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Is a Return to the Origins of Humanism still possible for European Civilization?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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What will future historians and cultural anthropologists have to say about Western Civilization as it turned a new millennium? If history has already ended, as Fukuyama asserts, they will of course have precious little to say. However, given the fact that, for better or for worse, we are not gods and are still living within time and space, “the end of history” remains a dubious proposition at best, and I dare say that it will remain such even a thousand years from now. Future historians will indeed attempt to define our era, as difficult as it may turn out to be.

The Neapolitan philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) would have had no hesitation in situating it within the third of his recurring cycles of history and civilizations (the cycles of gods, heroes, and men): that is to say, an era of extreme rationalism in tandem with relativism vis a vis the concept of Truth, what he dubs “the barbarism of the intellect.” But more specifically, we may ask: which will be the outstanding symptomatic phenomena that future historians will identify as characteristic of our age? I would venture two: 1) the speed of communication coupled with its banality, 2) thinking in the closet and herd thinking. Let us explore them briefly.

The first one is the more visible and pervasive. It is the kind of phenomenon that would have a great novelist begin his recounting of our times with “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We now possess a near miraculous ability to communicate instantaneously across oceans and continents; to forward entire texts in seconds and have them published within days. This ability challenges even Hermes, the god of messages, who perhaps was not as fast as our e-mail messages are, hence the popularity of hermeneutics in modern literature and philosophy.

But there is a snake in this utopia come of age and it is this: there seems to be an inverse proportion within this phenomenon, the faster the means of communication, the more trivial and banal the communication seems to get, and the less authentic the dialogue. That applies to at least 90% of what passes for dialogue nowadays. To wit, the tweeting of a Donald Trump whose ambition is to become the “brilliant” new tweeting president of the US.

It has become increasingly difficult to discern the authentic from the bogus. The presidential campaign is a mere symptom of a more pervasive deplorable cancerous mind-set. Whether the exoterism of what is even published on-line today will compensate the former esoterism of wonderful insightful articles languishing unread in academic libraries, remains to be seen. But of course this is a symptom of a deeper malaise (that a Kierkegaard might even call “the sickness unto death”) which has to do with the inability of people to really dialogue and commune with each other (different from merely communicating at an increasingly faster pace) with each other, and which may point to the real underlying problem: the loss of meaning in life; what philosophers define as nihilism, what a Victor Frankel wrote about in his Man’s Quest for Meaning.

The second above mentioned phenomenon is less visible and therefore, like radiation, much more dangerous and lethal. It is in the very cultural air we breathe and goes by the name of extreme rationalism. It is an attempt to reduce the whole of experience to purely abstract utilitalian rational categories to the exclusion of imagination, the mystical, the transcendent, the emotive and the intuitive within reality; in short, to the near exclusion of the poetical. The poetical is reduced to frosting on the cake, to mere poetry to delight oneself or others at a wedding party. In ancient times this critique begins with Plato banishing the poets from his Republic. In modern times it begins philosophically with Descartes’ famous “Cogito ergo sum,” continues with Hegel’s dialectical historicism declaring that the synthesis of the thesis and the anti-thesis at the end of a process is always necessarily the best of all possible outcomes, and is underpinned by scientific positivism, the industrial revolution and the advent of Machiavellian real politik in the relations between nations wherein the end invariably justifies the means. Modern geopolitical science is an offshoot of this extreme Machiavellian realism.

It is in short a mindset that believes itself “enlightened”, and therefore doubts everything except one thing: that it itself may still need enlightenment. It begins with the so called “age of reason,” which believes that it can easily dispense with what is childish: the fables and myths spun by poets and visionaries, the whole of the humanistic world based on the poetic. It believes that adults endowed with reason must preoccupy themselves primarily with issues relating to the economic and the political and leave the rest to the Don Quixotes of this world, i.e., the losers, as distinguished from the winners with billions in the bank.

It is a mind-set unable to conceive that, as Vico believed, the poetical may well be complementary to the rational; that they may not be mutually exclusive; that both are indeed desirable and possible within a holistic view of Man. And so we get to the point that each individual that perceives him/herself thinking is convinced that he/she possesses the truth or can arrive at it individually beginning with the tabula rasa that is Descartes’ “cogito.” The slogan “everyone is entitled to his/her opinion” really means “to each his/her truth as he/she sees it.” Paradoxically, rather than the Cartesian “clear and distinct” ideas we have ended with the tower of Babel and herd thinking, the dystopian land of deplorable bigots devoid of consciousness and conscience roaming around as living dead; that is to say the land of the zombies headed by a tweeting leader admitting individual versions of the truth where at best the collective sum of all opinions is conceived as the truth, the collective, that is, headed by the head-zombie. One cannot but wonder on how we arrived at this sad state of affairs in the “enlightened” age of full-fledged rationality and scientific-technological inevitable progress.

