A version of this article appeared in Aspenia spring issue, 2016
Divided We Fail
The West is divided and so is Europe. For us Europeans this divide is increasingly visible. It is happening both between our countries and inside our societies. Without the existential pressure of the Cold War, the West appears simply less coherent. This is visible on critical foreign policy issues but also on other key policies like free trade or privacy rights. It risks becoming saliently so on values too.
For two decades the West lived under the illusions of a simple world. One with an unequivocal and unrivaled American economic, military, and political supremacy. Coming as it did after the dangerous but simple divided world of the Cold War, this era was easy to live with. But it was a very special and unusual situation. A world’s superpower is bound to have challengers and competitors, some global some regional.
The West shares a liberal democratic creed based on free societies and economies. Western countries have both common and diverging policy and economic interests. On foreign policy Europe still relies heavily on US strategic might. In such an ideologically shaped geography, the transatlantic relation is bound to play an outsized role in all the debates related to policy and governance.
At the outset of the new millennium, with the fall of the Soviet empire, and the end of its military and ideological grip on a significant part of Europe, the West had to make a clear-cut choice. Either to heed the call for freedom and solidarity of Europe’s Central and Eastern nations, or leave them in a limbo between a declining Russia and the powerful economic and political institutions of the West. Europe and America made their choice. Both the West’s politicians and its businesses (one may only hope its citizens too), chose the former path. NATO and the EU have de facto enlarged the West to the Eastern border of the former Roman Empire. They also undertook a new relationship with the West’s former Cold War foe.
For a while it looked like it is working. It took however little to rock the boat. The joint effects of the financial crisis, an ongoing migration crisis, and a series of conflicts in Europe’s Southern and Eastern flank were important catalysts for divisions. Crises are not the cause of the rift but they create an effective backdrop to show just how divided the West can become.
Unsurprisingly, this divide operates not only between the US and Europe. It is equally serious, if not more, between Europe’s east and west and between atlanticists, unionists and sovereignists of all sorts. Most importantly it is becoming a rift on values and principles.
For the West, having different views or policy preferences inside the transatlantic world is nothing new. For Europe however we see the increasing difference between the old members and the new members as something substantially new in its intensity.
An obvious topic of difference is related to our relations with Russia. Another is how we treat the migrants stemming from largely non-European and non Christian countries around the Mediterranean. Finally a new divide emerges on the role of European Institutions and the future of the EU.
On Russia even the analysis of how we got to the current low point is different. For some this is the result of a mishandling of the post-Cold War period and a serious overlook of Russian strategic interests. For others it is the result of inevitable differences in normative perspective and definitions of national interest rooted in dominant culture.
On migration some claim the differences are grounded in the non-cosmopolitan and isolated nature of Central and Eastern societies. These were captive for half a century – two generations – behind the Iron Curtain while Western Europe was rapidly globalising. This also meant a rapid growth of non-European populations in Western Europe mainly from former colonial territories. Others say Eastern Europe absorbed formal Western institutions and principles but these societies never got the chance of a societal democratic grounding that includes a hefty and healthy dose of self criticism.
On Europe we can see how the overlapping crises are fuelling centrifugal forces. Leaders in Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland are increasingly using anti Brussels rhetoric in their populist spin. Central and Eastern European countries voting against an automatic solidarity clause for relocating asylum seekers – that are pouring in Greece and Italy but aim for countries like Austria, Germany, and Sweden – is no different.
This image of a diverging Central and Eastern Europe is however a dangerous cliche. Western Europe is not that different. Despite the diverging experiences the same clarion voices of anti-european populism are embraced. From anti-system parties to extreme right nationalists, eurosceptics, isolationists , pseudo-sovereignists have come to play a major role. In many cases it is these fringes that set the tone of the debate and decide the central topics. Front National, UKIP, Alternative for Germany (AFD) and many others have become not just political forces in their own right but a weathervane of Europe’s accumulating divisions.
We had an early episode of east-west divides during the debates around the US led Iraq 2003 invasion. Donald Rumsfeld at the time US Secretary of Defence infamously talked about “Old Europe vs New Europe”. This was utterly and publicly dismissed by most European politicians. Except maybe Jacques Chirac uttering “they have missed a good opportunity of shutting up” talking about countries like Romania and Bulgaria that criticised France’s stance on Iraq.
