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Levinas on the Enlightenment and the European Ethical Tradition

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Clearly the title Europe designates the unity of a spiritual life and creative activity–no matter how inimical the European nations may be toward each other, still they have a special inner affinity of spirit that permeates all of them and transcends their national differences… There is an innate entelechy that thoroughly controls the changes in the European image and directs it toward an ideal image of life and of being. The spirited telos of the European in which is included the particular telos of separate nations and individual persons, has an infinity; it is an infinite idea toward which in secret the collective spiritual becoming, so to speak, strives.”   –Edmund Husserl

Modern Western Civilization presents us with a Janus-like face: On one side Renaissance Humanism which begins in Italy in the 14th century with Petrarch, on the other side Enlightenment Rationalism which begins in France in the 17th century with Descartes. After Descartes, there is a dangerous tendency to separate the two cultural phenomena and consider Humanism either anachronistic, or superseded. The inevitable result has been sheer confusion in the area of cultural identity; consequently, at this critical juncture of the new polity called European Union, there is talk of a “democratic deficit,” that democracy that is integral part of Western Civilization. We are in urgent need of cultural guides to show us how to better harmonize the two above mentioned phenomena. One such guide is Emmanuel Lévinas’ humanistic philosophy. In as much as it challenges the Western rationalistic philosophical tradition, it is extremely important for the emergence of a renewed European cultural identity. It explores in depth the threats to the authentic cultural identity of Europe, how modalities of thinking powerfully affect other ideas and shape a whole cultural milieu, sometimes with less than desirable consequences.

A few background biographical details may be useful to better understand Lévinas. He was born in Lithuania in 1902. In 1923 he moves to Strasbourg to study under Husserl and writes a doctoral dissertation on his philosophy. There, he also comes in contact with Heidegger’s philosophy. The dissertation on Husserl’s phenomenology gets published in France in 1930 and reveals that, even at this early stage, Lévinas is beginning to take his distance from Heidegger. He enlisted in the French army, was captured in 1940 and spent the remaining five years of the war in two prisoner-of-war camps. Upon being liberated he returns to Lithuania and finds-out that his parents and siblings had been killed by the Nazis, while his wife, whom he had left behind in Paris, had survived thanks to the help of French nuns who hid her. He became a teacher and administrator in an institute for Jewish education in Paris (l’alliance Uneversel Juif); there he begins to study traditional Jewish texts under the directorship of the Talmudic sage Mordechai Shoshani to whom Elie Wiesel (who also studied with him) devotes a chapter in Legends of Our Time. In 1961 Lévinas defends the first of his two major philosophical works (Totality and Infinity) before the philosophy faculty of the Sorbonne becoming a professor of philosophy. His second major work bears the title of Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence.

Those are the basic events that dramatically change Lèvinas’ thinking. Prior to World War II he had merely criticized elements of 20th century Western thought; afterward he begins to attack the whole European philosophical tradition, especially its culmination in Heidegger’s thought, for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He begins to indict western philosophers in general for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts, such as Hegel’s “Spirit,” or Heidegger’s “Being,” which assimilate countless individuals to rational processes, thus negating their individuality. To be sure Kierkegaard had also criticized this Hegelian tendency, countering it with his existentialist philosophy. Those who understood his critique only too well, promptly proceeded to relegate his thought to the theological within a false dichotomy (shown absurd by Thomas Aquinas way back in the 13th century) of philosophy/theology, thus insuring that Kierkegaard would never be as influential as a Hegel or a Heidegger. In any case, Lévinas too argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers included—interact with persons different from ourselves. He argues that this “face-to-face” realm is not the same thing as the realm of abstract concepts. It possesses its own texture which is primarily an ethical one. In this domain we are challenged by “the otherness of the other person.”

It is this “otherness,” which is an integral characteristic of human life, but the Western philosophical tradition has overlooked and even negated it, thus contributing to the dehumanization of Man. Lévinas’ life and thinking were deeply affected by the trauma of the Nazi genocide, better known as the Holocaust. But what is unique about his thinking is that it refuses to make those monstrous events its core subject matter. As Derrida, who admired Lévinas’ philosophy, aptly expressed it once: the danger of naming our monstrosities is that they become our pets. Lévinas’ writings provide no extensive discussion of the Holocaust itself; therefore, the assumption, on the part of those who were thinking and writing on it, has often been that Lévinas could not be considered a valid source of philosophical insight into this dark period of human history. But that is an erroneous assumption, just as invalid as the assumption that he unreservedly admired Heidegger’s philosophy because he happened to have translated it into French. As a matter of fact, Lévinas’ thinking is a reaction to the Holocaust by the mere fact that it asks the crucial question: What does it mean to be a human being? Were one to encapsulate the whole of Lévinas’ philosophy in two succinct words, they would be “being human.” This philosophy insists throughout that an extreme, unbalanced rationality devoid of imagination, feelings, senses and spirit, unconcerned with the ethical dimensions of life, is the equivalent to a refusal to be human, to allowing oneself to become a monster.