At first glance, Vichian paradoxical thinking (the both/and) seems to defy the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction (the either/or). The various rationalists and mysologists of our era often parade as classical thinkers on Olympus, above the fray of the existential vicissitudes and the common sense cleverness of the “unwashed masses.” They tend to present us with an isolated reason that gives no ground to the poetical and the pure intuitive promptitude of the mind as a mode of reasoning (as even a Plato did with his myths…despite his protestations against poetry). They seem to have no inkling whatsoever that such an operation is dangerous, sterile at best, because it can conveniently prove anything with its complete pseudo-impartiality, it can in fact choose any hypothesis to work from and then say “nothing personal,” I am presenting you with the reality of the situation and according to it certain necessities follow. One of those necessities may be that eleven million people may have to put into gas chambers or perhaps deported, or perhaps shut out with barbed wires or a tall wall.

That is why madmen’s arguments are so unassailable on the level of logic; it is their pride and joy. Hitler for one was proud of his talent for presenting logical iron-clad, unassailable arguments. It would appear that the more vigorously logic prosecutes its own internal pursuit, the greater is the danger of its turning away from direct experience and fact and losing sight of reality. Its arguments may be perfect, but it is a narrow and circular perfection; that of the snake eating its own tail. The rationalists who defend an absolute idealism are using the madman’s detailed reasoning; no contradictions or exceptions intrude into this perfect circle, because direct experience of different levels of reality is not taken as its own test. Logical consistency is more important to rationalists than the immediate reality of facts. They may even deny that if they bang their head hard enough against a wall it will bleed. At that point of failure of rationality, to disprove their point, all one can do is in fact bang their head against the wall.

The above begs the question: why cannot reason meet its own test? Vico teaches us that it is not because the intellect is a useless tool, far from it. In fact he comes to its defense when he insists that pure reason is irrational reason, i.e., the use of an instrument against its proper aim. The mind is constructive, as those medieval thinkers well understood when they called logic an art as well as a science. Syllogisms are pieces of architecture; the mind must take the materials for this manufacturing process from life, through man’s entire perceptive apparatus. When reason takes upon itself the task of entire discovery and construction, it makes discovery impossible. That is the point where mythology is confused for children’s fairy tales superseded by full-fledged reason, in fact, for this rationalistic mind-set, to call a story a myth is equivalent to calling it a lie. They would even expunge myths from Plato’s philosophy.

A sculptor who wants all the credit for his work is a bit vain if he is only jealous of his rivals or teachers (recognize the type?), or his predecessors, and will inevitably end up in the futility of re-inventing the wheel. But if he is jealous of the marble and refuses any help from it, no statue will ever receive his proud care. This applies to the mind as well. When pure reason asserts that it will accept nothing which it cannot justify on its own terms, it proceeds to destroy itself. If Vico had taught us nothing but this he would still have been a great European philosopher.

Descartes, on the other hand, wrote “Cogito ergo sum,” beginning his journey in the chamber of his own intellect, literally in a closet. Because he did not look out from that closet but at it, his journey never got under way; and the modern man is still sitting inside a narrow room cogitating on cogitation. If we are or exist only because we think, then logically we are what we think, and all things are what we think or do not think them. What a Trump declares in his tweets is the truth to be imposed with Machiavellian power on those who rebel against it. Indeed, the lunatic is God for whom thinking and doing are one and the same. The difference is that God is sane because he knows his nature and identity, the lunatic is insane. Rationalism’s attack on faith becomes also an attack on reason. The more astute rationalists (such as Leo Strauss, to mention one) will of course make a nice dichotomy between the two, even asserting that the reasoning in Plato’s Euthyphro is not a natural theology.

But there are different degree of exhaustion by which a rationalist will re-invent the wheel. Another is pure volition which usually will take Nietzschean-existential forms, but because this was merely an escape from Cartesian intellection, it remained a reflection of it, opposed only as things are when reversed in a mirror. Rationalism is the ally of all unreason. In his motion of mere escape from reason, Nietzsche had to deny all perceptive tests and fixed norms of facts; but this takes away the point of the will, the grip and exclusion, the creative and destructive choices. It is a Dionysian worship of will, simple ecstasy and expenditure in the void leading to nihilism. It gives the will no goal, it carries the will nowhere: pure self-destruction. Dionysius is after all the god of dissolution.

