Act tough, think big: time to end the European illusion

If the EU wants to make its way towards serious credibility as an international actor, it must stop thinking exclusively in terms of soft power when it comes to foreign policy

The European Foreign Policy Scorecard is an outstanding feat. But in order to understand why the European Union is failing to perform better in the world, we need to go beyond questions about people and process. We also need to ask ourselves some profound psychological and even existential questions about the role Europe wants to play in the world.

It is of course true that the EU needs to get its external capabilities right – the institutions, the personnel, the decision-making procedures – if it is to raise its game as a global actor. But they are no substitute for the political will which needs to underpin any credible foreign policy posture. Building the political will to pursue our European (or Western?) interests means several things.

The first priority is to scrap the narrative of “Western decline” where this has come to mean an excuse for scaling back our geopolitical ambitions as though this follows axiomatically from economic rebalancing in favour of the East. However cool, smart and realistic this cultural pessimism tries to pass itself of as, it is pernicious because it saps the EU’s will to advance its interests.

The second priority is to discard what one might call the “Kantian conceit”. The EU has a strong interest in a norms-based international system with strong multilateral institutions and respect for human life and dignity, but, sometimes, to uphold that system, it will have to play hardball. Since 2005, it has even had UN legal cover for interventions, under the Responsibility to Protect. It has even used it – in Libya.

The third priority is to stop placing all our eggs in the “soft power” basket. Of course it is one of our strongest cards, but it doesn’t work with murderous tyrants and autocrats bent on genocide. Soft power is splendid, and there are always ways to fine-tune its instruments and play our hand more cleverly in terms of trade, aid, visas, cultural exchange, EU membership and so on. But soft power is no magic wand.

The fourth priority is to recognise that although “civilian power” is a crucial component of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and something Europeans do very well on the whole (think of Kosovo and Georgia for starters), hard power is every bit as important. I shall come back to this.

The fifth priority is to get Germany to engage fully with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). This includes CSDP, which formally falls under CFSP, but which, I would argue, is logically prior to an effective foreign policy, because, for Europe, there can be no effective foreign policy which does not ultimately rely on hard power – or at least the spectre or threat of it – to back it up. We have been round the sorry course of Germany’s UN abstention over Libya alongside China and Russia a hundred times, and we know the embarrassment and the feeble pleas in mitigation. But never again! We cannot have spent the last 40 years building foreign policy cooperation in the EU (strongly supported by the Germans, by the way), to say nothing of transatlantic cooperation, only to undermine the EU’s credibility in one fell swoop – unless, that is, we are all relaxed about outsourcing CSDP entirely to Britain and France and ultimately to the US as back-up and guarantor.

This brings me to the sixth priority, which is to upscale strategic thinking and also military capabilities in most EU member states. A majority of them still think of defence mainly in terms of homeland security, not of global responsibilities. Twenty, thirty or forty years ago the notional if always unrealised aspiration was for proper burden-sharing with the US; now  the more modest aspiration is to boost European capabilities to the extent that it can at least reach the 1999 Helsinki target to deploy forces of 60,000 personnel at 60 days’ notice. We are nowhere near there yet. 

Of course this boils down to political will and political leadership. There can be no excuses, but we will have our work cut out to change this sorry state of affairs. We have a US president who, by instinct and by electoral calculation, is disinclined to use the ultimate sanction of force and deploy the US’s mighty power for good (because, as he puts it, “Americans are sick and tired of war”).

To make matters worse, European and indeed Western foreign policy is now hamstrung in a way no one could ever have anticipated. It is now effectively subject to legislative veto, as we learned last year to the bitter disappointment of David Cameron (whose own admirably sound instincts were confounded by tactical misjudgement), and to the consternation of the French – the only nation which has emerged from Syria, Iran, Libya and the Maghreb with its credit intact and enhanced, not least across large swathes of the Middle East. Meanwhile, like manna from heaven for politicians for whom the burdens of leadership are all too much, the supposed need for legislative approval offers an irresistible fig leaf. Obama has already shown the way.

This is a grotesque state of affairs, and it will take real leadership to salvage something from the ruins. The French shake their heads in despair, not least as the recent interventions in Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic were successful. They have shown that it is possible to launch and complete a military intervention without starting World War III or even – heaven forbid – getting the Russians and the Chinese very, very cross! Meanwhile, the price of Western inertia and handwringing has been paid in blood by over 140,000 Syrian civilians, and in homelessness and despair by millions more. It beggars belief.

In just three generations we have seen Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi, Pol Pot and countless other murderous thugs. Which of them would now be quaking at the fearsome prospect of Europe’s soft power raining down upon them? We might bear this in mind as we grope for a credible strategy towards Syria and Iran – to say nothing of the muscular approach to Ukraine which has so far eluded us.

For the EU just to inch its way towards serious credibility as a global actor, the beginning of wisdom might be just be found in a little less self-congratulation and a scaling-up of ambition. The self-delusion has been dispiriting: no appraisal of the EU’s performance in the recent past has been complete without generous plaudits for Britain, France and Germany managing to concert their line on Iran! This is surely proof that a reality check is in order, for if Europe’s three leading states cannot even agree a line on the nuclear ambitions of a volatile and fundamentalist Islamic state, then we are well and truly finished as a continent and a civilisation.

As we inch our way towards a credible CFSP, we will not lack for counsels of caution, many full of good sense, typically praying in aid the Iraq experience: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” “Heed the law of unintended consequences.” Of course high-intensity conflicts in complex sectarian societies like Syria are very messy. But the longer you leave them, the messier they get, and the more people will get killed. We might herefore also consider Edmund Burke’s warning: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

So let “act tough” be our guiding principle. But, just as important, we need to “think big”. We need something to match the scale of the challenge which the people of the Middle East are now facing if Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and, eventually, Syria, are to build something existentially better for themselves. We need something to match the American vision and ambition for Europe after World War II, with the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the OEEC (now OECD). Where are the European statesmen and stateswomen ready to act tough and think big? If they are already there, let them step forward. Now. 

Maurice Fraser is Professor of Practice in European Politics and Head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics. This text is based on a talk he gave at an event at ECFR on 12 February 2014.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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