Beyond Europe’s comfort zone

At our kick-off event on March 6 in Berlin, Robert Cooper and Wolfgang Ischinger discussed Europe’s future foreign policy challenges. Based on their extensive experience high-ranking diplomats, the two Dahrendorf senior fellows outlined potential scenarios for a successful Union approach.

If any prediction is likely to hold true in 2015, it is that most predictions will fail. Ischinger, who chairs the Munich Security Conference, argued: “In conceptualizing the conference of February 2015, not one of the experts around me suggested that we should put either the potential rise of the Islamic State or the breakout of a Russia-Ukraine conflict on the agenda”.

Why has the EU’s international environment become so unpredictable? Ischinger gave three reasons:

  1. Crisis of global governance

“We are facing a crisis of global collective decision-making, as it is evident in the inefficient operation of the UN Security Council, G8 and G20. There are more and more bodies with more participants, but ever less results and meaningful decisions”, Ischinger pointed out.

  1. Crisis of the nation-state

Accordingly, national governments keep pretending that they are capable of delivering public goods like internal security and prosperity, while in reality they have long been overpowered by globalization. This, the diplomat cautions, has severely hampered the credibility of democratic actors.

  1. Changing nature of conflict

Uncertainty is amplified by the changing nature of conflict itself: “Past concepts of conflict management have been about keeping strong states from invading less strong states. The weak state, however, today is a greater threat to our security than the strong state. While our fathers were still thinking in terms of armies battling armies, most of the conflicts we are involved in today are within states but have regional or even global implications.”

The two diplomats also made a few policy recommendations for the EU to navigate uncertainty more successfully in the future.

Focus on political development: Cooper underlined that dealing with weakness requires a new approach to diplomacy: “It’s no longer merely about consulting foreign ministries. As today’s threats, like the collapse of states in the Middle East or migration from Africa, cannot be solved by international agreements. They require a deeper involvement in the countries: it’s about political development. The name of the game is interfering in internal affairs and this needs to be achieved through a more subtle form of diplomacy.”

Strengthen economic competitiveness: Ischinger criticized Europe’s ambiguous stance on a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. “We might soon face a situation where the U.S. is ratifying an arrangement with Asia, which might leave Europe on the losing side if it does not react.” He particularly stressed that Europe must remain competitive in a digitalizing world. 

Help Ukraine out of post-Soviet conditions: “If our objective was to help Ukraine out of post-Soviet conditions, that clearly did not work”, Ischinger stated. However, future policy efforts should always take Moscow into account: “Russia is deeply concerned that EU policies could work out well in Ukraine. Because if democracy and prosperity advance in Ukraine, Russians might demand the same kind of progress. Behind its assumed military strength, Russia is a terribly weak country. A 15 year old male Russian today has the same life expectancy as a 15-years-old in one of the world’s least developed countries”, Ischinger pointed out.

Create positive examples in the Middle East: While Cooper acknowledged the gravity of horrors committed by ISIS, he raised doubts about the prospects of Western interference: “A lot of evidence suggests that when you oppose a revolution, you end up consolidating it. If you do nothing, revolutions burn themselves out”. Cooper’s reasoning was as follows: keeping peace is far more difficult than exercising violence. Revolutionary regimes are therefore bound to lose legitimacy once they are in government. However, even in the absence of Western interference, Cooper did see potential for positive change: “Iran is the only place in the Middle East where Islamists would not be elected if there were free elections. There is a free society waiting for its moment.”

Ischinger pointed at the benefit of creating positive examples. “It would probably be good to support projects in Tunisia. If Tunisia deals with the current crisis successfully, possibly resulting in the rebirth of a nation-state based on the rule of law and prosperity, the EU can prove it made it work. This could become a model and increase credibility in the entire region.”

Develop new grand ideas: In order to fuel the emergence of a solid EU foreign policy, Ischinger called for the development of new grand ideas. Firstly, he suggested that an approach is needed for leading the United Kingdom to remain within the European Union. Secondly, he endorsed discussions of a possible common European army: “This is the type of idea that could lead the EU to think in a larger strategic manner.” He went on to propose that Germany should promote the idea of majority voting on foreign affairs matters in the Council of the European Union. Ischinger thereby counted on the input of society at large: “innovative strategic ideas are not the traditional strength of government bureaucracies. Academic communities, think tanks or senior journalists can make a positive contribution in this regard.”

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or any of its hosts Hertie School of Governance, London School of Economics and Political Science and Stiftung Mercator.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.