Vico teaches us that there is a higher dialectic: not that of the mind with mind but of mind with fact (the particular and the contingent) where men remember once again, via the poetical, that conclusions are made to follow but not to be. This is the fallacy of those who transfer the rules of the mind to external processes discerning necessity where there is none. Because the sun comes up every morning the mind assumes that it must do so. But repetition is not proof of necessity and it merely dulls our sense of wonder with which philosophy began. As St. Augustine aptly points out, the birth of any baby is more miraculous than the resurrection of Lazarus. To discern that the mind must first admit that it is not dealing with a fact that it did not invent but simply found. This is the wonder of being, of pure existence. When the mind so admits, then sanity returns.

In conclusion, Western Civilization as a whole needs to heed Vico who is the culmination of Humanism and return to its origins. Is it time to think paradoxically: of the new as the old and of the old as the new: novantiqua. It is time to go back to the future. Time is fast running out.

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- Europe: Towards Relations of Pragmatism And Responsible Interaction

Igor Ivanov

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The perpetual topic of Russia-Europe relations was one of the central themes at the recently concluded annual Munich Security Conference. It is no secret that these relations have, for a long time, been in a state of profound crisis. This was not only caused by the events in Ukraine, even though their significance and consequences for both Russia and Europe should by no means be understated. The roots are more profound, related to both parties being unprepared to develop optimal forms of their current interaction.

Nonetheless, speeches and discussions at the Conference showed signs that the involved parties are demonstrating a certain readiness to develop an optimal model for relations. In his opening speech, Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier clearly said, “Europe should not put up with the ever-greater alienation of Russia. We need other, better EU-Russia relations.” Most European leaders speaking at the Conference agreed, in one way or the other, with the notion that the current state of relations between Moscow and its western neighbours is unreasonable and needs to be revised. As always, it boils down to the matter of what specific, mutually acceptable parameters new relations could have.

For nearly five decades, I happened to be directly involved in the practical issues of developing cooperation first between the USSR and Europe, and then between Russia and Europe. Over this lengthy historical period, the parties consecutively tested three interaction models, yet none of them ultimately withstood the test of time.

The first model, that of “controlled confrontation,” emerged during the Cold War when the USSR and Europe were divided by unsurmountable ideological, political, military and strategic barriers. Back then, the main task was to prevent a direct military engagement between the sides through reliance on the fundamental documents of the postwar world order. Where possible, the parties strove to resolve conflicts through dialogue and simultaneously build mutually advantageous cooperation. The Final Act of the 1975 Conference on Security in Europe and an entire package of treaties and agreements in arms control and confidence measures are among the starkest examples of such policy.

It should be said that, while being far from perfect, this policy made it possible to guarantee peace in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. In some way, back then, the situation in Europe was more stable and predictable than it is today. The rules of the game were acceptable for the opposite party, and dangerous “red lines” in the West and East were more evident than they are now.

The second model, that of a “Greater Europe,” was tested after the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent collapse of the entire socialist bloc and its institutions. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe signed in November 1990 by the heads of state and government of the OSCE declared that “the era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended” and a new era of democracy, peace and unity of Europe has started. The Charter for European Security signed in November 1999 in Istanbul was intended to “contribute to the formation of a common and indivisible security space” on the European continent. This document, as well as many others, signed by Russia, the European Union, NATO and other parties, was the foundation for establishing far-reaching plans to build a Greater Europe, a Common space stretching from Vladivostok to Lisbon and shared spaces in various cooperation areas, etc.

These developments transpired in front of our very eyes and, to our profound regret, never materialized. Today, after some time, we can objectively assess the steps of Russia and Europe after the Cold War to establish cooperation within the framework of a new reality. Without attempting to shift the blame on the other party, we can confidently say that the different interpretation of both the unfolding historical events and the future direction of the development of our relations constituted the key problem of our partnership.

Without focusing on the details, perhaps failures in implementing large-scale projects of building a new Europe stemmed from conceptual differences between Russia and Europe in their understanding of the fundamental principles of building such a European space, and not from craftiness and malicious intent (which also cannot be ruled out entirely). These differences became apparent and began to gain momentum as political agreements were being put into practice. Europe viewed the shaping of common spaces as the process of integrating Russia into the existing European bodies. At the same time, Russia saw it as the parties being equal participants in developing new mechanisms that accounted for new realities and the parties’ legitimate interests. Such irreconcilable stances were bound to turn into conflict sooner or later, which is precisely what happened.