In private, Eastern European leaders were convincing themselves, and their American partners, that the “spirit of freedom” may be ebbing away in bureaucratic, ossified and comfortable west but is alive and kicking in Europe’s east. Battle hardened by the Cold War suffering and their subservient status to the Soviet Union, Eastern European nations were stalwarts of freedom they said. Western Europe got stultified and too ready to sacrifice values for cash said some Eastern politicians.
Another such indicator came during the European Constitutional Treaty negotiations. Conservative forces in Europe’s east were even more radical in their requests than their Western sister parties. And that despite these countries benefiting massively from financial transfers from richer EU countries. It is also telling that the Constitutional Treaty was nixed by a mix of conservative eurosceptic and anti-european sentiments in referenda in Western Europe. Some Europeans feared a “soulless progressive Europe” and interference from Brussels while others feared specifically eastwards enlargement of the EU. Meanwhile other members states were rather pleased to see en enlarging Europe as a solution to “diluting Europe”.
This is not a spat between federalist west and new members keen on their just recently reacquired sovereignty That would be utterly superficial. Yes, after many decades of strictly limited independence in the framework of the Eastern Block and the dominant role of Soviet Union they were keen to express a sense of sovereignty. But the same countries are very keen to have the presence and influence of the US. The same politicians that dismiss liberal ideas associated by most Europeans with America and the West want an increased American military presence in their countries.
This apparent contradiction is rooted in the diverging logic of current political discourse in Europe. It is the same reason Western Europeans are in the thralls of populist nationalist and anti-european forces while mainstream politicians are extolling the “principled and effective ways” of Vladimir Putin as a world leader. The same twisted logic is evident when trying to leverage European membership as a tool for ultra-regionalism and separatism in various EU countries.
The European public feels the deep social and economic problems brought about by globalisation and technological transition. These problems also the result of mainstream pragmatic populists creating an open field for the extreme parties and ideas. A changing economic and social model left the losers of globalisation, privatisation, and enlargement to look for someone to blame. Populists choose to shift the target of the public’s wrath towards Europe and migrants. Moreover, the latter are lumped together regardless if they are Syrian refugees, eastern EU citizens using their right of free movement and work in the EU or economic migrants from the Med or Sub Saharan Africa. Eastern European populists do the same only their targets are often the Roma or possible future migrants who “threaten to dilute the Christian spirit” of their nations.
These contradictions are unfortunately grounded in slipping values. The real problem for Europe is its failure to make its nominal normative orthodoxy resilient to crises. Economic failures combined with governance and political mistakes created a Europe of winners and losers. Increasingly the uncertainty, inequality and sometimes violent uprooting of their lives, work, and lifestyle creates a sense of loss.
European business in search of competitive edge on global markets transferred jobs to Eastern members of the Union. The growth in profitability did not lead to levels of growth or employment that could outweigh the initial job losses specifically in blue collar sectors. In turn, austerity politics have created a number of very angry EU citizens in the east as they did in the west. Unlike in the US, the economies of most European countries are growing very slowly and unemployment remains stubbornly high.
On this background the problems are bound to grow if the political class shows no ambition to address core problems: inequality, the need for a new economic model and the importance of upholding values. Europe and migrants are the scapegoats.
This is true both in Europe’s east and west. Populists, nationalists, assorted crackpot politicians profit and mainstream parties demure. This leads to outright toxic ideologies becoming fashionable again.
Old ghosts are haunting Europe. The ghost of illiberal governance exhorted by the likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban is the tip of the iceberg. We have witnessed some of the same power grab and effective ignoring of the democratic checks and balances in Poland. The independence of justice, separation of powers, freedom of media are all under attack.
Angela Merkel’s rapidly dropping public support in the face of the migrants crisis and its handling is one thing. The rise of PEGIDA, AFD, FN, Jobbik and the likes is nothing short of dangerous.
Central and Eastern EU member states refusing the automatic relocation of asylum seekers is one thing. The building by Hungary of concertina razor wire walls at the border with other European states an altogether different one. So is the ominous proliferation of extreme right “citizen militias” in Europe. It is frankly scary to hear mainstream politicians suggest that the Greek coast guard should push the refugees’ shabby vessels back into the Mediterranean. The upending of the Schengen treaty’s provisions, in front of the dual migration and terrorist threat in Europe, is not just a European security governance issue. Backing down from European solutions has become too often the norm.