Not unlike Vico in the 18th century, he individuates such a root in the Cartesian ego, an autonomous center of consciousness which in modern philosophy has assumed the function of a paradigm for thinking about human beings. Lévinas does not deny this world-constituting ego, rather he leads it to the discovery of an ethical core within itself; which is to say, he uncovers another root growing within the first root which he calls the “self.” The conundrum seems to be this: if it is true that the ego does the conceptual work of philosophy by announcing what there really is in the world, how can this ego then acknowledge the essentially ethical “self” which lives within itself? Somehow a bridge has to be found between this limitless power and freedom of the independent intellect, and the particular concrete ethical obligations to another person. For, this ethical self, unlike the ego, finds itself caught up with the welfare of the other prior to a conscious, rational decision, in a recognition, even when unwilled, of his/her humanity. Indeed this ethical capacity seems to come from another place than our rational powers of analysis evidenced within the Cartesian ego. Even if we grant that such an ego is adequate in identifying the truths of philosophy, it somehow remains unable to acknowledge a domain where there is no choosing of the connection with the other; in fact the other way around may apply: the other chooses me, one is “already responsible” for the other prior to any rational analysis.

And here is the philosophical paradox: Lévinas’ task becomes that of using rationality to take the Cartesian ego beyond rationality, somewhat similar to what Vico does with his concepts of fantasia, which for him precedes rational reason, and the concept of Providence who guides human events and is both immanent within history but also transcendent. Which is to say, the rational ego has to be brought to recognize a sort of enigmatic “ethical” truth which Lévinas calls “pre-originary,” i.e., arising outside, prior to the usual time-line of the reflective ego. In attempting this operation, Lévinas will proffer statements such as: ethics is “older” than philosophy, it is “first philosophy,” on the scene before the arrival of rational philosophical thinking; something ingrained in being human. Within purely classical categories, that may be equivalent to the Socratic preoccupation with dying well by living a life of integrity and devotion to truth, as exemplified in Plato’s Apology. It is this ancient voice of goodness, which even Vico’s pre-historical “bestioni” possess to a degree, a voice often overlooked by rationalist philosophers, but powerfully present in Talmudic texts, that Lévinas finds strangely silent in the modern Western philosophical tradition. In mytho-poetic language, it’s as if Lévinas were to come face-to-face with the goddess Europa, as she is being abducted by a black bull (Zeus in disguise), to journey to another shore, there to assume a different persona, and he were to ask her, “Europa quo vadis?” after warning her to remember her original identity: “nosce te ipsum”; which is to say, go back to the future and know yourself holistically: know your Greco-Roman origins, yes, but also the Biblical tradition (the foundation for Christianity), the Christian heritage, the Humanistic synthesis of Graeco-Roman and Christian civilizations, Celtic and Germanic cultures with their ideas of freedom, the universalizing Enlightenment rooted in the democratic-scientific tradition born in ancient Greece, the Islamic influences. Voltaire and Descartes yes, but Vico and Novalis too are part of your identity. Your unity will be a chimera if it is only a unity of a bank and neglects its spiritual elements. Undoubtedly this hermeneutics, or re-interpretation of the Cartesian ego, placing at its core an non-refusable responsibility for the other without granting the ego any time to think it over and choose, so to speak, challenges some of the most basic assumptions of modern, and in some way classical, rationalistic philosophy. Not since the times of Mamonides in the 13th century had a Jew dared such a fundamental challenge from within the Western philosophical tradition. It is the challenge of Paul to Greek culture revisited. For indeed Lévinas is saying nothing short of this: the knowing ego does not exhaust what it means to be human. Some have called his philosophy one of “ethical subjectivity,” as a way of dismissing it as the raving of a lunatic, just as the ancient Greeks dismissed Paul in the agora. For the serious reader, however, it is rather a re-definition of subjectivity face to face with a totalizing kind of Cartesian reflection.

While Lévinas does not write directly about the Holocaust, other thinkers, who influenced Lévinas, were nevertheless reflecting upon the philosophical implications of this dark event of human history. One such was Berel Lang who wrote an essay titled “Genocide and Kant’s Enlightenment,” which appeared in his Act and Idea in the Nazi Genocide. In this essay Lang uncovers certain lines of affinity between some classical aspects of Enlightenment thought, and the Nazi genocide. His conclusion is that there are two important aspects of the Enlightenment that formed the intellectual heritage, which needed to be in place, for genocide to occur in the heart of civilized Europe: namely, the universalization of rational ideals, and the redefinition of the individual human being in terms of its possessing or not such a universal rationality. The genocide, Lang argues, was aimed at those groups who stuck to their own ancient pre-Enlightenment sources of particularistic identity, considered “irrational.” Hence the racial laws and racial exclusion were expression of ingrained Enlightenment prejudices. Which is to say, the Enlightenment sheds light on everything except itself; it remains to be enlightened. This powerful essay leads many cultural anthropologists comparing civilizations, to begin to wonder: which, in the final analysis, is more obscurantist: religious fanaticism and fundamentalism, or a so called “enlightened” era throwing out the window the baby with the bathwater and arrogantly refusing any suggestion that it ought to enlighten itself, and not with its own light?

