Ivan Illich, a great advocate for intercultural communication, gifted us with a great insight. It is found in his book Tools for Conviviality. He wrote there that foreign languages ought to be pursued not so much to communicate with those native to them, but rather, so that we may listen to the particular silences found in the background of all languages, and thereby retrieve the original cultural humus from which they sprang. Notice the metaphor of the germinating seed in tandem with that of the historical journey, back to origins.
I would suggest that without an in-depth listening on both sides of the Atlantic pond, not only will the journey not begin, but any meaningful transatlantic dialogue may forever elude us. In this global village in which we live, there is an urgent need to return to the future for a novantiqua kind of civilization. It is good to have lights on a car to see what’s ahead, but a rear-view mirror is also necessary to avoid a disaster.
A fruitful dialogue is always underpinned by an exchange of ideas, the envisioning of new imaginative paradigms, and a courageous execution of those ideas and visions. Let us however be aware of Illich’s caveat: assuming that the soil is good, little will germinate and even less will be gathered in the spring, unless the seed has undergone the rigors and silence of winter. Within that silence we can hope to find the space and the courage for a convivial dialogue. Then we may hope to repair worn-out transatlantic bridges of understanding and retrieve shared values. I write this while many, on both sides of the Atlantic are urgently advocating the abandonment of NATO and the whole political structure of the Transatlantic Alliance. That alliance will certainly be in jeopardy should the worst happen at the November and Donald Trump is elected president.
It may prove helpful to keep in mind a few memorable quotes of famous cultural guides and heroes in various fields and have them function as a leitmotif of sort. I have chosen four to begin with. The first one is by the poet Paul Valery who wrote this refrain in an essay on European identity: “As far as I am concerned, any people who have been influenced throughout history by Greece, Rome and Christianity are Europeans.” The second is from a statesman, the founder of the European Union Robert Shuman, who said: “I never feel so European as when I enter a cathedral.” The third is by the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who in a lecture given at the University of Prague in 1935 stated this certainty of his: “I am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism.” Finally, the fourth one is by a scientist, Albert Einstein, who declared that “perfection of means and confusion of goals seems, in my opinion, the character of our age.”
The above quotes illuminate each other and shed light on some of the false assumptions that have ill served Western Civilization in our times. It is generally assumed that a culture war is presently going-on between the two sides of the North Atlantic and we need wise leaders to show us the way to the future. The confirmation for this premise is identified on this side of the North Atlantic in the perception of as a pervasive anti-Americanism which has been present in Europe for a few decades now, while over there in Europe it is identified as anti-Eurocentrism, found especially in academic circles where one hears constant appeals to de-emphasize Eurocentric notions in the teaching of Civilizations, all in the name of political correctness, multiculturalism and a general relativism very much in vogue in the West.
In Europe one hears pleas for a return to a more authentic European cultural identity that distances itself from a globalizing, pervasive, technological fix-all, market oriented popular American culture contemptuous of regional cultures; it is that fear that fuels the anti-global movement. The French poet Baudelaire already in the 19th century had warned us that “technology shall Americanize us all,” but he was no anti-American. By technology he meant a rationalistic mode of thinking contemptuous of poetic and humanistic modes.
In any case, it seems to me that it is an erroneous assumption to conceive the two cultures as being on parallel universes, in different boats going their own direction toward different political destinies. To be sure there are cultural wars but they are internal more than external. They exist internally on both sides of the Atlantic. When in Europe I hear statements such as “you Americans…” I promptly interrupt and ask “which American?” If we recollect the first quote from Valery we may begin to perceive how misguided such an assumption is. It loses sight of the fact that, despite the particular cultural differences on both sides of the Atlantic, despite the integration of non-European and non-Western influences, the roots and the trunk of the tree have a common origin. The mistakes are also similar, since before we were all “Americanized” by a penchant for the technological fix-all, we were all Cartesian rationalists.
We are in the same boat, and it is called Western Civilization; in it we shall float or sink together. That thought alone ought to unite, more than divide us. This is a civilization that goes back to the ancient Greeks who perceived themselves as Westerners vis à vis the Persians. It goes back to the Romans, with Virgil as the grandfather of Europe and an empire that paves the way for the spread of Christianity and medieval Christendom and Scholastic philosophy in Europe, with a Dante advocating a United Europe in his political tract De Monarchia, the Judeo-Christian heritage, the Moslem influence in the Dark Ages, Germano-Saxon ideals of freedom, the synthesis of Graeco-Roman civilization and Christianity that is Humanism and paves the way for the new beginning that is the Renaissance, the Enlightenment (that of Vico and Montesquieu as well as that of Voltaire)—all largely positive elements of Western Civilization.
When Valery says that anyone influenced by the universality of the idea of Europe is a European he does not mean it in a chauvinistic mode, nor as a geo-political reality, nor in Machiavellian-Nietzchean terms of “will-to-power,” or in terms of real-politik. He is simply stating a cultural reality shared by people in Australia and the Americas and even Africa and parts of Asia.