There is a deeper more sinister element to the divide evident in Europe. This is the power of recycling ideas from the trash can of history. Particularly toxic ones that are revived and made tolerable and even put in practice. The same discourse that fuels Germany’s PEGIDA or AFD is fuelling Poland’s PIS or the new incarnation of Hungary’s FIDESZ and its even more sinister partner Jobbik. This is the underpinning of less than democratic discourse and policy choices. The difference is that, in Europe’s east, these strident populist forces have used system vulnerabilities and governance weaknesses to climb to power. Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia and now Poland are all , if to different degree, falling under the same populist pressure.
The reasons for some of these populists may be electoral and their objectives mainly an economic capture of the state. The effects are no less dangerous. When Jewish professors find notes asking them to leave universities, while WWII politicians that were directly responsible for the holocaust get statues in Budapest, the atmosphere has reached a hideous point.
It is telling that while prim minister Orban congratulated Laszlo Nemes the director of Canes festival winner “Son of Saul” the Hungarian media lambasted the film as sullying the country’s image. The Hungarian social media was alight with comments that the film was “perpetrating the anti-Hungarian myth of the holocaust”.
There are external elements at play too in widening the divides. Europe remains utterly undecided on what role it should play in its region and the world. After the Cold war it wanted a peace dividend. It got one that included not only economic advantages but also decreased military spending. If anything its security dependence on US military might increased in the past decades.
There is a growing number of spats between Europe and US. They cover issues related to global governance, NSA spying, trade , etc. They are not necessarily more serious than those from a decade ago but they happen in a different more stringent environment.
The slow but apparent US military drawdown from Europe over the last two decades left Europe with difficult choices. The US pivot to Asia only accelerated the feeling of a US, increasingly Pacific minded, disengaging from Europe. Without America, Europe is a continental power close to many potential troubled areas and needs different tools. It may believe it also has to accommodate different partners and tolerate their normative choices.
With less of an atlanticist focus, Europe can have a foreign policy that is less pegged to the US one. Thus European countries can both spend less on defence and trade more with less than democratic partners in the region. What is less clear is how is this in any way increasing European security.
Russia’s game is also one that massively influences Europe’s divisions. Russia is not the Soviet Union. However, with fewer and less powerful weapons it got more results. It opened enough to Western influence and capital that it become part of the West’s profit making economy. It also made good lucrative deals that modernised part of its energy and commodities sectors and in the process acquired good friends in Western business circles. At times this influence appeared to extend to governments and entire countries. As business interest and national interest have become transferable terms in Europe the transatlantic commons have shrieked to only a few basic elements.
Russia was quick and effective to exploit these rifts. It used effectively energy deals but also propaganda to shape European debates and public opinions. These Russian efforts go well beyond the caricature of slightly sinister ideological construct focusing on a christian neo-Byzantine Russia dominated Eurasia that has strong values and replaces a decadent West. It involves the media but also sometimes the direct influencing of European political scene. Some of this is done via financial support to parties like Britain First and Front National another is by courting countries like Cyprus and Greece and cultivating leaders with either an illiberal affinity or keen on Russian markets. European and American leaders have called out Russia’s actions in this respect but the issue remains a source of divisions among Western countries.
There is one common thread in Kissinger, Matlock and other US self proclaimed realists and European Russian pragmatists. In fact they share this with the current Russian leaders’ thinking. In their perspective, the interests of lesser powers and even allies are completely secondary to the “pragmatic imperative” of making business with Russia.
This “realist approach“ would allow the “great powers” to make deals that are not taking into account the contrary interest of others. There are quite a few countries in Europe that, while not embracing this as an open policy, sound more than tacitly endorsing a logic of “priority compromises”. A good example relates to some asking for a review of the sanctions imposed by Europe after the Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory. This while Russia has shown little interest in actually solving the Ukrainian crisis or using its influence to force the Donetsk rebels in upholding the Minsk II agreement.
This approach is not only outdated but also inoperative in an increasingly multipolar and complexly integrated world. Such a “vision” would rapidly turn against American and European interests. Compromises with Russia are required and possible. Any deal may involve a lot of horse trading inside alliances. Condoning the concept of dependent states with limited sovereignty is however an entirely different thing. This would be the quickest death blow to European common foreign and security policy. This has not escaped either the US or the Russians decision-makers.
The West needs a different sort of realism. The sort that upholds not casts away normative approaches. In theory at least, the US and Russia should have more to gain from even a limited cooperation. The same applies for Europe and not just geopolitically (on issues like Syria, Ukraine, Iran) but also economically.
