Democracy and the EU’s ‘strategic partnerships’

If the EU has any real aspiration to be a normative power it must rethink its 'strategic partnerships' with the world's other powers, reflecting the importance of values like democracy, rather than ignoring them.  

If the EU has any real aspiration to be a normative power it must rethink its 'strategic partnerships' with the world's other powers, reflecting the importance of values like democracy, rather than ignoring them.

Since the revolutions in North Africa last year, Europeans have talked a lot about getting on the right side of history. For decades, European leaders had cozy relationships with autocratic rulers in the region such as Zine el-Abidine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak, which were justified in the name of stability. But the Arab revolutions forced Europe to rethink this realist approach based on the idea that stability and reform in the Arab world were opposing principles. The European Union is now committed to supporting democratic transitions in post-revolutionary North Africa on the principle of “more for more”. However, there is little evidence that Europe is applying the lesson of the Arab revolutions in its other relationships and in particular in its “strategic partnerships” with non-democratic countries such as China.

The idea of “strategic partnerships” is now the key conceptual framework for the EU’s relations with the leading powers of the twenty-first century. As Thomas Renard showed in a report that was published last year, there has been an inflationary and ad hoc use of the term since it was first applied to Russia in 1998. The EU now calls 10 countries around the world – Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the United States – “strategic partners”. But, as Renard and others have pointed out, there is a total absence of strategic rationale behind the use of the concept. In particular, there is little logic to the choice of the 10 countries designated as “strategic partners” and no definition of what a “strategic partnership” is. In short, the EU’s “strategic partnerships” are not very strategic. In some cases, they are “tactical” rather than “strategic” partnerships.

In particular, it is unclear what role, if any, shared values are meant to play in the EU’s “strategic partnerships”. It is hard to see how it is possible to have a real “strategic” relationship – in other words, a comprehensive, long-term relationship that involves co-operation in solving regional and global challenges and in particular on strategic issues – without some shared values. This, for example, is the basis of the relationship the EU has with the US – in many ways its only real “strategic partner”. It may also be possible to develop real strategic partnerships with other democracies such as Brazil, India and Japan. But among the EU’s 10 “strategic partners” are also authoritarian states such as China and Russia. This terminology suggests that our relationship with democracies is not qualitatively different from our relationship with authoritarian states.

Many Europeans like to think of the EU as a “normative power”. This term is based largely on the model of enlargement, through which the EU sought to transform applicant countries in central and south-eastern Europe and in the process spread its norms – for a long time, the only foreign policy that the EU had. But while some argue that the EU is in effect too normative in its neighbourhood, it does not seem to follow this transformative, values-based approach at all in its foreign policy in general and in its strategic partnerships in particular. European leaders often say that, as Herman Van Rompuy recently put it, “history is on the side of democracy”. But our actions beyond the neighbourhood suggest that we don’t really believe that promoting our values is in our long-term interests. If anything is to remain of the EU’s idea of a values-based foreign policy, the EU must apply its normative approach to its “strategic partnerships” by including democracy in the way they are defined.

In particular, “strategic partnerships” – as opposed to tactical partnerships – must surely involve some degree of strategic trust. An alliance or security community is impossible without strategic trust, which is usually based on shared values. A “strategic partnership” is not an alliance. But if the term is to mean anything at all, it must be thought of as something between a formal alliance and the kind of ad hoc, anti-ideological engagement that all powers have to undertake with hostile or difficult powers regardless of whether or not they share values. In other words, a “strategic partnership” must be based on some degree of strategic trust, which it is hard – and perhaps impossible – to develop with an authoritarian state such as China. Is it, for example, really possible to have a real “strategic partnership” with a country to which one cannot sell weapons?

Robert Kagan has suggested the idea of a “league of democracies” as a way of showing commitment to the democratic idea and “a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations and eventually providing legitimacy for actions that democratic nations agree are legitimate. The idea is associated with Senator John McCain, who endorsed it in the 2008 presidential campaign, although it has also been supported by liberal figures such as Princeton professor and former State Department head of policy planning Anne-Marie Slaughter and current US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder. However, it may be too crude an approach that could undermine the United Nations – despite Kagan’s insistence in his book The Return of History and the End of Dreams that it would “complement, not replace” the UN and other existing organisations.

The EU should therefore find some other way of distinguishing in its foreign policy between democracies and non-democracies. It should distinguish, in substance and ideally also in name, between three types of “strategic partner”: real strategic partners such as the US and other NATO countries; democratic countries such as Brazil and India with whom a real strategic partnership could and should be developed; and non-democracies such as China, with whom we must nevertheless engage and co-operate. In practice, given that it would hardly be smart to downgrade our relationship with China, that means somehow upgrading our relationships with other countries with whom we believe we share values and in particular emerging democratic powers – above all, given their size and geopolitical significance, Brazil and India. Otherwise, our failure to learn from the Arab revolutions will mean there is little left of Europe’s aspiration to be a normative power.

This article first appeared in E!Sharp

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Research Director

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