There can be no doubt that Europe aspires to be a powerful strategic player in the world—at least in theory. As a foreign policy entity, however, it is still very much a start-up enterprise.
Foreign policy did not appear on the official European Union agenda until 1993, when the Maastricht Treaty divided the Union into three political pillars, with “external affairs” as one pillar. Soon after that, Europe’s failures in the Balkans in the 1990s clearly demonstrated the need for more cohesive external action, and as a consequence, the 1999 Treaty of Amsterdam created the position of High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. This new post, and a beefed-up bureaucratic apparatus to support it, gave the EU its first real foreign policy muscle that transcended the project management capabilities of the European Commission’s External Relations Directorates General.
Under Javier Solana, the first to hold the position, this new tool had some real impact, especially in the postwar Balkans and by creating, in 2003, the EU’s Security Strategy—which remains the only document of its kind. However, the EU never managed to assume a truly strategic position on the world stage. The 2009 Treaty of Lisbon was supposed to change this by introducing new tools. But the integration method invented by Jean Monnet (the idea that treaties and bureaucratic institutions would develop enough momentum to force reluctant member states into a truly communal policy) failed in the field of foreign policy. The sovereignty bargains that make other parts of the integration process so successful are just not happening in external affairs and defense policy. Unity can only be achieved in either a symbolic, nonoperational way or on negligible side issues, but never in a way that has given the EU, as a unified group of 27, substantial clout on the world stage. To this day, EU foreign policy has failed to go beyond the project management approach that has been its hallmark for so long. In essence, it has never moved from being tactical to being strategic.
Today, almost any course of action based on a modicum of planning is called a strategy. This is reflected by the definition of strategy by the popular Wikipedia reference site as simply being “a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal.”1 This, of course, is meaningless. Much more is required to turn a simple plan into a full-blown strategy. In the case of the EU’s foreign policy, strategy is defined as being about “the long-term overall foreign policy objectives to be achieved, and the basic categories of instruments to be applied to that end.”2 This is getting much closer to what is needed conceptually. But with 27 sovereign member states forming a political entity sui generis, defining strategy is still more complicated.
This must not deter policymakers and analysts, however, from embarking on the necessary debates on either issue: first, what is strategy, and second, what a strategy for EU foreign policy might look like. So far, this debate is nowhere near profound enough, neither in Brussels nor in the member states’ capitals. The results of that deficiency are visible everywhere. The EU is not considered a strategic player by any other world power. Nor are the documents it produces and bear the name “strategy,” real strategies. They are ersatz documents, reflecting the weakness of the discourse and the political institutions producing them.
What, then, would make EU foreign policy strategic? What are the quintessential ingredients Europe needs? What is the yardstick by which such policies ought to be measured?
There are ten characteristics that can make or break EU strategy:
- Ambitious: Any policy must clearly reflect the ambition to craft a political outcome, be that change in a counterpart’s behavior, a changed political environment, or a very concrete, measurable project outcome. This might sound banal, but too often EU papers are unclear or fuzzy about the willingness to influence others. Merely maintaining the status quo will not do for a strategic player. Without a credible show of political willpower no strategy will be taken seriously.
- Unified: Actors in international affairs are usually unified actors, such as individual nation states or NGOs. The EU is clearly not a single unified body, but it aspires to act and be perceived as if it were one in foreign policy. Herein lies the crux of EU foreign policymaking. No European nation is powerful enough to make a difference in the world unilaterally. As a consequence, the refusal to cooperate will leave nations with a merely theoretical notion of sovereignty, as their ability to influence world affairs is undermined. Nations are obsessed about their national sovereignty, but the more they try to protect it, the more they risk losing it altogether. This paradox is hard to accept, especially when a nation’s history is a proud one or when the human toll for winning national sovereignty was very high. So sovereignty transfers in the field of foreign policy are especially painful and will thus be postponed until the very last moment. The powerful embodiment of this attitude is the national veto power every EU member state holds in foreign policy. Being both disruptive and protective (unanimity is the most effective way to protect minorities), it symbolizes the member states’ ambiguity about a more unified approach. In the end, however, the veto itself does not seem to be the decisive obstacle to a more unified EU foreign policy approach. Unity is easier to find when members share key interests—and are aware of them.