Contrast, if you will Valery’s statement with this one: “…by the favor of universal Enlightenment, it might become possible to dream, for the great European family, of going the way of the American Congress…what an outlook then of power, of glory, of well being, of prosperity! What a great and magnificent spectacle!” Notice if you will, the comparison with America; it looks as if the economic rat race has already taken off; notice also the stress on power and glory. I submit that this is the opposite of Valery’s idea of Europe. Try as you may, the word freedom is nowhere to be found in this statement proffered by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. That may explain why Beethoven withdrew his dedication from his Eroica symphony.
Indeed the cement for a genuine union of disparate people can only be found in the cultural sphere, and not in Machiavellian considerations of “real politick.” The lesson of Italian unification is instructive here: after it was achieved, Massimo Dazeglio, one of its architects, said: “now that we have made Italy let us make the Italians.” That was like putting the cart before the horse. Unfortunately, even nowadays cultural concerns are more often than not conspicuously absent from the pronouncements of our political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Gone are the Monets, the Shumans, the De Gasperis, the Adenauers, the De Gaulles, the Churchills of a generation ago with a vision of the spiritual boundaries of Europe and the assumption that Western Civilization is constituted by an idea.
Nevertheless, I would suggest that any European of any nationality and faith, or no faith, aware of her/his cultural roots, can also sincerely assert the second statement by Shuman. An atheist and an American such as George Santayana who left Harvard University to go and live and die in a monastery in Italy, did in fact assert it. As someone deeply concerned with the life of reason, he was acutely aware that one cannot understand the essence of Western Civilization by ignoring the positive contributions of its Christian heritage and reducing it to a shallow, and often slanderous, caricature. Which is not to deny other interrelated influences and shared values, such as democracy, free speech, free exchange of ideas, religious freedom, the philosophical and scientific spirit which have a common source in ancient Greece.
Europe in fact presents us with a Janus face: on one side Humanism which begins with Petrarch, on the other Enlightenment rationalism which begins with Descartes. This phenomenon needs to be recognized before we can even hope to recover lost humanistic modes of thinking, often misguidedly considered superseded or synthesized by the Enlightenment.
A common bank and a common army may be useful and even necessary, but they alone do not constitute the cement needed to hold together disparate people with different languages. Ideas and ideals are a sine qua non for a genuine union. Moreover, we ought to take heed of what Klaus Held warned us of a few years ago. At the end of a brilliant essay on the essence of European culture already analyzed in the Global Spiral and titled The Origins of Europe and the Greek Discovery of the World he writes that: “A European community grounded only in political and economic cooperation of the member states, would lack an intrinsic common bond and would be built upon sand.” And if indeed we are in the same boat running full speed ahead in the middle of the Atlantic, we need to ask: where are we coming from, where are we heading for, do we have a map and a compass, what are our shared values, what is our common identity as Westerners, what is our Leitkultur, what are our common dangers? Are there icebergs ahead? For indeed even luxury liners declared unsinkable even by God, have been known to sink, and as the Einstein quote powerfully suggests, it does no good to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. Great civilizations have been known to vanish, Plato called one such “Atlantis.”
A bit closer to our times, Jacques Ellul also sounds the alarm in his The Betrayal of the West. Moreover, Jacques Derrida, in a lecture given at the University of Turin on the 20th of May 1990 asked this crucial question: “To what concept, to what real individual can we today ascribe the name of Europe?” He answers his own question in an essay he wrote later titled “L’autre cap suivi de la démocracie ajournée” where he envisions a future Europe (more of a promise than a reality) that conceives of itself as an idea around the guiding principle of “a mature sense of democracy” placed within the context of Western Civilization. He even suggests that this mature Europe ought to get rid of a geographical capital and opt for a polycentric network similar to medieval universities. As he puts it: “Europeans need to re-discover their spiritual frontiers beyond petty nationalities around the idea of philosophy, reason, monotheism, of the Jewish, the Greek, the Christian, Islamic memory, around Jerusalem, around Athens, Rome, Moscow, Paris.”
If nothing else, Derrida has revived the notion that more than a geo-political reality Europe is a still largely unexplored and unrealized idea. Several philosophers have in fact explored this idea that is Europe and have attempted to answer the question of its essence and identity. Unfortunately, not many on both sides of the Atlantic bother to read what they have to say on the subject.
I have already mentioned Dante, but within modern times, besides Deridda, we could include at a minimum the following contributors to this idea: Leibniz in the 17th century, who first identifies the proto-language (Germanic-Celtic) as the fountainhead for the union of the people of Europe, and then Kant who promotes universal values with an ethical component, followed by Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Croce, Ortega y Gasset. With the arrival of the new polity called the European Union in mid 20th century we have Adorno, Berdjaev, Habermas, Gadamer, Havel, Levinas.