The third relations model emerged after the acute stage of the 2014 Russia-West crisis. Subsequently, the European Union labelled it “selective engagement,” and this wording was included in Federica Mogherini’s “five guiding principles.” The idea was of Europe interacting with Russia where it suited Brussels interests, and opposing Russia where the interests of Moscow and Brussels diverged. On the whole, this concept was in line with Russian sentiment. It appeared that “selective engagement” would delineate mutually acceptable parameters of the “new normalcy” for a long time to come.

However, the new model appeared to have shown its deficiency as well, at least because the European Union still failed to form a united opinion on what degree of “engagement” in relations with Moscow was necessary. A new algorithm of interaction with Russia has never been elaborated in a single EU document. Additionally, the interests and capabilities of Moscow and Brussels are clearly asymmetrical; therefore, finding a mutually acceptable balance of interests in every specific area appears to be exceedingly difficult.

We believe, though, it to be far more critical that “selective engagement” essentially reduces the positive interaction between Brussels and Moscow exclusively to tactical, situational cooperation pertaining to current problems and specific, rigidly delineated areas. However, the challenges Moscow and Brussels face today are not only tactical and situational, but also strategic and long-term, and the responses, therefore, should also be strategic and long-term.

Unless they want to continue repeating old mistakes, both historians and politicians should focus their attention on past experiences. What conclusions can we draw from the past 30 years of Russia-EU relations?

Our relations should be primarily based on pragmatic assessments of current opportunities and limitations, and not on emotions. As a result of diverging history, culture, religion, and lifestyle traditions, Russia and the European Union are not ready to create common spaces in the principal areas of their activity (apart from shared spaces, say, in the humanitarian, cultural, or educational areas). Swept by the euphoria induced by the end of the Cold War, we were clearly too hasty in declaring the prospect of creating a “Greater Europe.” No matter how attractive this goal appears, we will not come close to implementing it soon.

In the current state, Russia and the European Union are tackling various development tasks that are sometimes far from being identical and can even contradict each other. This applies to politics, economy, and security. Any cooperation mechanisms will be workable only if they account for both shared interests and objectively existing diverging interests. This means that by “cooperation” we should imply combining common or coinciding interests, as well as minimizing expenses and costs stemming from inevitable rivalry and even elements of confrontation.

If this is the case, pragmatism should form the foundation of Russia-Europe relations. However, pragmatism alone is not sufficient for building stable relations. The “selective engagement” model claimed to build upon the pragmatic dialogue between Brussels and Moscow. However, the experience of the past six years demonstrated that bare pragmatism is barely different from opportunism and attempts to outmanoeuvre the partner somehow using one’s relative advantage in a particular area.

Therefore, the concept of “pragmatism” should be supplemented with the idea of “responsible interaction.” Responsibility here entails primarily the parties’ ability and readiness to account both for their immediate situational interests and their long-term strategic interests. One does not need to be Nostradamus to arrive at the obvious conclusion that the further into the future we look, the more areas of coinciding Russian and European interests we see. We should not allow the sentiment and emotions of the current moment to block the view of long-term prospects.

Additionally, “responsibility” entails accounting not only for one’s own interests, for also for those of one’s partner, as well as the broader interests of the entire international system. Both the future of Russia-Europe bilateral relations and largely the future of the world order depend on Russia and Europe today. As we think of interaction in areas such as global and regional stability, nuclear non-proliferation, combating international terrorism, managing climate and migration flow, we need to always keep our collective responsibility for the emerging world order in mind. We simply do not have the right to think that “a game without rules” or a “war of all against all” is the historically inevitable new world order.

Combining pragmatism and responsibility will require significant intellectual and political efforts of both parties. At first, Russia and Europe should embark on building such interaction mechanisms, including cooperation at the highest political level, that would promote better understanding and open up opportunities for fruitful cooperation. Naturally, such an effort should be bolstered by persistent work on all other levels and in all other venues, including joint work of officials, diplomats, military personnel, experts, and civil society activists.

From our partner RIAC

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From “Selective Engagement” to “Enlightened Realism”?

Dr. Andrey KORTUNOV

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Photo: kremlin.ru

Four years ago, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini announced that Brussels was looking at new approaches to building relations with Moscow. These approaches would later become known as the “five Mogherini principles.” These principles represented the culmination of a long and emotionally taxing discussion within the European Union that represented the varied positions of the 28 states that made up the EU back then. A difficult compromise was made between those who favoured a hard-line approach towards Russia and those who preferred a softer approach.

