Key European Union leaders before an official meeting

Opinion: ‘Values’-driven policies, Europe’s road to isolation

  • The West and especially the European Union should pursue more pragmatic policies toward Russia, Turkey and other nations that weigh heavily on European and global security
  • The current Western emphasis on values-driven foreign policy has only produced dangerous instability by upsetting important allies and prompting doubts over the United States’ ability to lead
  • For Europeans, the assumption that their values, especially in governance, are superior and should be applied universally is arrogant and dangerously counterproductive

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a meeting with Russian President Vladimir President Putin in Sochi on May 2. It produced no breakthroughs. The two sides agreed, as they had several times before, that the Minsk agreement on the Ukraine crisis should be implemented. The European Union’s relations with Russia remain tense.

Most EU states are also NATO members, and the alliance’s relations with Russia are worse than tense. It is not completely clear whether there is a new Cold War, but it is obvious enough that Western countries are engaged in a “hybrid war” with Russia – a confrontation in which propaganda, economic sanctions, cyberattacks and disrupting targeted countries’ internal procedures are substituted for traditional warfare.

Arrogant folly

Even if one disapproves of many elements of Russia’s foreign and domestic policies, its geopolitical weight means NATO members need to pursue inclusive – if also firm – policies to try to improve the international situation.

The EU’s relationship with Turkey, which was excellent for a long time, also has taken a sharp turn for the worse. For many years, European countries gave Turkey the runaround as it tried to join the EU, demanding that Ankara adopt several reforms and other measures, supposedly to make the country fit for acceptance. In reality, though, they simply did not want Turkey to become a member. Eventually, Turkey wised up and adopted different strategic goals. It is no longer interested in becoming part of the EU, while Europe still needs Turkey as an important neighbor, trading partner and NATO member. However, the voices from most European capitals still echo the old arrogant anti-Turkey rhetoric.

The latest developments in Turkey do not sit well with Europe’s so-called values system, but marginalizing the country is not the way to deal with the problem. Arrogance is never helpful. In the sphere of international relations, give-and-take is key. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey is a fact of life; Europe has no choice but to accept it.

Obviously, if Turkey no longer wishes to meet the EU’s standards, the accession negotiations have become expendable. The country, however, should be acknowledged as an important partner, not one to be “punished.” Turkey is a regional power in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea area, engaged in major ways and close to all states in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Botching Brexit

Two years from now, the United Kingdom will no longer be a part of the EU. But it will remain a European country and an important partner of the EU community and all its member states. Maintaining good, close relations with the UK should be a paramount goal.

Yet the shortsightedly skewed, harsh conditions for the negotiations with London that have been unanimously approved by the European Council (with the obvious exception of the UK) do not make for a good start toward such a strategic goal. Unfortunately, it appears that the UK is also unrealistic in its expectations. Critically important questions remain unanswered, but informal, pragmatic talks on the divorce’s terms have not taken place. Instead, the two sides have decided to wear straightjackets in the negotiations – a clear killer for any good outcome. The only remaining hope is that business realism will ultimately prevail over technocratic stubbornness.

In mutual relations, partners need each other

The UK plays a role in global relations and has special ties with many countries through its Commonwealth system. These assets are not easily quantifiable but are widely unacknowledged. In the “hard Brexit” scenario, the EU loses these advantages.

Pinching Trump

Another, even more important partner for Europe is the United States. When President Trump was elected, the outcome was decried with quite a few offensive statements from European capitals. In particular, comments from Paris and Berlin were based on an arrogant perception of a moral and intellectual superiority. This is not helpful when dealing with the head of a state that has been and will remain Europe’s main political, trading and defense partner – and knowing full well that this person will lead the U.S. for the next four years at least. In the case of President Donald Trump, this blunder may not prove so calamitous, fortunately, as he displays a good ability to forget.

In mutual relations, partners need each other. In foreign and security affairs, Europe is more dependent on the U.S. than vice versa. The European public and leaders displayed a similarly shortsighted, hostile and condescending attitude toward President George W. Bush even before the war with Iraq started. President Bush was interested in Europe as a main partner. President Barack Obama, on the other hand, was a darling of the European elites even though he paid little attention to the “Old Continent.”

During the U.S. presidential campaign, Donald Trump raised a legitimate issue in calling on rich Europe to do more for its defense. His administration has maintained pressure on European NATO allies on this issue, but it also has been strongly engaged in protecting European security. Nonetheless, anti-Trump sentiment prevails in Europe.

Confusion about values

The European countries and the EU as a whole face the huge task of rationalizing their relations with international partners. There is no fortress Europe. The values-driven European approach to foreign relations – based on the claim that European values are universal – brings unintended consequences. It has proven damaging to the interests of Europe and its partners alike. And it certainly does not help spread these values.

This does not mean that Europe should look the other way when, for example, genocide is perpetrated. Unfortunately, Europe has done just that and failed to respond to the annihilation of Christians in the Middle Eastern countries, the genocides in eastern Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Such failures to act bring shame on Europe.

EU should not be tasked with upholding values – this is better left to national governments

Many in Europe and the U.S. tend to blame the EU for the things going wrong. This is scapegoating. Brussels only implements the combined decisions of the member states. It is the states, acting among themselves and toward the union, that bear the responsibility for the fix in which Europe now finds itself. But when responsibility is shared, it is also diluted, and it becomes easy to avoid blame for bad results. This moral hazard is the reason the EU should not be tasked with upholding values – this is better left to national governments. What clearly belongs on the union level is handling the issues of a trade policy and a security policy supported by member states.

Such a security policy should be focused on stability, Europe’s interests and humanitarian measures, but not exclusively on what is called European values. Other countries also have values and do not necessarily accept or wish to defend the ones championed by the Europeans. Policies that fail to recognize this reality, on the assumption that that European values are superior and should be applied universally, will only drive Europe into isolation.

Vulnerable Europe

Unfortunately, the U.S. has a similar problem of a values-driven approach in foreign policy. The difference, however, is threefold: the US is the strongest military power, its economy is less dependent on trade and it is geographically separated from all the world’s hotspots by two oceans. Europe, on the other hand, has security and defense vulnerabilities because it is a peninsula wedged between the huge Eurasian and African landmasses. It is highly dependent on trade, exports as well as imports of raw materials and energy.

As opposed to Europe, the U.S. is involved globally. In the past, it succeeded by accepting different local systems, respecting its allies and trying to understand other players around the globe. Beginning with the administration of President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), though, Washington mounted the tall horse of “values leadership.” The attitude culminated during the two terms of President Barack Obama (2009-2017). Alienating U.S. allies or allowing doubts about the U.S.’s reliability as an ally have been at the root of much of the destabilization and isolationist tendencies seen in the world today.

It is true that the European and U.S. attitude of moral superiority does not lead the West toward isolationism. However, it has helped a Russian-Chinese rapprochement and given Beijing a very strong incentive to make China economically, politically and militarily active in key parts of the world.

Reverting to isolationism would be negative in the long term for the U.S. and the world. But for Europe, it would be immediately detrimental and dangerous – and dramatic, if not fatal, in the longer run. There is an old German saying, “viel Feind, viel Ehr,” meaning, “many enemies, much honor.” It reflects a stupid attitude that brought many catastrophes on Germany in the past. The European arrogance of today may lead to similar ends: defeats in isolation, without honor.

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