- Interest-based: Interests are not to be confused with ambitions or goals. One can have interests without being particularly ambitious about them and without breaking them into more concrete goals. One can even have interests without knowing about them. This is why one of the key qualities of any European leader is the ability to make the shared interests of the EU visible. This is more important in foreign policy than in any other field of the European integration process, as foreign policy, unlike almost any other field, cannot be monetized—compromise can’t be bought. The first big political transformation that EU leaders and institutions need to make is to identify and publicize shared interests among all countries. In reality, however, recent EU leaders have been very weak at creating such visibility—beyond general talk about all the good things that are generally desirable. The last great opportunity to do so—the war in Libya—was badly bungled. Unsurprisingly, NATO turned out to be the more effective military service provider. That it also proved more capable of managing political disunity amongst Europeans was a disaster for the EU. If this continues, no EU strategy will be possible.
- Goals-based: As mentioned above, interests alone are not sufficient to make a policy strategic. A strategy provides the big picture, but it must also be workable and turned into operations. For that, interests need to be broken down into concrete policy goals. This is the second big political transformation EU strategists must accomplish. Goals are the tangible, countable, measurable outcomes that fill a strategy with life. They can be reached only by practical doing, for example as the result of a regulatory incentive, in the course of negotiations, or as an outcome of a civilian or military operation. A strategy will remain mere theory if it can’t also define itself at this tactical level. In addition, as part of the policy planning process, carefully selecting concrete goals based on a defined strategy is a great reality check on the strategy itself. Grand strategists, absorbed by their macro level view of things, sometimes forget this.
- Prioritized: One easy and much-practiced way of creating consensus among the 27 EU member states is to create endless wish-lists comprising every single interest and goal one might think of. Everyone can add their own personal pet-projects, and all projects appear equally important, so everybody can say yes to the plan. Such a list is, of course, worthless for the creation of a meaningful strategy. Strategy is essentially about choice. Means are limited, so ends need to be prioritized, not catalogued. Prioritizing interests and goals is one of the most difficult tasks in any decision-making environment. This is where the strategy-making process often fails, even if all other elements are in place. Planners often can’t bring themselves to pick the ones that rank higher from that collection of worthy and desirable issues. Especially when necessity does not immediately dictate priorities, making these choices is very difficult. It becomes even more difficult when there are many equally pressing issues but not enough time or energy to tackle them all. A good planning process can help to weigh interests against each other. In the end, however, someone needs to make a decision. For prioritizing, again, leadership is key.
- Long-term: Foreign affairs is the policy field least susceptible to long-term planning. Much of the work is crisis-management and coping with breaking news and unexpected developments. But contrary to common belief, this makes long-term planning even more important. Not because a plan can realistically predict the myriad of unforeseeables, but because its mere existence and the creation process gives everyone involved a sense of purpose and position—and a reservoir of tools and instruments to draw from in an emergency. But long-term planning also delivers two other indispensible elements of strategy. First, it forces decisionmakers to address the long-term needs of the communities they serve, thereby countering the inherent tendency of politics to primarily focus on instant gratification and quick returns. Second, it requires officials to think about the sustainability of their action. Can a chosen strategy be kept up long enough to deliver the desired results? What reactions will it provoke? What unintended side-effects could emerge? Are there enough resources to support it? Only these extrapolations will insert a sense of responsibility beyond the here and now. Which is exactly what strategy is all about.
