‘Strategic partnerships’ allow the European Union to build stronger relations with other countries
Do they? Currently, the European Union has over ten ‘strategic partners’, with countries as different as the United States, Japan, Mexico, China and Russia. With some of these countries, Europeans share deep and pervasive relations and common interests. With others, Europeans have fraught relations. Has proclaiming a ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia prevented Moscow from undermining European policies in the European Neighbourhood; energy blackmail; or even, from threatening several countries in the eastern half of the European Union with pre-emptive strikes? Has the ‘strategic partnership’ with China given the European Union any long-term influence over Beijing, a proud country with thousands of years of its own history behind it? Consequentially, in the way that they are currently deployed, ‘strategic partnerships’ sometimes lack meaning. As Thomas Renard has argued:
With no clear list, no real substance and no purpose, strategic partnerships appear like an uncertain fleet of empty vessels sailing in the troubled water of multipolarity with no course to follow.
Indeed, with ‘strategic partnerships’, Brussels seems to want to make friends with everyone, and everywhere, even when others do not want to be friends, due to competing interests. In so doing, the European Union thinks its is imbued with an air of neutrality and an image of an ‘honest broker’ at the service of some idealistic post-political world. As such, ‘strategic partnerships’ are characteristically ‘unstrategic’ – strategy being an actor’s blueprint to maximise its own power. With its ‘strategic partnerships’, Brussels is a bit like the nice kid in the playground who seeks repetitively to make friends with everyone – even the school bully – only to see himself get a punch on the nose every day.
‘Strategic partnerships’ are the way of the future
They were – over ten years ago. During the 1990s, the world was relatively stable: Western power was ascendant almost everywhere. With the roll-back of Russian power in Eastern Europe, the European great powers – the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany – thrust whatever residue of Moscow’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe back into the Eurasian heartland, and enlarged both the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union to permanently restructure the region. Russia was a basket-case, China was still in the early stages of its industrial modernisation and India, South Korea and Brazil were still relatively minor powers. In this benign atmosphere, concepts like ‘strategic partnerships’, ‘peacekeeping’, ‘Human Security’, and so on became vogue – because during the ‘unipolar moment’ – Europeans and Americans faced no existential challenge. The world was ‘their’ peace, and their relationships with third countries and the nature and agenda of international organisations developed largely on their terms. Not least, their ample room of manoeuvre allowed them to engage in humanitarian interventions. In today’s world, however, where Western military spending is declining (both absolutely and relatively), and where numerous powers are seeking to enlarge their own respective spheres of influence, this approach can become short-sighted and counterproductive.
We can refashion ‘strategic partnerships’ to make them relevant to the 2010s
Perhaps. Clearly, the European Union has very close and comprehensive relations with some countries, with whom it shares values and interests, particularly with the United States, Canada and Japan. Building on these relationships makes sense. Equally, with other countries, it could improve relations, such as with India, Brazil, South Korea, Mexico or South Africa, which will become increasingly important to the geopolitical balance of power in the twenty-first century. However, there should be no ‘strategic partnership’ with a country like Russia when it continues to threaten and intimidate some of the European Union’s Member States and undermines European policies in the neighbourhoods to the east and south. Any ‘strategic partnership’ – by definition – must be based on reciprocity; and preferably one where Brussels gains more than it loses. Having such relations with countries whose policies run so clearly against the grain of European interests not only compromises the concept of ‘strategic partnership’, but also damages the European Union’s image and credibility on the regional and the world stages.
So ‘strategic partnerships’ are now redundant?
Hang on! If the European Union’s ‘strategic partnerships’ can be undergirded by a good dose of military power, they may become more effective. Trying to remove power and force from international relations is like trying to remove politics from economics – it just goes against the grain of history, and reality. Brussels may need structured relations – ‘strategic partnerships’ – with other great powers in the years ahead, but those should never come before Europeans’ own interests, which will sometimes require the use or the threat of the use of armed force. As Robert Cooper points out in The Breaking of Nations: diplomacy may be coated in a velvet glove, ‘but behind it there is always the iron fist.’ In the 1920s, the American and European idealists thought they could remake the world by removing the iron fist, instead replacing it with soft fluff in the form of the Washington and London naval treaties and the League of Nations. In so doing, what they actually did was weaken the power of the civilised nations, which paved the way for the rise of aggressive dictatorships, plunging the world into systemic war. Theodore Roosevelt once said: ‘Speak softly but carry a big stick.’ Without military power to undergird ‘strategic partnerships’, Europeans will end up braying loudly while carrying a twig.