• The European Strategy Ingredient List

    Posted by: Jan Techau April 21, 2015

    It is a very good thing that Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, together with the member states and the European Commission, is conducting a review process that is ultimately meant to lead to a comprehensive EU foreign policy strategy. This exercise is overdue, despite the loathing many have for such debates, both inside and outside the EU. At a minimum, the review could provide the still-nascent European External Action Service (EEAS) with more of a sense of direction and purpose, which would be great progress.

    In October 2014, Carnegie Europe published a strategy memo that outlined the core elements of a new EU foreign policy strategy. But back in early 2012, Carnegie provided another guideline on strategy, the Strategic Europe Yardstick. In that article, I tried to identify the characteristics that make a foreign policy plan strategic.

    On April 21, 2015, Mogherini and some of her closest aides will present their charted course of action toward a new EU foreign policy strategy to experts and analysts in Brussels. On this occasion, I want to republish a shortened version of the 2012 article here. It should serve both as an orientation to those who will be in charge of compiling the new strategy and as a possible standard against which any outcome could be measured. The yardstick is far from perfect, but it might help stimulate the debate that Europe so desperately needs on its foreign policy.

    What, then, are the quintessential ingredients that Europe needs? There are ten characteristics that make EU foreign policy strategic.

    1. Ambitious: Any policy must clearly reflect the ambition to craft a political outcome, be it change in a counterpart’s behavior, an altered political environment, or a very concrete, measurable result. 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.
       
    2. Unified: Players in international affairs are usually unitary actors, such as 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 policy making. No European nation is powerful enough to make a difference in the world unilaterally. Nations are obsessed about their national sovereignty, but the more they try to protect it, the more they risk losing it altogether. Sovereignty transfers in the field of foreign policy are especially painful, and governments therefore postpone them 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), the veto symbolizes the member states’ ambiguity toward 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.
       
    3. 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 down 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 EU’s shared interests visible.

      This is more important in foreign policy than in any other field of European integration, as foreign policy, unlike almost any other area, cannot be monetized—compromise can’t easily be bought. The first of two big political transformations that EU leaders and institutions need to make is to publicly identify shared interests among all countries. Recent EU leaders have been very weak at creating such visibility—beyond general talk about all the good things that are generally desirable.
       
    4. Goals-based: 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 through practical measures, 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 be defined 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 macrolevel view, sometimes forget this.
       
    5. Prioritized: One easy and much-practiced way of creating consensus among the 28 EU member states is to create endless wish lists comprising every single interest and goal one might think of. Everyone can add their own national or even 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 cataloged. Prioritizing interests and goals is one of the most difficult tasks in any decisionmaking 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 options that rank higher from the collection of worthy and desirable issues. A good planning process can help to weigh interests against each other. In the end, however, someone needs to make a decision. For prioritizing, leadership is key.
       
    6. 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 creation and existence give everyone involved a sense of purpose—and a reservoir of tools and instruments to draw from in an emergency.

      But long-term planning also delivers two other indispensable elements of strategy. First, it forces decisionmakers to address the long-term needs of the communities they serve, 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? Only these extrapolations will insert a sense of responsibility beyond the here and now. Which is exactly what strategy is all about.
       
    7. Realistic: The question behind foreign policy realism is primarily one of having the correct 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 one main reason that the union’s credibility as a foreign policy player has not been completely destroyed: there is an enormous potential for real 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 for an actor to become a mature strategic player.
       
    8. Holistic: The EU’s foreign affairs apparatus is about as incohesive as it can possibly get. The instruments created by the Lisbon Treaty, most notably the European External Action Service, 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 EU 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 28 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 fitted 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 alone can’t force all players and all tools to act as one. But strategy must at least make policymakers think about all these elements in concert.
       
    9. 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, multiplayer undertakings, such as strategy making by 28 nations, 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.
       
    10. 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 cannot be achieved without the interest-based use of power. And openness and democracy can’t exist without strong adherence to fundamental values and principles.

      The second of these maxims is especially true for the EU. With 28 individual players around the table, all bringing with them different histories, geographies, traditions, mentalities, necessities, and worries, values become disproportionately important for the political entity’s survival. Not only must the EU itself embody something fundamentally good and valuable for its citizens, it must also actively—but not naively—support such values abroad.

      An EU foreign policy strategy that is oblivious to such fundamental insight will be sustainable neither 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 “strategicness” of the EU’s foreign policy thinking and doing. Taken together, these ten factors constitute a test against which future EU foreign policy documents, speeches, and projects can be assessed.

    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 the union measures itself must, by definition, be a high one.

     

     
     
     
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