This line of thought conjures up that terrible face to face encounter of Dante with the poet Bertrand Del Bornio in a cave in hell doing “light to himself” with its own decapitated head. There we have reason eating its own tail; internal logical thinking and assuming the grammar of lunacy. I dare say that such a question has not been satisfactorily answered yet. In that question lies the challenge of Lévinas’ philosophy: in its displacing of the centrality of Cartesian thinking within modernity, in order to re-center it around ethics: the face-to-face encounter with another human being which is always hopeful unless it occurs in hell. Everything we have discussed above begs this particular question: is Lévinas’ challenge to the Western philosophical tradition philosophically tenable? To answer the question adequately we need to be first aware that Emmanuel Lévinas, as well as Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosenweig (the author of Echoes from the Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections in a Dark Time, 1988), are representative of learned European Jews with great familiarity with the texts of both the Jewish and the Western philosophical tradition. They challenge the latter exactly because they are so knowledgeable in both.

Lévinas is fully capable of confronting the intellectual traps of those rationalists who would relegate him to the sphere of theology. To the contrary, he insisted on writing in both spheres and claimed that Jewish religious textuality contains hitherto unexplored philosophical insights. For this is a tradition which puts great emphasis on interpersonal, social and familial relationships; phenomena not contemplated in traditional Western philosophy. Which is to say, the challenge is to Western philosophy’s totalizing pretense, beginning with Plato’s times, that it can gather everything up in one synchronic whole. It is that challenge that irritates control freaks, thought policemen, rationalists and mysologists galore. It goes a long way in explaining their attempt to relegate Lévinas’ philosophy to the sphere of the merely mystical.

Finally, let us briefly examine how Lévinas develops this fundamental challenge to Western rationalism. He names both the texts of Jewish tradition and philosophical discourse “the said,” while calling the living activity of interpretative struggle (its hermeneutics) with the texts, and the self which suffers for the other, “the saying.” The said always tries to capture the saying, which may partly explain the ancient grudge of Plato towards poets (see Plato’s Republic, book X, on Homer). In any case, it is the saying which launches the said and puts it into circulation. The saying echoes outside of space and time destabilizing the comfortable, rationally secure positions rationalists take up in the said, in conceptual truths (thought to be universal and eternal), in a secure totalizing kind of knowledge. Yet it is this very destabilizing process that injects the ethical outward-directness into the said.

Lévinas will often contrasts the saying’s vulnerable openness to the other (which he calls “being ex-posed) with the said’s relative security (which he calls “exposition”). He asserts moreover, that there is a rich unexplored relationship between the way we are “exposed” in ethics, and the life “exposition” we use to analyze and order the world. Indeed, this is a new, essentially Jewish, philosophical reflection which places into question the claim to totalizing completeness, by an appeal to the priority of ethics. It insists that any person that confronts me, needs to be placed outside the totalizing categories seeking to reduce her/him to an aspect of a rational system. Basically, what Lévinas is doing is relocating our dangerous ability to deny others their legitimate sphere of difference; an ability which is capable of destroying our own humanity. This is nothing short than the core struggle for the achievement of moral humanity which was also the root ethical aim of Vico’s New Science.

Like Vico, Lévinas shows us the way to keep the benefits of universal Enlightenment ethics while avoiding its perils. For, his ethics is not based on a totalizing sort of universalism, but on the particular concrete needs and demands of each unique individual, every “other’ that I meet within time and space. Every time I meet the other, she/he constitutes an ethical challenge to my self, a challenge as to who I am as a human being. This kind of philosophy is a challenge to each one of us to go beyond nostalgic returns to Greek classicism, as important at that may be, in the understanding of Western Civilization; to establish intellectual-background-assumptions which are different from those of the Enlightenment; to search for urgently needed new cultural paradigms, new ways of thinking appealing to the priority of ethics and the importance of the particular as a category of thought, a place in thought wherein genocide and hatred of the other becomes inconceivable; in short to prepare new wineskins for the new wine which is a “Novantiqua Europa.”

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Russia–EU Relations in 2020: Opportunities, Limitations and Possible Trends

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Any attempt to predict the development of Russia–EU relations in the upcoming years must certainly acknowledge the fact that relations between the two sides have remained remarkably stable since 2014, and the momentum of current dynamics (or, instead, the momentum of no dynamics) will most likely continue. 2019 marked European Parliament elections, the “overhaul” of the European Commission and other EU governing bodies, as well as the formation of a new balance of political power on the continent. It may be safe to assume that 2020 will be a quieter and altogether less nerve-wracking year for the European Union, although certain states (for example, Poland or Italy) may very well have some surprises in store. Additionally, a shift towards tackling the most critical issues associated with Brexit is a distinct possibility.

Most experts believe that the political system in Russia has a sufficiently large “safety margin” to pass through 2020 without being exposed to any significant destabilization risks, and the accumulated financial “safety cushion” will allow the country’s leadership to guarantee socioeconomic stability despite possible fluctuations in the global economy or world energy prices, or any changes to the international sanctions regime against Moscow. A real political challenge to the authorities may appear later, probably no earlier than the parliamentary elections of September 2021. Accordingly, it is unlikely that any new domestic factors will pop up before the end of 2020 that may trigger a significant shift in the EU’s approach to Moscow or Russia’s approach to Brussels.