- Realistic:The question behind foreign policy realism is primarily one of having the correct self-assessment of one’s own power. Do the resolve, skills, and resources match the defined interests and goals? Without such a sober analysis of the relationship between means and ends, a plan will never be strategic. Instead, it will end up being merely declaratory politics, devoid of any chance of realization, except by accident, and seriously undermining the credibility of its author. The EU has often been criticized for its grandiose foreign policy rhetoric, which it is regularly unable to match in action. For the most part, this criticism is legitimate. There is primarily one reason that the Union’s credibility as a foreign policy player has not been completely destroyed: There is an enormous potential for real power and impact. The EU actually has a lot to offer. It just rarely chooses to bring its potential power to bear. For a start-up, that is acceptable for a short time. But it is not enough to become a mature strategic player.
- Holistic: The EU’s foreign affairs apparatus is about as incohesive as it can possibly get. The new instruments created by the Lisbon Treaty, most notably the European External Action Service (EEAS), have so far failed to create a streamlined, holistic approach to external relations. The European Commission still holds the development, trade, enlargement, and neighborhood policy portfolios, with little interest to share them with anyone, least of all the EEAS. The Council did not reduce its parallel structures for external relations after the EEAS was created. Several barely connected situation centers and crisis management cells exist. The division of labor and the reporting lines between all these entities are not always clear. The level of trust is low. And none of this is unusual. Similar divisions, often with long traditions, exist in almost every member state. However, at the EU level, where it is already difficult enough to coordinate 27 member states, and where the resources of the institutions are so scarce to begin with, such internal strife and disorder is deadly. Strategy needs cohesion. A development policy is incomplete without being tightly fit into trade policies, environmental policy, and security considerations. A diplomatic initiative will remain toothless without the full weight of defense, trade, human rights, and perhaps investment policies behind it. Strategy can’t force all players and all tools to act as one. But strategy must at least think about all these things in concert.
- Predictable: Any foreign policy actor interested in peaceful relations with allies and partners must create a transparent strategy with predictable actions. Predictability is the secret currency of international diplomacy. If not well coordinated with friends and counterparts, strategies can infuse others with fear and create an aura of unreliability around any actor in the international arena. Admittedly, multi-player undertakings, such as strategymaking by 27 nations, will offer few elements of real surprise to outside observers. Neither can anything be held secret among member states for very long, nor will such a large number of players ever allow a revolution to happen in their foreign relations. Still, EU transparency should be the result of a deliberately transparent procedure, not just of mere happenstance. Far exceeding the positive symbol this would set, it would be a trust-building exercise par excellence. This aspect will become especially relevant with a view on that last indispensible element of EU strategy making.
- Values-based: Theorizing between realists and idealists in foreign policy is as old as history itself. At least for open, democratic, liberal societies, this division is becoming increasingly meaningless. Security and survival are not to be achieved without interests-based use of power. Openness and democracy can’t exist without strong adherence to fundamental values and principles. The latter is especially true for the EU. With 27 individual players around the table, all bringing with them different histories, geographies, traditions, mentalities, necessities, and worries, values become disproportionally important for the political entity’s survival. Not only must the EU itself embody something fundamentally good and valuable for its citizens, it also must actively—but not naively—support such values abroad. An EU foreign policy strategy that is oblivious to such fundamental insight will neither be sustainable internally nor externally. Democracies need poetry. It’s the creed they want to live by. Europe, fragile as it has been throughout its history, needs it even more.
The ten elements listed above should serve as a yardstick in the debate about strategic foreign policy in Europe. They suggest a way to measure the “strategic-ness” of the EU’s foreign policy thinking and doing. Taken together, the ten factors constitute a test against which future EU foreign policy documents, speeches, programs, and projects can be held. It is, admittedly, an ambitious test. But for Europe, with its vast possibilities, its pressing needs, its enormous potential power, and its huge regional and global responsibilities, the standard by which it measures itself must, by definition, be a high one.
1 Wikipedia, “Strategy,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strategy.
2 Sven Biscop, “Time for a European Grand Strategy,” in Ideas on Europe Blog, August 18, 2009, http://europeangeostrategy.ideasoneurope.eu/2009/08/18/time-for-an-eu-grand-strategy.