“Selective Engagement” as the Foundation of the “New Normal”

It was, of course, through compromise that the European External Action Service was able to prevent a split from forming within the European Union on a crucial issue, which turned out to be a historic moment for the organization. We should note in passing that Brussels has thus far been unable to reach a similar consensus on other issues that are of fundamental importance to the European Union, such as the issue of Kosovo, the Israeli–Palestinian settlement, the civil conflict in Venezuela and the expansion of the European Union itself.

In terms of a specific policy, the most significant strategy of the European Union is the fourth of its five guiding principles – “Selective Engagement with Russia.” On the whole, “selective engagement” appeared to be a reasonably logical approach given the “post-Ukrainian reality.” Europe could not conceivably go back to cooperating with Russia the way it had done in the past, turning a blind eye to the dramatic events in Crimea and Donbass, as this would mean it was somehow condoning the “aggressive behaviour of the Kremlin.” Nor was it inclined shut itself off from Moscow completely with another cordon sanitaire, as the latter was key to solving numerous issues of European politics.

The judicious decision was thus made to work with Russia only when and where it would serve the specific interests of the European Union. Mogherini’s statement touched upon potential points of contact with the Russian side, including Iran, Syria, the Middle East as a whole, migration, the fight against terrorism and climate change. “Selective engagement” can be compared to a “buffet” in a restaurant, where patrons serve themselves from a wide selection of dishes instead of being offered a set meal from the menu.

As far as we can tell, the principle of “selective engagement” was mostly supported in Moscow, albeit with little enthusiasm. Generally speaking, cooperation between Russia and the European Union was primarily selective before 2014 anyway, and the prospect of creating a unified “Greater Europe” had more or less fizzled out by the end of the 2000s. This is why, three months after the “five guiding principles” had been announced, the Russian side presented President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker with a list of proposals regarding possible areas of “selective engagement” during his visit to the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.

Of course, the proposals that had been prepared for Juncker primarily reflected the interests and priorities of the Russian side. Thus, there was already friction about who would put on the spread for the “buffet” and who would fill their plates. Nevertheless, cautious hopes were expressed in 2016 that the new approach could indeed work, at least for a transitional period.

Four years down the line and we have no option but to conclude that the principle of “selective engagement” has enjoyed limited success in relations between Europe and Russia, if any at all. Not a single “road map” or holistic strategy has emerged from it over these past four years, nor has it served as the basis for marking out “red lines” in bilateral relations. In fact, “selective engagement” has remained nothing but a general political declaration on the part of the European Union. Relations between the eastern and western parts of Europe continue to be built by fumbling around in the dark, through trial and error. And since no one wants to risk making a political faux pas, there is no great desire to try something new. Any step forward is taken with enormous difficulty, political inertia extinguishes new ideas, and discussions of Europe–Russia relations increasingly come down to rehashing old, worn out and decrepit initiatives that were bandied around two, three and even four years ago.

It would hardly be fair to blame certain politicians or public officials or even single out individual EU members for the apparent shortcomings, if not the complete failure, of “selective engagement.” These shortcomings are, in our estimation, associated with quite objective circumstances.

Why Mogherini’s Fourth Principle Failed

First of all, there is nothing close to a consensus on either side as to what degree of “selectivity” would be optimal for engagement. There are two distinct camps in the European Union. The first is made up of those who advocate the “historical reconciliation” of Russia and Europe, while the second consists of those who want to stand up to the “Putin regime.” This division remains. Little has happened in the past six years to convince either camp to change its tune or alter the balance of powers between Europe’s “hawks” and “pigeons.” Neither Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, nor the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections, nor the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in 2020 managed to shift the equilibrium in Brussels.

This is why the European Union merely continues to renew the 2014 sanctions, each time announcing a victory for “European unity.” Agreeing on such an important and very specific issue as the feasibility of building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has proved impossible. Perhaps this is why the substantive content of the “selective engagement” with Moscow has never been brought up as a topic for serious political discussion in Brussels. After all, any discussion in this vein would inevitably jeopardize the much-vaunted “European unity,” laying bare the fundamental incompatibility of opinions within the European Union regarding the state of and prospects for relations with Moscow.

While a fierce behind-the-scenes struggle has raged among individual EU member states for the last four years in Brussels regarding the limits and possibilities of “selective engagement” with Russia, in Moscow, the concept of “selective engagement” continues to be a field of an equally fierce confrontation of influential institutional and group interests. Europe does not have a consistent long-term strategy with regard to Moscow, but Russia does have such a strategy with regard to Brussels.