Uncertainty Factors

Nevertheless, the features and orientation of internal processes in the European Union and Russia will undoubtedly influence their bilateral relations. In our opinion, the main uncertainty factor for the European Union rests in the level of political unity and the ability or inability of the new European Commission to successfully withstand centrifugal trends in the EU, as well as pressure exerted by populists in individual EU member states. Clearly, the new offensive launched by populists and deepening internal contradictions within the European Union will tempt Moscow to use the organization’s disunity to achieve “separate” agreements with its traditional European partners. At the same time, many in Europe will inevitably lay principal responsibility for confusion and vacillation in the European Union at Moscow’s doorstep. A strong and cohesive European Commission will restrict the possibility of the Kremlin pursuing “selective involvement” with convenient European partners.

On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that a weak and disjointed European Union will dare to launch a serious internal discussion of the prospects of its Moscow strategy beyond the five “Mogherini principles” that were formulated four years ago, given its concerns about further undermining the already fragile foreign political unity of its member states. It is common knowledge that the ongoing sanctions regime against Russia is less of an instrument of exerting influence on Moscow than it is one of the few remaining symbols of “European unity.” A weak European Union will be forced to prioritize maintaining the existing status quo and minimizing potential change-associated risks.

For Russia, the main uncertainty factor, it would seem, is still the level of socio-political tension in the country, and how authorities respond to it. If tensions continue to grow during 2020 (which can be expressed, for instance, in an increase in the number and size of rallies, picketing, demonstrations and other manifestations of street political activities) and the authorities tighten the screws in response (dispersing rallies by force, carrying out pre-emptive arrests and searches, holding trials and imposing harsh sentences), the European Union will be forced to somehow respond. This will inevitably create additional obstacles to the dialogue between Brussels and Moscow, energizing the forces that have no desire whatsoever to pursue discourse with Russia.

If the overall level of tension turns out to be relatively low and the response of the authorities relatively mild, then a prerequisite for the Russia–Europe dialogue will be more favourable. In addition to everything else, a low level of tension will serve as an additional argument for those forces in the European Union that consider Russia’s socioeconomic and political systems to be sufficiently flexible and adaptive, to remain stable for the foreseeable future. If this is the case, then it makes no sense for the European Union to repeatedly postpone dialogue with Moscow in the hope that inevitable radical political changes will take place.

The following external factors affecting relations between Russia and the European Union in 2020 will likely be most significant:

1. The outcome of the 2020 United States presidential election. Victory for the Democrats would mean that erstwhile transatlantic solidarity will be at least partly restored, and the United States and the European Union will be able to coordinate their policies towards Russia better.

Moscow will once again face a “consolidated West,” which will inevitably restrict Russia’s room for political manoeuvre. On the other hand, should Donald Trump emerge victorious, this will likely further deepen contradictions between the United States and the European Union, which will allow Moscow to solidify its current tactical advantages in its relations with the “disjointed West.”

2.The state of U.S.–China relations. Further exacerbation of the trade, economic, political and military confrontation between the United States and China, as well as the movement of the international system towards rigid bipolarity, will create additional restrictions for interaction between Russia and Europe, for instance, in implementing multilateral “Eurasian” projects. Russia will be oriented towards an increasingly close alliance with China, while Europe will be forced to follow in the wake of the policies of the United States. Conversely, if the confrontation between Washington and Beijing softens, this will allow Moscow and Brussels to avoid many of the restrictions that a rigid bipolar configuration entails.

3. The situation in the Middle East. Unexpected and significant negative dynamic in the Middle East (escalation in Syria or Lebanon, an acute crisis in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia or between Iran and Israel, or a new large-scale outflow of refugees from the region) may prove to be essential incentives for deepening Russia–Europe cooperation, especially if the situation worsens against the background of the United States continuing to roll back its commitments in the region. The preservation of the current status quo also means that Russia and the European Union will be able to maintain their current (low) level of interaction in the region. However, certain escalation scenarios (for instance, Damascus launching a large-scale offence on Idlib, with one of the parties to the conflict using chemical weapons) will create an additional problem for Russia–EU relations. Any aggravation of the problem of migration from the Middle East to the European Union will be construed as part of Moscow’s hostile strategy towards Europe.

4. The global economic situation. The global economy may enter another stage of the cyclical crisis in 2020, or even fall victim to a systemic global financial crisis similar to that of 2008–2009. The future systemic crisis will likely be more dramatic than the previous one, since the principal actors in the global economy are less inclined today to cooperate than they were ten years ago. The new crisis will undermine the economic foundations of Russia–EU relations and give rise to more pronounced protectionist and nationalist sentiment in both the European Union and Russia. In a crisis, the opportunities for positive interaction between Moscow and Brussels will be limited. Conversely, economic acceleration in the European Union and Russia will increase the interest of both parties in expanding cooperation.

Probable Risks

The current trends in Russia–EU relations carry a number of risks that should be mentioned when predicting possible scenarios for the further deterioration of these relations:

The general deterioration of European security due to the expiration of the INF Treaty; the degradation of confidence-building measures; and the start of an arms race, including hi-tech weapons (understanding that the military-political situation in Europe cannot change drastically in 2020, and military spending in European countries is not expected to rise sharply);

The continued competition for influence in the post-Soviet space, including Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (the collapse of the political coalition in Moldova in the autumn of 2019 is a negative sign); and the further divergence of stances on the Donbass settlement will have a particularly negative effect on relations;

The intensification of sub-regional competition between Russia and the European Union (this competition appears to be particularly dangerous in the Western Balkans, given the possibility of an acute political crisis in one or more of the countries in the region);

The intensification of the information war in Europe (in particular, the European Union may approve a “blacklist” of Russian media outlets, while Russia may significantly expand its own list of “undesirable” European organizations); we cannot rule out the possibility that investigations may be launched in some EU states in connection with accusations of Russia interfering in their elections and supporting separatists and political extremists.

