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Realism and Modesty

Foreign cultural policy is an important instrument for building trust in the European Union abroad. Ultimately, European values must serve as a check on Europe's own political behaviour at home and abroad.

The rapid takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US troops from the country brought to the fore debate on the West’s engagement with the rest of the world, raising questions about American and European involvement in democratisation, diplomacy, and economic and security assistance outside the West.

As European countries become more focused on regional issues like Brexit and domestic issues like the impact of the pandemic on national European economies, Europe is presented with a dilemma regarding the extent to which it should dedicate attention and resources to nation-building outside the West, with some raising the question of whether European international relations should be guided by values or national interest. There is no exhaustive list of what these values constitute, but the European Union’s summary of these values as being about human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights is a solid basis for what Europe stands for. The question then is whether Europe should merely focus on the implementation of these values at home while taking a pragmatic approach in international relations further afield.

 

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Europe does not exist in a bubble detached from the rest of the world, photo: CDD20 via pixabay

Europe does not exist in a bubble detached from the rest of the world. Prioritising European countries’ national interests is no excuse for European disengagement abroad.

 

While it may be easy to adopt a rhetorical position on either side of the spectrum in the debate over the extent of Europe’s engagement outside the West—for example, arguing that Europe should abandon nation-building initiatives abroad because domestic issues should take priority—world realities make putting any one-sided position into practice impossible.

Europe does not exist in a bubble detached from the rest of the world. Prioritising European countries’ national interests is no excuse for European disengagement abroad. Equally, foreign intervention that contradicts Europe’s own declared values should simply not happen. What Europe needs is a nuanced foreign policy that meets European priorities but that is mindful that those priorities— European stability, economic prosperity, and social cohesion, among others—cannot be achieved without taking international factors into consideration. But Europe must do this with modesty. The way Europe pursues its foreign policy must both embrace Europe’s values and be modest about Europe’s objectives and capabilities.

Global connectivity and inequalities

The pandemic has brought many salient international relations issues to the surface, both positive and negative. What most links them all is how the world has been revealed to be more connected than ever. The West could not ignore the discovery of the coronavirus in China as a foreign problem: Europe was the first continent outside Asia to directly face the consequences of this discovery before the spread of the virus enveloped the rest of the globe. At the same time, huge inequalities were revealed as vaccines were developed and distributed, with pledges by richer countries to support poorer countries not always materialising as promised, and with countries like the UK initially refusing to recognise the Indian-made Covishield vaccine despite the formula being the same as that of the AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the UK.

China found in both the connectivity and the inequalities of the pandemic an opportunity to increase its soft and economic power, engaging in vaccine diplomacy through partnering with countries like the UAE to produce and administer Chinese vaccines outside China. Part of the China-UAE deal was an agreement by the UAE not to make publicly available data about the effectiveness of the Chinese vaccine being manufactured in the Emirates. While the UAE’s trust in China’s medical advancement proved to be a successful bet, with the Chinese vaccine helping UAE control the virus domestically, Europe must not ignore the lack of transparency surrounding China’s vaccine diplomacy.

Illustration: Globe wearing protective mask.
The development and distribution of vaccines during the pandemic revealed huge inequalities, photo: cromaconceptovisual via pixabay

Connectivity and global inequalities underline the relevance of European values in the face of China’s increasing international profile. The more Europe ignores the opaque terms through which China’s soft and economic power are deployed, and the more European and Western countries pursue an ‘us and them’ approach to non-Western countries in the fight against the pandemic, the more European values regarding issues like science ethics, social justice, and human rights are challenged. As the pandemic and the so-called refugee crisis of a few years ago have shown, when European values are undermined outside Europe, a domino effect is triggered that ultimately affects Europe itself.

The "us and them" argument

Europe needs to be able to handle its challenges through building alliances and strengthening its own position in world affairs. China is trying to court non-Western countries to its side through economic, public health and security cooperation and presenting itself as an alternative to the West. Any push to drive a wedge between the West and the rest presents a serious risk to multilateralism and to Europe’s own standing in international relations.

Some observers have framed the Afghanistan scenario as a failure in Western-supported nation-building abroad. The argument they make is that the West invested resources in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq to improve the standing of women in society, widen access to education and support the capacity of the military, but that ultimately European values are not a good fit for these societies.

It is disturbing because it revives the tired framework of ‘the West and the rest’ in which non-Western societies are perceived to be inherently different and therefore only deserving of ‘good enough’ governance at best.

Such an argument is both disturbing and inaccurate. It is disturbing because it revives the tired framework of ‘the West and the rest’ in which non-Western societies are perceived to be inherently different and therefore only deserving of ‘good enough’ governance at best. The danger in this argument—beyond the blatant discrimination it harbours—is that it has been used as an excuse for European diplomatic disengagement on the basis that some countries abroad are destined to poor governance and dictatorship.