In some cases, the confrontation between Moscow’s “Europhobes” and its “Europhiles” even spills over into the public space. For example, existing official and semi-official assessments of the impact of the EU sanctions and Moscow’s countersanctions on the Russian economy, as well as estimates regarding the success of the import substitution strategy vary greatly, from the clearly alarmist to the unabashedly triumphant. If the parties cannot work out their own positions on the matter, then how can we expect them to find common ground in negotiations with one another?

What is more, Russia and the European Union are very different players on the international stage, with different comparative advantages and different sets of instruments of power and influence. Significant asymmetries of both interests and opportunities between the “Russian elephant” and the “European whale” are inevitable. And this makes it extremely difficult to find a “fair” balance of interests in each specific case. For example, Mogherini talked about the desirability of working with Moscow on the issue of North Korea, but what exactly can Brussels offer Moscow in this area? Moscow, for its part, is trying to get the European Union to recognize the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as an equal partner; however, the economic potential of the EAEU is minuscule compared to that of the EU.

Moreover, while Moscow takes pride in its sovereignty and the fact that it can make independent decisions, the sovereignty of the European Union is limited one way or another by the one-sided nature of its relations with the United States. And this means that attempts to create a balance between the European Union and Russia will ultimately turn into a far more complicated game involving the decidedly scalene Brussels–Moscow–Washington triangle. Even if there is still some hope for the “Russian elephant” and “European whale” to come to an agreement, the “American tyrannosaurus” will do its best to make sure that does not happen.

Finally, we should not lose sight of the fact that “selective engagement,” as well as the balanced exchange of mutual concessions and the tactical coordination of the positions of the parties, are mainly applicable as mechanisms for resolving specific issues in the here and now. For example, offering mutual concessions on the post-conflict reconstruction of Syria, salvaging the Iranian nuclear deal or resolving issues related to the de-escalation of the Libyan Civil War are acceptable solutions. These areas can, to a certain degree, be isolated from the general background of relations, while at the same time preserving individual islands of cooperation in the vast ocean of confrontation.

But the fact of the matter is that the most fundamental challenges facing Russia and Europe are not tactical, but rather strategic in nature. These include the reduced clout of the two sides in the world economy and population, the technological inferiority of Europe and Russia compared to North America and East Asia, the rise of political populism and radicalism, the long-term decline in stability in neighbouring regions, etc. In confronting these challenges, trading specific concessions and negotiating tactical compromises do little. Such agreements are not a substitute for a common vision of the long-term future of Russia–Europe relations and, more broadly, a shared view of the direction in which the world is headed. Agreements on specific issues should, in one way or another, be embedded in this common vision.

Nikolay Chernyshevsky vs Immanuel Kant

Anyone in Russia who has at least the vaguest memories of reading Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s didactic novel What Is to Be Done? at school ought to remember the theory of “rational egoism” that he loved so much. Nothing can be done about a person’s inherent egoism, and there is no point hoping for them to change their nature and suddenly become selflessly altruistic. Chernyshevsky was a militant atheist and categorically rejected the existence of Kant’s “moral law” in such people.

However, according to Chernyshevsky, people do not come into conflict with one another because of egoism as such, but rather because of how they perceive their own interests. Most people are so focused on achieving their near-term goals, serving their basic instincts and acting in a reactionary manner that they not only ignore the interests of those around them, but also effectively neglect their own longer-term ambitions. This inevitably impacts both the egoist’s environment and the egoist himself.

“Rational egoism” proposes articulating these interests in a “rational” manner, that is, by taking the interests and wishes of others into account and building a rational hierarchy of diverse desires, propensities and personal tasks – all without denying a person the opportunity to pursue their own interests. Reason softens the most dangerous and destructive manifestations of egoism without encroaching on the fundamental features of human nature.

As applied to international relations, the theory of “rational egoism” could be interpreted as “enlightened realism.” An analogue of Kant’s “moral law” in this case would be the unity of fundamental values between Russia and the European Union. However, since the European and Russian elites are never going to agree on values, relations should be built on interests instead. That is, not on non-dogmatic religious views of Immanuel Kant, but instead on the atheist rationalism of Nikolay Chernyshevsky.

It would seem that the theory of “enlightened realism” could complement “selective engagement” as a platform for the development of EU–Russia relations moving forward.