The harsh confrontation between Russia and some EU member countries in pan-European organizations (PACE, OSCE); 2020 will be a challenging year in the history of these organizations, which will be put under immense political pressure;

The further politicization of energy cooperation between Russia and the European Union (for instance, the emergence of new issues in completing work on Nord Stream 2; and the blatant refusal of some EU states to prolong gas contracts with Russia);

The clash between Russian and European interests in some regions of the world, including Africa and Latin America; and competition between Russia and Europe for preferential relations with Turkey might posit a particular issue.

Unfortunately, “black swans” may very well throw a spanner in the works – the unfortunate incident in Salisbury in March 2018 and the events in the Kerch Strait in November of the same year are prime examples. Such events may again lead to a deterioration of relations between Moscow and Brussels, regardless of who is to blame. A distinctive feature of Russia–EU relations today is that significant progress should be visible along the entire line of interaction between the parties, while a single negative event in any of these areas is enough to provoke a new crisis. This makes the process of restoring even limited cooperation extraordinarily fragile and unstable. And this a situation will continue throughout 2020.

Potential Opportunities

At the same time, we can identify several most promising areas of Russia–EU cooperation where, under favourable circumstances, certain practical results may be achieved as early as 2020:

Progress in settling the conflict in the east of Ukraine. The recent domestic political scandal in the United States in connection with Ukraine further obstructs Washington’s constructive involvement in resolving the crisis. The Ukrainian crisis is objectively less critical for the United States than for Europe, and certainly for Russia.

On the other hand, the new leadership in Kyiv is more focused than its predecessors on achieving a peaceful settlement to the situation in the Donbass. By all accounts, Moscow is ready to (or could) demonstrate more flexibility than before in its approach to Ukraine’s implementation of the Minsk agreements. If progress is achieved at the upcoming Normandy Four summit in terms of implementing the Steinmeier formula, then opportunities will appear as early as the first few months of 2020 to involve the European Union in the peace process, including post-conflict reconstruction programmes in the Donbass.

Expanding interaction in the “shared neighbourhood.” Neither Russia nor the European Union are interested in further escalation in the area. The example of several post-Soviet states, for instance, Armenia, shows that the balance of influence between Russia and the European Union does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.

Deepening interaction on Iran-related issues. The positions of Russia and the European Union on topics such as the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes and Iran’s role in Syria and the Middle East are not identical, although they are close. Given the current escalation in relations between Iran and the United States, as well as between Iran and Israel (this trend will most likely continue in 2020), Russia and the European Union can and should coordinate their actions more closely concerning Iran.

Launching full-fledged dialogue between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union. In 2020, this dialogue can be moved from the current technical to political level. It could include coordinating multilateral cooperation in Central Asia, implementing the European “connection” concept and possibly even discussing progress in implementing China’s “Belt and Road” project.

Developing a new “energy/environmental plan” for Europe. There is reason to hope that politically difficult problems related to Nord Stream 2 and the future of gas transit via Ukraine will be partially resolved in 2020. If this does happen, then it may be possible to try to “depoliticize” the European energy agenda. This could include, for instance, climate change, prospects for energy cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, issues of standards, energy security and energy efficiency, training personnel and the exchange of experience.

Making Europe’s Russian sanctions regime more flexible. We should not expect the European Union to lift the sanctions against Russia in 2020, even if progress in settling the Ukrainian crisis is achieved. However, the European Commission might set itself the more modest task of modifying the mechanisms of applying the sanctions. History shows us that sanctions, especially bilateral sanctions, do not work if the sides do not have the option to respond to even small behavioural shifts promptly. In mid-2016, Frank-Walter Steinmeier proposed modifying the EU’s sanctions mechanism, and this idea has maintained its relevance for the last three and a half years.

Preserving pan-European areas. Despite the growing divide in Europe along the East-West axis, common European areas of science, education and culture can still be maintained. If progress is achieved in other areas in 2020, then the connecting role of humanitarian areas should be strengthened further. For instance, the parties could spearhead a joint plan to liberalize the visa regime or introduce visa waivers for students, scientists, scholars, artists and cultural figures.

Developing a new “road map” for the development of the OSCE. 2020 will mark the 10th anniversary of the Astana declaration, the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Paris and the 35th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act. Structured dialogue on military and political issues was launched in 2016, and it turned out to be one of the most productive formats of East-West communication in Europe. The OSCE still needs political support from both the European Union and Russia.

Of course, we should not assume that activating some or even most of the abovementioned areas of cooperation in 2020 will result in a “reset” of Moscow–Brussels relations. The current “strategic disconnection” between Russia and Europe is not caused by their differences on specific issues (even issues as serious as Ukraine and Syria), but rather by their profoundly opposing views on the fundamental problems of global politics, its contents, driving forces, priorities and the desired model of the future world order.

