IT’S not easy being the only adult in the room. As the world lurches from bad to worse, US President Donald Trump insults and offends on Twitter, other leaders talk equally tough and everyone has zero-sum games on their mind, the European Union is the odd man out.
With its talk of peace and cooperation, building partnerships, creating networks and preserving the multilateral order the EU seems out of step with the toxic mood of the times.
The US rants about hard power, rockets and bombs, threatens to press on the nuclear button and warns of fire and fury if confronted by its “enemies”. Also on the cards are sanctions and plans to cut off aid for Iran and Pakistan, bombing North Korea and launching a trade war against China. The list is long, the talk is tough.
Trump’s America hates Islam and Muslims, thinks many African countries as well as Haiti and Salvador are “shitholes” and is retreating from its global “obligations” including on trade and climate change.
Viewed from the White House, Europe and Europeans are flabby and soft, such wimps. Not spending enough on defence. All that talk of values and principles, all those statements about human rights, all those promises to engage, discuss and dialogue. Such absolute losers.
True, some EU member states aren’t averse to equally harsh views on how to deal with an independent judiciary, media and minorities. But as spotlighted most recently by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the EU — collectively — is a robust defender of a liberal, rules-based world order.
Take note of Merkel’s denunciation at Davos of the “poison” of populism, her commitment to finding multilateral solutions to global problems and her insistence that isolationism and protectionism are not the best way to deal with a complex and changing world. The French leader, meanwhile, made a similarly passionate appeal for environmental protection, gender equality and the need to fend of nationalism and populism. Macron also noted that in the Middle East and in Africa’s Sahel region, “we’ve got not only to win the war against terrorism but we’ve got to create conditions for durable peace.”
The Davos crowd of globalists and “citizens of nowhere” lapped it all up of course. Macron received a standing ovation. But Davos is not the real world. The conversation, for example, was very different at the “Raisina Dialogue” held in Delhi just days before the good and the great braved massive snow storms to arrive in Davos.
Organised by the Observer Research Foundation and the Indian ministry of external affairs, the two-and-a-half-day Raisina conference in Delhi offered striking and sobering insights into changing geopolitical dynamics, power shifts and the interests of countries — and their leaders — that many people in Brussels still view as the “rest of the world”.
And what a world it is too. America still matters, most participants seemed to agree. In fact, America matters more and more. President Trump’s tough talk resonates with the other strongmen in the world and many who back them.
Take Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who opened the Raisina Dialogue by highlighting the need to develop economic, military and political power to emerge as a strong nation because as he underlined: “The weak don’t survive.”
Forget all that talk of “soft power”, agreed others, the world belongs to those who wield “hard power”, have big military machines and are ready and willing to torture, maim and kill to defend their national sovereignty and the nation state.
What a contrast with a Europe which “doesn’t do geopolitics”, is unable to deal with a wily China and a resurgent Russia and waffles on about resilience and preserving the liberal international order, said others, adding for good effect that with the refugee crisis and eurozone woes as well as Brexit and populism, Europe was a spent force.
“What is suitable for the EU is hardly imaginable anywhere else in the world,” said a participant, adding that Europe may see itself as a model for others, but it was only a “regional organisation, unable to play a role on the global stage”.
For EU representatives at the meeting, all the strongman talk of “nation states was 19th century stuff”. “Sovereign states competing with each other without rules is a recipe for catastrophe,” said former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt. The EU’s decision to share sovereignty was based on experience.
But here’s the thing: the divide between Europe and a world hooked on the joys of hard power is set to grow wider and deeper. Trump and Brexit have unleashed the demons of populism and nationalism.
Europe’s ability to stand up to the geopolitical transformations will depend on whether it can practice what it preaches. The harsh, populist messages from Poland and Hungary, the presence of far-right politicians in the Austrian government with their loud anti-immigrant rants and Muslim-bashing, the treatment of refugees and migrants in many member states, erode Europe’s global standing.
The EU must also become less defensive, more self-confident and more assertive in protecting and promoting the real liberal democratic order. It must continue to speak out in favour of freedom, fundamental values and basic human rights. It should do so forcefully even in the face of criticism not just from Russia and China but also from Washington.
The need for a new and inspiring European narrative has never been more urgent and more necessary. Being peaceful — striving for peace, engaging in dialogue, speaking for the vulnerable — is not a sign of weakness. It’s the true strength and power of Europe. And it should remain so.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2018