If Sun Tzu went to Gymnich

European foreign ministers at the informal Gymnich meeting should take a leaf out of Sun Tzu’s book, and discuss the larger trends shaping Europe’s place in the world rather than institutions and methods

Later this
week, European foreign ministers are meeting in their informal enclave, the
Gymnich, as they have done since 1974 when HansDietrich Genscher invited his colleagues to the German
castle for relaxed conversation. In keeping with the tradition, the meeting
will be held in the XIV century Palacio de Viana. But for the first time, High
Representative Catherine Ashton will
attend, fresh from her travels in Eastern Europe.

Being an
informal meeting, no notes will be taken or communiqués issued. The agenda is
nonetheless quite full. Efforts to set up the EU’s diplomatic service may
dominate the deliberations, even though the Spanish EU Presidency is hoping to
discuss what it calls “topics of great political significance”. Two issues in
particular – peacemaking in the Middle East
and the Balkans – are on the agenda.

Yet rather
than focus on day-to-day operations or reach visionary but empty conclusions, Europe’s foreign ministers could do with taking some advice
from the Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu. In the first stanza of his
classic book “The Art of War”, Sun Tzu listed both the issues that military
leaders should address to win war; and the order in which to address them:




Discuss leadership

military methods

leaders have a habit of turning this admonition on its head: they prefer to
discuss methods and leadership – top jobs and EU institutions. But at this
week’s Gymnich, EU foreign ministers ought to take the military strategist’s advice
and discuss both their overall philosophy – their actual aims – and the climate
around them, i.e. the larger trends that are shaping Europe
and the world. The ground where the actual battles are fought, as well as the
methods and tactics, can be left for their regular meetings.

The first is a question of philosophy
– what should be the EU’s aim in the 21st century. The EU has always
been a mix-matched amalgamation of the views of its main stakeholders: the
member-states and the EU institutions.  The
result is a muddled philosophy, which tries to take on big issues like
security, economic stability and respect of human rights with little thematic
coherence or deference to reality.  

“Climate” –
according to Su Tzu – is the reality within which the EU has to operate. What are
the main “climate trends” that the 2,500-year-old warrior would have advised EU
foreign ministers to focus on? Here is a bid:

A smaller US. The most important
change in the last couple of years has been the “minimisation” of the US and
its credibility across the world. It will force the US
to look inwards, and has in some ways already done so; it will mean a more
realist conception of its interests (see links with China
and Russia)
and it will undermine its role as a proponent for free-market capitalism (and
perhaps even laissez-faire economics).

The rise of the lynchpin states.
These are the middling powers, the sub-BRIC strata of states, that are becoming
increasingly important in the international systems, vital even to solve many
problems, and certainly able to block progress. 
They include Chile, Indonesia, Mexico,
and South Korea.

The return of “hard” security. The
world was meant to be focused on risks, and trans-global issues, not
state-based threats. But with the collapse of the Copenhagen negotiations and,
as Richard Gowan says, rising nationalist and populist forces at home, hard
security issues are coming back, while the odds for preventing inter-state competition
(whether in Central Asia, Latin America or the Gulf) are diminishing. 

The creation of the “Turkosphere”. A
virtual empire, mapping on to the Ottoman Empire, that stretches from the
Balkans, Central Asia and the Middle East – and into the EU – where the Ankara government is exercising
increasing influence, promoting businesses and championing its brand of Islam.

The death of Gaullism. The most
resonant piece of evidence for the death of Gaullism was the feebleness of the
resistance against France’s
full return into NATO’s military integration. As Thomas Klau notes: Sarkozy is
the final nail in Gaullism’s coffin, Dominique de Villepin its last hurrah.

Germany‘s introspection. For decades, Berlin’s steadfast Europeanism was a given, while
the country slowly but surely normalised its international role. This has now stopped.
is turning inwards, reverting to its erstwhile pacifism, and no longer seems
interested in promoting EU solutions.

Japan‘s retirement. Some
states are in decline, others are rising, but Japan is simply retiring. Tokyo is simply withdrawing from world affairs (see for
example the withdrawal of forces from the Afghan theatre) and is accepting the
future shape of a post-American Asia as dominated by China.

The explosion of the Sahel.
The ungoverned/misgoverned territory stretching from the Horn of Africa to the Western Sahara’s Atlantic coast is emerging as tomorrow’s
trouble spot. Drug-smuggling, underdevelopment and misrule in Mali, Niger,
Chad and Mauritania
makes the region ripe for al Qaeda.

Mosaic multilateralism. The formal,
institutionalised nation-state multilateralism, which had characterised much of
the Cold War period is disappearing to give way to a new form of multilateral
cooperation, which accords more power to the BRICs, includes non-state actors
like the IPCC, and will see the return of “coalitions of the willing” inside
formal organisations like NATO.

The re-birth of exportism and foreign
economic policy
. Not quite neo-mercantilism, the economic crisis is making
states focus their foreign policies on encouraging exports and national
industries and reaping the benefits that accrue. France’s
arms deal with Russia
is a good example; it was a commercial decision dressed up in strategic

The end of value-promotion. The
realism brought about by the economic crisis in the West, the vicissitudes of
the “War on Terror”, the undermining of democracy in several EU member-states, the
global attractiveness of Russia’s
“Sovereign Democracy” and China’s
authoritarian capitalism means that it will be harder to promote liberal
values, including democracy and human rights. 

No “rogues”. Finally, as
Nader Mousavizadeh noted, the world that created “rogue states” is
gone. The idea of “the rogue state” assumed the existence of a world
community, unified to support certain values and interests and different than
the renegades who broke the rules. But this community has disappeared. The
“international community”, as defined by Western values, is a fiction.
The term “rogue” could now apply to the US
and Britain as much as it
does to Venezuela.

It is hard to
know which of the changes in what Sun Tzu called “climate” will be the most
important for the EU. There could in fact be more. But European foreign
ministers would do well to heed the Chinese warrior’s advice by holding an analytical
discussion rather than focus – as they so often do – on methods and leadership.
“Tactics without strategy”, Sun Tzu warned, “is the noise before defeat.” But
without a coherent philosophy and an understanding of the climate, even the
right strategy will fail the EU.  

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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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