Until these differences are overcome, relations between Moscow and Brussels will remain primarily focused on rivalry. Consequently, the next common task for Russia and the European Union is to cut the costs and reduce the risks that are inextricably related to such rivalry. However, achieving even modest progress in this area in 2020 and creating an atmosphere of positive dynamics would be a significant outcome of the year that concludes a challenging decade in global politics for both the European Union and Russia.

From our partner RIAC

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The Prisoner of Geography: Orbán’s perception of geographical pragmatism

Péter Kacziba, Ph.D.,

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Between the beginning of September and the end of November 2019, the Hungarian government has received an exceptionally high number of foreign officials. Among others, Viktor Orbán’s cabinet has hosted Aleksandar Vučić Serbian, Andrej Babiš Czech, Peter Pellegrini Slovak, and Antti Rinne Finnish prime ministers as well as received Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Charles Michel, the new elected President of the European Council. Besides the highest level, the five foreign ministers of Turkic Council have also been hosted, while after six years of demonstrative absence, the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has also paid a visit to Budapest. 

Even though the visits of Mr. Maas and Charles Michel received less enthusiastic media coverage, the Hungarian government regarded all meetings with special attention. Besides tide security and traffic restrictions, the high regard has also included the introduction of a new political rhetoric which maintained the most important frameworks of Hungarian foreign policy but added a new interpretation based on geographical pragmatism. The new discourse characterized the joint press conferences given respectively by Viktor Orbán and the Russian and Turkish counterparts where the Hungarian PM presented his foreign policy as an approach driven by the unchangeable conditions of geographical realities. As Mr. Orbán described it to Vladimir Putin, “the basis of our political cooperation is a very simple geographical fact, that no country can change its house number”. According to Mr. Orbán, the geographical conditions of Hungary tie Budapest to the Berlin–Moscow–Ankara triangle which geopolitical environment determines the potentials of Hungarian foreign policy. 

Although the geographical explanation is not a new feature in the rhetoric of Hungarian foreign policy, the importance of Germany, and generally the West, was deliberately ignored in recent years. Since the visit of Angela Merkel in August 2019, this trend has begun to change. While the Russian and Turkish friendly approach remained to be a crucial part of the Hungarian foreign policy, Mr. Orbán seems to rebalance the relations and attempts to normalize partnerships with the West, and particularly with Germany. If the rebalancing continues, Hungary could turn back to the original frameworks of the Global Opening foreign policy that attempted to find a delicate balance between the West and the rest. 

The shifting balance of Global Opening

Since coming to power in 2010, Viktor Orbán and his FIDESZ party have made significant changes in the Hungarian foreign policy. The Atlantist or Westernizer approach was supplemented by the doctrine of Global Opening which diversified Hungary’s previously EU-, US- and NATO-based foreign policy and aimed to reduce unilateral dependence on the West. The original framework of this new foreign policy direction first redirected Hungary’s attention towards the global East (2010) and then the global South (2015). The often-criticized approach, according to the official explanation, was meant to respond to the new global trends and intended to channel the Hungarian economy into the seemingly skyrocketing developing markets. The new strategy made efforts to establish cooperation with globally (Russia, China) and regionally (Turkey) significant countries and also resulted in a more active and sometimes more confrontational foreign policy towards neighbouring countries.

Though the original, economy-oriented idea of Global Opening did not aim to divert the country from its traditional Euro-Atlantic direction, domestic illiberal measures, friendly relations with Russia and the anti-EU rhetoric automatically generated antagonistic feelings among Hungary’s Western allies. The growing Western criticism and the FIDESZ’s harsh responses to it further deepened the disputes, and, by 2016-2018, pushed the increasingly isolated Hungarian government towards Moscow and Ankara. While Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became frequent guests in Budapest, the Sargentini report condemned the Hungarian government over the violation of basic European values and the European People’s Party suspended FIDESZ’s membership. Relations reached the lowest point during the campaign of the 2019 European Parliamentary election when many from the EU centre labelled the FIDESZ as a far-right and even a fascist party, and when the Hungarian government accelerated its anti-EU, Stop Brussels campaign.

Damage control and rebalancing

The European Parliamentary elections in May and the Hungarian local elections in October 2019 turned out to be crucial milestones as the FIDESZ suffered serious, though not fatal, setbacks. On the European level, the assumed breakthrough of the populist parties remained to be an illusion, while on the local level, the Hungarian opposition parties gained majorities in ten major cities, including Budapest. On one hand, these developments pushed FIDESZ towards a more cooperative attitude and altered both domestic and external strategies. On the other hand, certain members of the EU and NATO have also begun to change their tone and seemed to realize the potential danger of Hungary’s isolation. As part of the correction process, Donald Trump briefly hosted Viktor Orbán at the White House in May and Angela Merkel travelled to Hungary in August. The chancellor’s visit soon was followed by the reciprocated visits of Hungarian and German foreign ministers and high-level consultations with EU officials. By the summer of 2019, the domestic communication of the Hungarian government has also begun to change and started to cease the anti-EU campaigns.

