponize it in order to force concessions.

The EU also should re-learn to lead by example. It should live up to its own standards on human rights and rule of law, otherwise its global advocacy of these values lacks credibility. It is not a good signal to the outside world that the new EU commissioner responsible for the bloc’s neighborhood policy hails from Hungary, a country itself condemned for violating basic EU values. The rise of the populist right and Islamophobic parties presents additional challenges to the EU as a peaceful, rights-based community.  Putting the EU’s own house in order would therefore be a necessary pre-condition for its ability to exert influence on the global stage.

Europe still has a lot to offer the world. However, it should collectively realize that there is no going back to the comfort zone under American leadership, and act accordingly – as a coherent, responsible, autonomous, and, above all, smart power.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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