Why We Need “Enlightened Realism”

The noun realism in this formulation implies a sober assessment of the specific moment we are experiencing, as well as the constraints associated with it. We cannot go back 20 years to the “honeymoon” period of Moscow–Brussels relations. And even if we could, it would only mean a return to a situation of “bad infinity” and the very same problems that continued to pile up and eventually led to the 2014 crisis. “Realism” forces us to acknowledge that, in all likelihood, we will not be able to find a solid institutional basis for developing relations that is acceptable for both sides in the foreseeable future.

Relations between Europe and Russia are going to be shaky for a long time to come, regardless of the paths of political transit that have already been embarked upon in the East and the West. Irrespective of who will be in power in Moscow and Brussels five or ten years down the line and regardless of whether or not we can reach a fair and satisfactory solution to the “Ukrainian issue” during this time. The difficulties are caused by differences in geographical location, historical experience, existing traditions and the psychologies of the respective peoples. We cannot merely draw up some kind of framework agreement or charter to get past the crisis; this did not work in the past, and it will not work now.

The noun enlightened places the concept of “realism” into a certain framework. To be sure, the politics of Donald Trump can be characterized as “realistic” (and also pragmatic, transactional, self-centred or cynical – underline as necessary). However, Trump’s “realism” is in no way “enlightened.” “Enlightened realism” means that the sides should take both their tactical and immediate interests, as well as their strategic and long-term needs, into account.

Foreign policy decisions should be made not only with a view to the next presidential campaign or how the general public might react, but also with an understanding of the strategic challenges, opportunities and priorities facing the sides. The further into the future we are prepared to look, the greater the number of areas of common interest between Russia and the European Union we will find.

What is more, “enlightenment” implies that the parties have to be mindful not only of their own interests, but also of the interests of the system of international relations as a whole, since the destruction of this system does not bode well for Russia or Europe. No tactical victory can outweigh the strategic costs associated with the destabilization of the global system, the breakdown of international organizations, the degradation of international law, and the transition to a “game without rules” where “every man” is “for himself” in world politics.

This understanding is especially relevant today, when other leading centres of power in world politics (the United States, China and India) are, for various reasons, not ready to bear the responsibility for preserving regional and global stability. It is in these conditions that Europe and Russia are inevitably assuming greater responsibility for maintaining peace and resolving conflicts in such regions as the Middle East and North Africa.

Let us stress once again that we are not talking here about abandoning “selective engagement” once and for all. Engagement will continue to be selective for the foreseeable future, as the only alternative would be no interaction whatsoever. The task right now is to give this engagement a new depth, greater clarity and a fresh perspective. Figuratively speaking, we are talking about moving from two-dimensional interaction to three-dimensional interaction, or, in other words, leaving the rowdy market square where narrow-fisted buyers haggle prices with dodgy traders for the tranquillity of university laboratories where we can start designing the future European and world order.

This will require a qualitatively different level of interaction between the two sides both at the level of political leadership and at the level of diplomatic missions, ministries of economy, independent experts and non-governmental organizations. Not a return to the rather meaningless biannual EU–Russia summits, but the beginning of practical work on the implementation of large, forward-looking joint projects.

The only way that the principle of “enlightened realism” can work in the engagement between Europe and Russia is if the sides endeavour to apply it to themselves first and foremost, and then to the other party. After all, “enlightened realism” is not about making concessions to the other side or surrendering one’s position. Rather, it is merely a more extensive and less opportunistic understanding of one’s own interests. Right now, both Brussels and Moscow are following in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s famous words: “[T]he nuisance of the intellectual sphere is the man who is so occupied in trying to educate others, that he has never had any time to educate himself.”

From our partner RIAC

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Shaping Europe’s digital future

Ursula von der Leyen

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Photo: European Commission

I am a tech optimist. My belief in technology as a force for good comes from my experience as a medical student. I learnt and saw first-hand its ability to change fates, save lives and make mundane what once would have been a miracle.

We now take for granted that we can take an antibiotic when we have an infection or go for an x-ray or MRI scan when we get injured or sick. These are all miracles that have changed the course of humanity for the better.

Thanks to technology, these miracles are becoming more breathtaking and more regular by the day. They are helping to better detect cancer, support high-precision surgery or tailor treatment for the needs of each patient.

This is all happening right now, right here in Europe. But I want this to be only the start. And I want it to become the norm right across our society: from farming to finance, from culture to construction, from fighting climate change to combatting terrorism.

This is the vision behind the new digital strategy that the European Commission will present this week.