While the above-mentioned visits and meetings are signalling a new willingness to engage in a dialogue, Hungary and its Western allies are still divided by significant differences. In this sense, Budapest seems to publicly acknowledge the improvement of bilateral, state-to-state relations but shows reluctance to admit Hungary’s dependence on the EU. At the same time, the vast framework of EU itself hinders the rapprochement process. Although Angela Merkel’s realpolitik recognized the need for normalization, others from the various commissions and parliament fractions still consider the FIDESZ as a traitor or a Trojan horse. These controversial responses significantly influence the Hungarian domestic and foreign policy rhetoric which rejects harsh criticism with even harsher reactions. Even though the already difficult situation is further complicated by political and ideological differences on issues such as migration and asylum-seeking, Ursula von der Leyen seems to be ready to move on and begin with a fresh start. The incoming president of the European Commission showed her determination by nominating the FIDESZ delegated Olivér Várhelyi to the post of Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner, a position which was highly appreciated by the Hungarian government and was eventually approved by the European Parliament.

Geographic pragmatism

The Hungarian prime minister has a reputation of adopting theoretical interpretations for the legitimization of his practical policies. In recent years, he quoted Hungarian authors (e.g. Sándor Karácsony) when explaining his governance techniques or recalled Fareed Zakaria’s concept when outlining frameworks of illiberal democracy. Like the previous examples, the new foreign policy rhetoric also seems to resemble authors of international politics, mainly from the fields of geopolitics. Coincidence or not, especially Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography (2016) has interesting similarities with the recent rhetoric Mr. Orbán has used. As in Marshall’s book, emphasizing the importance of physical realities, indicating the determining effects of geography or stressing the geopolitical laws of power all became part of the recent interpretations and defined Mr. Orbán’s speeches at bilateral press conferences. The new rhetoric justified the Hungarian developments through geographic pragmatism and by the recognition of geopolitical realities that position Hungary in the overlapping area of German, Russian and Turkish sphere of influences. As the prime minister put it, “…the reality is that to the left of us there’s the land of the German iron chancellors, to the right the Slavic military peoples, and down south the vast population masses of Islam. Hungary lives its life within this triangle, and within this geographical region it has been the task of governments down the centuries to create balance, to create peace and security, and for us to build relations in all three directions, so that the three capital cities and the three powers which are so much larger than us have an interest in the success of Hungary.”

While Orbán’s new interpretation seems to realize how the normalization of German-Hungarian relations could support this vision of success, it maintained the original ideas of Global Opening and aims to keep solid relations with Russia and Turkey. Though the prime minister marked the line by including Berlin to the triangle of regional powers, he also stated that not dreams or philosophies will determine “who in the world we like the most” rather the geographical realities. According to Mr. Orbán, besides Germany, Russia and Turkey are also parts of the greater geographical environment of Hungary, consequently, the country’s foreign policy should acknowledge their decisive role and must maintain pragmatic relations with them. In terms of security, the pragmatic relations mean closer ties and cooperation with NATO members such as Germany and Turkey, while it also comprises a policy of conflict prevention which helps to avoid bilateral disputes between Hungary and Russia. According to Mr. Orbán, the decisive role of regional powers also includes dominant economic performance that has to be respected and exploited by Hungary. On one hand, as a small Central European state with limited material resources, Hungary needs the energy supplies, the financial and industrial investments, or the high-technology and military equipment that these regional centres could offer. On the other hand, Hungary may offer various benefits in return. The country’s strategic location with valuable memberships positions, the relatively cheap but skilled labour, or the increasing purchasing power are just a few examples to prove the possible benefits of foreign investors. The recently announced military modernization of the Hungarian Armed Forces is another major example: beyond Germany, Turkey and Russia, Trump’s transactional diplomacy also seeks to get a piece from the large military tenders.

The limits of balancing

Besides benefits, geographic pragmatism and balancing foreign policy have their limits too. It is highly questionable, for instance, what members of the Berlin–Moscow–Ankara triangle think about each other and, maybe more importantly, how they see the Hungarian peacock dance in the middle of the triangle. In this sense, Mr. Orbán’s recent foreign policy statements were directed not only towards the domestic audience but to the regional partners as well. Though the statements presented Hungary as a country that maintains strategic partnerships with both the West and the East, in reality, conflicting interests significantly constrain the options of balancing. Germany, for example, is highly concerned about the growing Russian influence in Hungary and considers it as a security breach and a politicoeconomic mistake. According to this view, the relocation of previously Moscow-based International Investment Bank, the construction of Paks 2 nuclear power plant or the recently signed long-term gas contract with GAZPROM could be labelled as perfect examples of such mistakes. Besides Russia, Budapest has also troubles to explain friendly relations with Turkey who is condemned by the EU for launching the contradictory Operation of Peace Spring. In this case too, Hungary pursued a contrasting strategy: it conditionally supported Turkey’s actions and even vetoed the EU’s draft resolution that was jointly prepared to condemn Ankara. Although the veto was re-evaluated later, it showed how difficult is to play in two teams at the same time. 

