President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced that hers will be a “geopolitical commission”. In other words, the EU has to adapt to a world of great powers. This is a key assumption – it must now be embedded in the EU’s overall external action.
The EU still aims at building good or at least non-confrontational relations with all of the great powers: China, Russia, and the US. Naturally, that depends on those powers’ behaviour.
With regard to China, the Commission’s March 2019 strategy paper put forward exactly the right approach: the EU must cooperate when interests coincide, but push back when red lines are crossed. Many remain uncomfortable with this, because China is not a democracy, and is a major human rights violator. But even a democratic China would still be a rising great power and create anxiety in the dominant power, the US. It is an illusion to think that the US would happily share power if only China were democratic – just look at how negatively it reacts to the EU’s own modest proposition of strategic autonomy.
China’s defining feature for international politics is not that it is not a democracy, but that it is a great power. What matters for the EU’s vital interests is not how China treats its own citizens, but how it behaves in inter-state relations. Unfortunately, great powers, even democratic ones, often do what they do because they can. How India operates in its province of Kashmir has not reached the degree of repression of China’s methods in its province of Xinjiang, but is it fundamentally not the same approach? Is China’s disregard for international law in the South China Sea fundamentally different from US disregard for its own signature in its relations with Iran?
The EU, however, can position itself as a different kind of power, that seeks to safeguard its interests without harming the interests of others, and in full respect of international law and its own values. The EU should engage all the powers and cooperate when it can, while reserving the right to push back when it must.
It is important that China does not misinterpret this as condoning its current posture. On the contrary, 2019-2020 will be a crucial year. It is China’s chance to implement everything that it committed to at the April 2019 EU-China Summit and prove that it can be worked with. If it doesn’t, the more confrontational US approach will gain more and more headway in Europe. But if it does, the EU can showcase the success of its approach to the US.
Might and right
Meanwhile, the fact that the human rights situation within the other powers is not our vital interest does not mean that we should not care. Believing in human rights means believing in their universality – otherwise they would be but European rights. The EU must maintain a critical human rights dialogue with everybody, making it clear that respecting human rights is normal, not violating them, and that this is above all a moral duty of every state, regardless of its political system. Changing other states’ political system should not be the objective: a nation can only democratise itself.
If China has a very different political system, it is not set on exporting it. Outside China, ideology doesn’t matter much to the government: it prioritises economic interests in order to ensure its domestic political survival, and pragmatically works with whoever it needs to.
Russia is much more dogmatic than pragmatic, as it uses confrontation with the West as an instrument of domestic legitimacy and regime survival. Moscow exploits every opportunity to upset American and European plans, even if the direct benefits are doubtful. Russia claims that all it seeks is respect, but the problem is that it mostly operates in a single register: it expects respect because of its military power and its role in great power diplomacy, and forgets economic power, the power of connectivity, and the power of attraction. What it seeks, a restored sphere of influence in the former Soviet republics, is not just in the gift of the US and the EU, but is a prospect that most people in those states do not welcome, not even those who feel very close to Russia.
The EU can nonetheless attempt to engage Russia in high-level diplomacy, e.g. on Iran. But at the same time, it must consider how to answer Russia in its own favourite register of security and defence. Pushback is necessary: how to deter, and if necessary retaliate against, Russian subversion? Should interference with EU sovereignty (in the cyber domain, through corruption, through espionage etc.) be met with a pointed but real retaliation (not necessarily in the same domain)?
Connectivity-Based Regional Strategies
There is no need to be scared of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As long as China does not force countries to join or to limit their relations with us, BRI is but normal great power practice: using economic power to bind states politically. The EU applies different principles and conditions, of course, but through the Eastern Partnership and the Union for the Mediterranean it too offers close bilateral relations and economic support, framed in a multilateral grouping, with the aim of creating a stable political climate favourable to its interests.
In response to the BRI, the EU has already adopted its own connectivity strategy for Asia. Again, the approach is exactly right: putting a deep trade and investment relationship on the table to convince countries that they have every interest in maintaining a truly open economy, and in not jeopardizing their sovereignty by putting all their eggs in the Chinese (or in some cases Russian/Eurasian Economic Union) basket. Accepting the objective of an open economy is the precondition – not democratisation. But will the EU be able to mobilise enough resources?
Closer to home, perhaps the EU should revisit the Neighbourhood Policy in the light of connectivity. In the south, the operating principle is resilience. That is a defensive concept – it amounts to the creation of buffer states to shield the EU from migration and terrorism. Is that sufficiently appealing to convince states to work with the EU? Resilience is also a bilateral approach, but our interests demand a regional settlement of ongoing wars. In the Sahel, the EU is fully engaged in the implementation of a regional strategy, but for the Middle East and the Gulf, which is isn’t even covered by the Neighbourhood Policy, there is no vision whatsoever. An idea of a regional order that would satisfy our interests, backed up by a connectivity-inspired economic engagement is the priority for the southern neighbourhood.
The eastern neighbourhood is the exception, because it is on the European continent: it’s the only place where democratisation can be part of the sovereignty and connectivity agenda. But countries must evolve at their own pace, without trying to artificially accelerate things and provoking another Ukraine-type crisis with Russia.
Good relations between the great powers are a precondition for as well as the result of multilateral cooperation. France and Germany are envisaging an “alliance of multilateralists”, which might include such countries as Canada, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Mexico. This should not become an “alliance of democracies” – Europe rejected precisely such a proposal by circles around the G.W. Bush administration after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. International politics is not about an ideological confrontation between the democracies and the non-democracies, but about the pursuit of interests by all states. The EU has a strong interest in supporting democracy wherever it exists or is taking shape, but forcing international politics overall into an “us versus them” scheme can only lead to the EU’s isolation, sadly, given how few democracies there are, and how dependent many democracies are on economic and other cooperation with non-democracies.
If there must probably be a core group of states that settles on a priority agenda for multilateral initiatives, that group must actively engage all relevant states, according to the issue at hand, in changing constellations, regardless of their domestic political system. They must certainly reach out to both the US and China, as well as Russia. An “alliance of multilateralists” that refuses to pick sides in a Sino-American confrontation could play an important role in signalling that multipolarity does not have to mean great power rivalry.
All of this does require political, economic, and military power. Not to confront the world, but to engage it.