The short term cost is substantially lower for Russia to act as a spoiler than it is for the US and Europe to compromise on its own and its partners’ objectives. These are sometimes interlinked but not always fully aligned. This concern first and foremost America’s European allies. Unlike in the Cold War the imperative is important but not existential for most. Coupled with the implications of the different normative systems they espouse, this makes a Western-Russian shared perspective difficult to achieve except maybe on very narrow objectives.
This should not deter the US and its European allies to seek a dialogue with Moscow. It is critically important that they do so in perfect sync. Moscow’s bet is that it has done enough to lower the chances that the West is capable of operating in agreement.
The Soviet Union was too grave of a threat (real or perceived) for the West to have deep or systematic divisions on such issues. France was sometimes out of lock step but not even its positions were significantly altering the Western foreign policy framework regarding relations with the Soviet Union. Unlike its predecessor, Russia is effectively engaging Western countries in bilateral relations that are highly lucrative for certain parties in the West. This allows for diverging and segregated interests both between and inside Western countries.
Russia is highly effective at supporting divergent voices in European political spheres. This is particularly true when it comes to nationalist, eurosceptic, ultra right wing parties and circles always dubious about the US and its liberal views and individual rights based normative framework. As a consequence, a solid joint European-US approach is more difficult to achieve on Russia. The first Western reaction to serious issues like the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea or its support for separatist in Eastern Ukraine was in perfect alignment. Keeping that line is a different thing. Both bilaterally and via EU-US and NATO-EU cooperation this can be achieved. If so then a renewed dialogue with Russia should be possible and yield results that are not clashing with the West’s values or its interests.
Madeleine Albright recently said “the Cold War was a piece of cake … then one side was red the other red white and blue … today however addressing inequality is difficult”. And she is right, the task is daunting for the West. To even start it needs to address the deep rifts in its ranks first.
There are a few obvious test cases: Brexit and European institutional reform including the establishment of a working EU common foreign and security policy. A serious review is needed of how EU members treat breaches of fundamental principles. We have done little to address Hungary than came Poland and the others. This needs to stop before it rips Europe’s normative framework apart.
Another test is the Europe’s relation with countries in its neighbourhood especially Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. One cannot use a different metric in the EU and the region when it comes to its partners. Renewing the EU accession dialogue with Turkey in exchange for cooperation on the Syrian refugees is one thing. Not addressing serious questions regarding the nature of the regime, freedom of the press and treatment of minorities as well as Turkey’s foreign policy choices is an altogether different matter.
Only a Europe of values can heal its own rifts and walk in tandem with the US. But in an electoral year we are reminded just how important America’s own choices are. Post 9.11 the prevailing spirit in the West was that divided we fall. And a lot of mistakes were done in taking that unity for granted The West got deeply split on the Iraq invasion and the Bush era legacy.
For Europe, and increasingly for the West, the operating concept is that divided we fail. The construction of a shared normative space requires a fairer more open and more engaged Europe. That in turn requires addressing both the differential in benefits of the Union geographically and a credible and powerful foreign policy vision and tools. Thus, paradoxically maybe, the answer to our current divisions lies with more transatlantic relations and more Europe. It remains to be seen if the new US administration will also play its part.
EU Commission Vice President and foreign policy high representative Federica Mogherini will present this summer a Global European Strategy. Europe’s new neighbourhood policy and strengthening its transatlantic vision through both TTIP and NATO are essential ingredients. Equally important inside Europe is a serious review of our financial dealings. Cutting loopholes for tax avoidance and accepting a review of the financial mechanisms is part of that. So is policy addressing productivity and labor cost differentials to make Europe a tad more equalitarian and fairer to both citizens and states. In parallel, NATO will hold a summit in Warsaw. Its task is to make sure the Alliance offers an effective security umbrella for a Europe whole, free and at peace.
Most important is that we need mainstream politicians that see these emerging rifts for the grave dangers they herald. We need a Europe that its citizens can believe in and the task is daunting. Politicians need to resist both creating a modernised version of the Cold War and a ghettoised Europe of the 1930’s . Finally they need to make a plurality of Europe’s citizens build and share a new common identity. We cannot do this without a recourse to values. We have in recent history abandoned values Europe. It led to tragedies of unspeakable proportion. This is why the West as an idea should not be divided else we fail.