Finally, let us analyze the above mentioned quote from Edmund Husserl. What is he alluding to by that “mistaken rationalism”? As a philosopher, he cannot possibly be talking about the life of the mind or the life of reason. Rather, he is talking about a calculating kind of rationalism devoid of imagination that ends up making trains run on time but never asks where those trains may be headed for. A rationalism that rationalizes what ought never to be rationalized, that begins with the ego but, as Lévinas teaches us, fails to realize that there is kernel inside the ego with an ethical component called the self, thus ending up with the logos without the mythos. The kind of reason which has produced political ideologies that substitute religious dogma (the mythos without the logos), identified by Vico as a cancerous growth of Western Civilization and dubbed by him “the barbarism of the intellect.” More particularly, Husserl is referring to the major shift which occurs in the 17th century with the advent of Cartesian rationalism, followed in the 18th century by the age of Enlightenment.
The problematic of the Enlightenment seems to be this: When Descartes in his Discourse on Method does away with humanistic modes of thought, he ushers in rationalism which eventually becomes modern relativism and nihilism. When truth is instrumentalized it undermines the very truths that rationality espouses. So, it appears that we Westerners were all “Cartesian rationalists” in the 18th century before we are “technocratic Americans” in the 19th with a fascination, on both sides of the Atlantic, with technological wonders, and an obsession with rational computerized push-botton fix-alls.
The currents of civilizations’ influences on one another are indeed mysterious. Perhaps E.F. Schumacher explains the matter best when he writes in his A Guide to the Perplexed that: “The change of Western man’s interest from ‘the slenderest knowledge that man may obtain of the highest things’ (Aquinas) to mathematically precise knowledge of lesser things marks a shift from what we might call ‘science for understanding’ to ‘science for manipulation.’ The purpose of the former was enlightenment of the person and his liberation; the purpose of the latter is power. ‘Knowledge itself is power,” said Francis Bacon, and Descartes promised men they would become ‘masters and possessors of nature.’ In its more sophisticated development, ‘science for manipulation’ tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people.”(pp. 53-54). Enter Machiavelli’s “real politik.”
The Enlightenment refuses to enlighten itself since it considers itself the culmination of full-fledged reason doing light unto itself; everything can be doubted except one’s own method. The concept, abstract reason, logical thinking is privileged at the expense of the poetical. It is reason eating its own tail with no outside point of reference and no reference to “common sense,” a sort of grammar of lunacy which begins innocuously enough with Descartes’ “I think therefore I am.” The ability to hear the gods is lost. A sad condition indeed which Kierkegaard, in identifying the Hegelian totalizing tendency, calls “the sickness unto death.”
Vico who is the culmination of Italian Humanism, offers a corrective to Descartes with his “poetic philosophy.” He interprets wisdom and knowledge in a fresh new imaginative mode as “sapienza poetica,” (poetic wisdom) and alerts us that when reason detaches itself from “poetic wisdom” and refuses to retrace its steps back to the wonder of the child, it becomes pure rationalism or the “barbarism of the intellect,” perhaps best exemplified by Dante’s image of Bertrand del Born in a cave in hell, holding his own decapitated head as light unto himself. Vico on the other hand, keeps reason and imagination together, he blends the rational and the poetical to arrive at a new understanding of both image and idea, a synthesis that is novantiqua, in between Geist and Leiben which he calls “poetic wisdom.”
Closer to our times, Emmanuel Lévinas offers a corrective to the whole European philosophical tradition for what he considers its indifference to the ethical and its “totalizing of the other.” He indicts Western philosophers for an uncritical reliance on vast concepts such as Hegel’s “Spirit” or Heidegger’s “Being,” assimilating countless individuals to rational processes and negating their individuality. He argues that this taken-for-granted totalizing mode of doing philosophy in the West denies the face-to-face reality in which we—philosophers not excluded—interact with persons different from ourselves.
Vico, Havel and Levinas are modern examples of cultural guides for the construction of new paradigms, the new wineskins for the new Europe. The rest depends on our courage to take responsibility for our existential condition and do something about it.
Let me end with a thought from a former Spanish Euro-parlamentarian, Raimond Obiols, who on March 4, 2002 wrote the following in the Debate on the Future of Europe: “We Europeans should not ourselves be overwhelmed by the pessimism caused by an inappropriate comparison with the role of the US as a political military superpower. We should set ourselves the target of building up civilian power, with a growing capacity for political, diplomatic, cultural and economic influence capable of exporting stability and equilibrium, encouraging and creating positive international consensus by intelligently employing Europe’s enormous potential for “soft power.” And this is how Mr. Obiols defines soft power: “hegemony by means of asserting values, cultural influence, leadership in knowledge and communications. Getting what one wants through attraction rather than coercion.”
Obviously, Mr. Obiols is proposing the substitution of a Humanistic imaginative paradigm to a tired old Machiavellian one, a peace oriented one to a power-oriented one inevitably ending up in war and strife. In the old days, the days of Thoreau, Gandhi and King it used to be called “soul power.” Havel has a similar insight when he declared in his Politics and Conscience way back in 1984 that “impersonal manipulative forces can be resisted only by one true power we all possess, our own humanity.” In effect, Havel is calling Europe back home to its true identity, to the recovery of its soul rooted in Christian Humanism. He is asking her: Quo vadis Europa?
Russia- Europe: Towards Relations of Pragmatism And Responsible Interaction
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
From “Selective Engagement” to “Enlightened Realism”?
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
Shaping Europe’s digital future
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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