We believe that the digital transformation can power our economies and help us find European solutions to global challenges. We believe citizens should be empowered to make better decisions based on insights gleaned from non-personal data. And we want that data to be available to all – whether public or private, big or small, start-up or giant. This will help society as a whole to get the most out of innovation and competition and ensure that we all benefit from a digital dividend. This digital Europe should reflect the best of Europe – open, fair, diverse, democratic, and confident.

The breadth of our strategy reflects the scale and nature of the transition ahead of us. It covers everything from cybersecurity to critical infrastructures, digital education to skills, democracy to media. And it lives up to the ambition of the European Green Deal, for instance by promoting the climate neutrality of data centres by 2030.

But, as we will set out this week, the digital transformation cannot be left to chance. We must ensure that our rights, privacy and protections are the same online as they are off it. That we can each have control over our own lives and over what happens to our personal information. That we can trust technology with what we say and do. That new tech does not come with new values.

I fully understand that, for many, technology – and especially those who own it – have not yet earned that trust. I see how that can break down when big online platforms use their own customers’ data in ways they shouldn’t. Or when disinformation drives out responsible journalism and clickbait matters more than the truth.

So I get and respect why some people are tech sceptics, doubters or even pessimists. And this is why I believe we need a digital transition which is European by design and nature. One that rebuilds trust where it is eroded and strengthens it where it exists. As part of this, big commercial digital players must accept their responsibility, including by letting Europeans access the data they collect. Europe’s digital transition is not about the profits of the few but the insights and opportunities of the many. This may also require legislation where appropriate.

The point is that Europe’s digital transition must protect and empower citizens, businesses and society as a whole. It has to deliver for people so that they feel the benefits of technology in their lives. To make this happen, Europe needs to have its own digital capacities – be it quantum computing, 5G, cybersecurity or artificial intelligence (AI). These are some of the technologies we have identified as areas for strategic investment, for which EU funding can draw in national and private sector funds.

Making the most of digital and data is as important for big industries as it is for SMEs. Although the biggest ideas often come from the tiniest start-ups, scaling-up can be an uphill task for smaller European firms in the digital world. We want European start-uppers to enjoy the same opportunities as their counterparts in Silicon Valley to expand, grow and attract investment.

For this, we will need to overcome fragmentation in our single market that is often greater online than elsewhere. We need to join forces – now. Not by making us all the same, but by leveraging our scale as well as our diversity – both key factors of success for innovation.

And we will also need the resources to match ambition. This is why at this week’s European Council I will push for a modern and flexible EU budget that invests in our future – and in the research, innovation deployment and skills to bring it to life.

This will be needed if we want Europe to lead the way in the areas with the most potential, such as data and AI. This week, we will put forward our plans for both alongside our wider digital strategy.

The starting point on data will always be personal protection. Europe already has the strongest rules in the world and we will now give Europeans the tools they need to make sure they are even more in control.

But there is also another kind of data that is the uncovered, unused goldmine of the data-agile economy of the future. I am thinking of anonymised mobility data or meteorological data gathered by airliners, satellite images, but also industrial and commercial data on anything from engine performance to energy consumption.

These types of non-personal data can underpin the design and development of new, more efficient and more sustainable products and services. And they can be reproduced at virtually no cost. Yet today, 85% of the information we produce is left unused. This needs to change.

We will develop a legislative framework and operating standards for European data spaces. These will allow businesses, governments and researchers to store their data and access trusted data shared by others. This will all be done under secure conditions that create greater value for all and ensure a fair return for all.

These pools of data will in turn drive our work to promote excellence and trust in artificial intelligence in Europe. AI is already helping small companies reduce their energy bill, enabling greener, automated transport, and leading to more accurate medical diagnoses.

To help businesses big and small to harness the full potential of AI, we will invest in a network of local digital innovation hubs and in centres of excellence for advanced research and education.

At the same time, we will act to ensure that AI is fair and compliant with the high standards Europe has developed in all fields. Our commitment to safety, privacy, equal treatment in the workplace must be fully upheld in a world where algorithms influence decisions. We will focus our action on high-risk applications that can affect our physical or mental health, or that influence important decisions on employment or law enforcement.

The aim is not more regulation, but practical safeguards, accountability and the possibility of human intervention in case of danger or disputes. We successfully shaped other industries – from cars to food – and we will now apply the same logic and standards in the new data-agile economy.

I sum up all of what I have set out with the term ‘tech sovereignty’. This describes the capability that Europe must have to make its own choices, based on its own values, respecting its own rules. This is what will help make tech optimists of us all.

This article by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen was published on the occasion of presentation of Commission’s strategies for data and Artificial Intelligence.

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