Over the next few months the editors of European Geostrategy will undertake a number of interviews with various individuals who are involved in thinking about European foreign, security and military policies. In this sixth interview, Daniel Fiott talks with Robert Cooper, Counsellor at the European External Action Service. Robert Cooper is the former Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs at General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union. Before this, he was a distinguished diplomat at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. He is also the author of The Breaking of Nations.
DF: As one of the key thinkers behind the drafting of the European Security Strategy, do you think Europe is more secure today than it was in 2003? Do you think Europe is more capable than in 2003 of achieving its strategic objectives?
RC: I think the answer is yes; but it’s a close run decision. The positive things are mostly about Europe itself: the enlargement of 2002 has been a success. Those countries who used to feel threatened by Russia probably feel less so today, because of European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation membership, and because the Russian elite seems to have concluded that they do not need to control other people to defend their wealth and power, just their own. The neighbourhood is disappointing: Belarus continues to be awful; Ukraine has wasted the decade; the Arab Spring will probably bring good in the end but it may be some time before that good turns into stability and prosperity. But the Balkans – our nearest neighbourhood – has made progress.
Threats still exist: terrorist attacks are possible at any time, as the incident in Bulgaria reminds us, together with a number of serious attacks that have been prevented. But so far at least, the worst terrorist attack falls far short of what even a small war brings. The United States’ withdrawal from Iraq probably makes us safer; it is not clear yet that the ten years in Afghanistan have brought us or the Afghans much good.
For the longer term we should worry about declining European defence capabilities. Libya and Mali show what we need; but it will be achieved only with greater collaboration. We should also be concerned about developments in the Far East where China is alarming its neighbours in unhealthy ways. The European Union should be more present there diplomatically. And of course the European Union’s cohesion depends on finding solutions to the Euro-crisis that do not leave our societies in ruins.
DF: What is the European Union’s most effective foreign policy tool at present?
RC: Enlargement has been one of the great strategic successes of the last century (and for once the word ‘strategic’ is justified). I hesitate to call it a foreign policy tool as it starts as foreign policy and ends as European Union internal policy. And enlargement cannot go on forever.
The European Union uses economic sanctions quite a lot; but they have an impact only in the long term, and only if you are lucky in the surrounding conditions. Sanctions can help indigenous forces for change; but they do not substitute for them. Much the same is true of development aid. Of all the means available, the use of force is the riskiest and least certain; but at times it can be decisive. This is the area where the European Union is still relatively weak. I am not sure how much this matters provided there are European Union states who are able to act robustly; provided of course that they do this in a spirit of openness with European Union partners.
The most important potential asset is a top quality Diplomatic Service. The European External Action Service is a brilliant conception and it has made a good start; but there is a long way to go.
DF: Karl Marx once implied that human rights are the luxury of the rich. What impact do you think the economic crisis in Europe is having on the normative aspects of the European Union’s foreign policy?
RC: The recession is troubling, not least because it seems to be man made. We should ask ourselves how we got here and try to learn something from it. The recession has made the condition of the poor in Europe much worse. But we are still the richest of all continents if you look at all the social and economic indicators together (it’s true that Gross National Product per head is higher in the United States but so is infant mortality, the prison population and inequality). The Euro crisis makes us look stupid; the recession makes us less open minded and attractive. But this is still a good place to live; and the European Union is still envied by many others.
Anyway Marx was wrong. Professor Sen has shown that famine is a phenomenon associated with a lack of democratic rights. In some cases it is the lack of human rights that causes poverty, not the other way round. And there are rich countries where human rights leave a lot to be desired.
DF: From a strategic perspective, what would be the impact of a British exit from the European Union?
RC: It would weaken both the European Union and Britain, probably more than either realises. There are lots of things wrong with the European Union – and some of them are very tangled indeed – but the way to deal with that is to work with like-minded countries to correct them.
DF: In the past you have described yourself as a ‘neo-idealist’, can you elaborate on the meaning of neo-idealism and its implications for strategic thinking?
RC: The idealists are those who refused to accept that conflict was inevitable. Sometimes this was because they believed in a natural harmony of interests among nations; sometimes they believed that such harmony could be achieved by international law. Definitions differ but names such as Plato, Locke, Grotius and possibly Kant are associated with this thinking. The League of Nations’ failure is taken to have discredited such ideas.
Personally I do not believe either in a natural harmony of interests, nor in the inevitability of conflict. Conflict is the natural condition of mankind but – as Hobbes argues – natural conditions can be overcome by institutions. In the world of states, institutions that can play this role are hard to construct since states are powerful and jealous. In Europe, following the tragedies of the first half of the twentieth century, and thanks to the imagination and courage of men such as Monnet and Schuman, and to far-sighted American policies, we have succeeded in doing this. The institutions concerned are dreary, irritating, imperfect, difficult to deal with from the outside, badly in need of change and very difficult indeed to change. But they are also an historical miracle.
The weakness of the European Union – and it sometimes seems very weak – is that it is an enlightenment project. The same applies to the Euro. We need to find ways of growing more organically.