The Hungarian behaviour during the days of Operation Peace Spring also demonstrates those ideological differences that further constrain Mr. Orbán’s geographic pragmatism. While the Hungarian government has no ethical dilemmas to oppose the implementation of illiberal models, the country’s Western allies feel moral obligations to condemn domestic developments in Russia, Turkey or Hungary. These Western allies consider Hungarian domestic developments as being incompatible with the basic principles of European values and regard Hungary’s close ties with Russia and Turkey as a partnership that could undermine the unity of EU or NATO. The Hungarian government, however, has different interpretations. In the case of Russia, it considers Moscow as part of the wider European geopolitical environment, as a Great Power who influence the Central European matters either Hungary likes it or not. As the indispensable Russian influence may be exploited by balancing foreign policy, the regional impacts of Turkey can be also utilized. In this regard, the Hungarian government views Ankara as a key actor in migration and urges the EU to open closer cooperation with Turkey to prevent new influxes of asylum-seekers. 

A unique example or the victim of circumstances?

The key question at this point is whether balancing Hungarian foreign policy will produce positive results or fail to find the middle ground between the conflicting interests of regional powers. Hungary seems to be an exceptional example, yet other countries in the region face similar dilemmas. Their responses usually follow two not too distinct path: either trying to serve the needs of all regional powers or limiting the interests of one by using the influence of another. The choice between these two options is further complicated by the wider geopolitical transformations. From the Central European perspective, especially the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts are problematic as these globally defining struggles have increased disagreements among regional powers and boosted their external activities. With such developments, Central European states have found themselves in a difficult position of contradictory expectations. On one side of the region, there is Moscow and Ankara, both have begun to look for weak links and been practising hardly refusable policies to influence smaller members of the EU. On the other side, there is the EU and Washington, both expect a much clearer stand on democratic values, Western principles and generally a much stronger commitment to maintaining the alliance unity.

In these kinds of circumstances, it is quite difficult to find a win-win situation. As Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography put it, “Geography has always been a prison of sorts – one that defines what a nation is or can be, and one from which our world leaders have often struggled to break free.” Nevertheless, Central European states have always found their limited yet flexible ways to navigate between regional powers and their contradictory interests. It seems Hungary has also developed a path which we may call by various names – geographic pragmatism, Global Opening or balancing foreign policy – at the end all mean a survival strategy between the West, the East and the South. One should wonder, however, is it the survival strategy of Hungary or just those who lead it?

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Is North Macedonia good enough for NATO but not good for the EU? How to salvage the relations

Iveta Cherneva

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image: NATO

At the NATO Summit today, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg was asked a question by a North Macedonian journalist in the context of North Macedonia’s debut this week as NATO’s newest member. Is North Macedonia good enough for NATO but not good enough for the EU?, is the questions that was lurking over the Summit. For an answer to this, we should look towards French President Emmanuel Macron.

Commentators and politicians alike, have loudly pointed to the Macron veto of Albania and North Macedonia as a mistake.

Getting no for an answer need not mean falling off the European map for them, however.

As EU’s political dialogue with Georgia seem to suggest, there are many layers of cooperation that fall just short of accession talks and prove to provide value for both sides. For Georgia, this is in the form of EU’s Eastern Partnership.

“Something similar to EU cooperation with Georgia could be a model for engagement with the Western Balkans”, told me journalist Georgi Gotev.

Western Balkan nations, due to their geographical belonging, and not only, have the right to feel different from and more European than Georgia and the rest of the East Partnership countries.

Nevertheless, the relationship the EU has built with Georgia shouldn’t be underestimated as a potential blueprint for bringing closer EU’s backyard called the Western Balkans which has the right to be offended.

The influence of Russia and China is prominent in both Georgia and the Western Balkans region which is one more reason not to allow the Western Balkans to drift away.

Georgia has trade agreements with both China and the EU. Similarly, China’s security influence is felt on the Western Balkans in Serbia where Chinese policemen are now patrolling in the country.

Georgia’s precarious security relationship with Russia sometimes takes the shape of full-blown war. For that and other reasons, a real dialogue for EU membership with Georgia is not really possible, despite Georgian enthusiasm. Displaying the EU flag is a common practice in Georgia.

Again with Western Balkan countries, one can see the EU flag being waved too, as a sign of political enthusiasm. And similar to Georgia, but to a much lesser extent, Russian political influence in some Western Balkan countries presents one reason for skepticism in opening accession talks.

All that does not mean that there are no mechanisms for the EU to engage the Western Balkans and to somehow salvage the shaken relationship.

For Tamar Chugoshvili, first vice-chair of the Georgian Parliament, EU’s Eastern Partnership has delivered. “Its results have been the Association Agreement, the Free Trade Agreement, and the visa-free movement”, she said. This is an engagement blueprint that could work for some Western Balkan countries.

Although an EU partnership involving labor movement at this point might be a stretch for Georgia and the Western Balkans alike, democracy and human rights dialogue needs to continue being a component of EU’s engagement. Apart from trade and tourism, the EU has still a lot to offer in terms of soft power and norm diffusion.

Finally, an important difference is that Georgia was never led on to believe it was coming close to accession talks for EU membership; that’s why expectations were always different. For Albania, but especially for North Macedonia which changed its official name as a prerequisite, disappointment and frustration are more than natural reactions.

So, a Georgian blueprint with an enhanced trade partnership might work for EU’s engagement provided Western Balkan countries overcome their resentment and swallow that bitter taste that Emmanuel Macron left in their mouth. For that to happen though, the EU would need to pour a whole lot of new water their way.

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