The Syrian conflict is one example where some European countries have begun to reopen channels of communication with the ruling dictatorship partly because of the erroneous perception of autocratic rule as being ‘native’ to countries like Syria. Instead of stepping up diplomatic efforts to support reform in Syria, some in Europe have come to focus on addressing the symptoms of lack of reform, such as Islamist terrorism and the flow of refugees, forgetting that the absence of social justice and human rights are drivers behind both.

Illustration: A person looks at his shadow, which is wearing a yellow umbrella.
The "us and them" argument revives the tired framework of "the West and the rest", photo: CDD20 via pixabay

This ‘us and them’ argument is also inaccurate because it absolves the West of responsibility for other countries’ failure. While supporting women’s empowerment and education is worthy, such initiatives are not sufficient for nation-building. The rapid takeover by ISIS of large areas of Iraq in 2014 had a lot to do with the weak governance that the West had played a role in instilling in its engagement with Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003.

Although the intervention was illegal, it could have been followed up with a comprehensive stabilisation plan for Iraq. It was not. Instead, ill-thought-out policies like de-Baathification weakened state institutions including the Iraqi army.

The US and the UK provided Iraq with assistance like technical military support but largely ignored the implementation of measures of good governance in the post-Saddam Hussein political system. This helped political profiteers to rise to power and become economic elites, diverting state resources away from the ordinary people who need those resources the most. For the most part, the West continued to engage with these new leaders while turning a blind eye to their transgressions.

Lebanon presents a clear example of how the West’s embrace of a political class acting in its own rather than the national interest contributes to keeping a deeply flawed political system in place. Lebanese ruling politicians view themselves as indispensable and above the law because domestic calls for accountability for their behaviour have not been effective while there has been little serious effort on the part of Western countries to push Lebanon towards much-needed reform. For example, international funds flowed to Lebanon without conditionality regarding how the funds are to be used, facilitating the diversion of a significant proportion of such funds to benefit Lebanon’s ruling elite.

While many of the drivers behind the crises in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon stem from the countries themselves, ignoring the role of the West in exacerbating the crises overlooks the fact that none of the Western-supported nation-building initiatives in these countries have been adequate or comprehensive enough.

As Lebanon edges closer to a failing state scenario and as Afghanistan regresses to autocracy, ‘us and them’ observers attribute the failures to the incompatibility of democracy with local societies in such countries and excuse the West’s own contribution as ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’. The phrase is invoked to suggest that there is no point in the West investing resources and effort in nation-building projects abroad. While many of the drivers behind the crises in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon stem from the countries themselves, ignoring the role of the West in exacerbating the crises overlooks the fact that none of the Western-supported nation-building initiatives in these countries have been adequate or comprehensive enough.

Rebuilding Trust

While not ignoring the deep challenges that nation-building further afield presents Europe, the arguments made above intend to hold the West accountable. But with accountability also comes opportunity to progress. If anything, the discussion underlines not only that the West can be and must remain relevant in international relations but also that European values are universal and today need to be embraced globally more than ever. Europe lost a degree of trust on the international stage because some countries abroad felt let down by the extent of Europe’s engagement. Tunisia for example never received the level of foreign economic assistance it needs to support its path towards democratisation despite receiving much rhetorical support from Europe.

But it is not too late for Europe to reflect on its foreign policy and take steps to rebuild lost trust. Europe has important assets it can use in this regard and many of them stem from the cultural field. Education, sports, and the arts are just three avenues that Europe excels in and that can be deployed to build bridges with societies outside the West and increase their capacities.

But these assets will only do so much if they are not part of a wider engagement strategy. Western Europe would not have prospered following the end of the Second World War had it not been for the Marshall Plan that, among other things, heavily invested in reconstruction, modernised industry, and removed trade barriers. Of course, it is not possible for Europe to commit to adopting a Marshall Plan-like strategy towards every country it engages in outside the West.

Illustration: A person holds his own head in his hands.
It is not too late for Europe to reflect on its foreign policy, photo: CDD20 via pixabay

In other words, Europe should stop setting up both itself and others for failure.

Europe therefore needs to be selective and clear about its objectives. If nation-building is an objective in a particular country, a comprehensive strategy for achieving this objective will be needed. Otherwise, Europe is best served by clearly articulating the limited nature of its possible engagement. In this case, Europe must abandon sweeping, self-flagellating rhetoric about the ‘end of the export of values’ or the ‘failure of the idea of the West’ and stop framing its limited engagement as being about nation-building. 

In other words, Europe should stop setting up both itself and others for failure. Instead, Europe should nurture what is possible while modestly recognising it as such. It is important to maintain dialogue with reformists abroad for they share the same values as Europe.

Through this dialogue, Europe’s non-Western international partners can participate in setting the agenda for their engagement with the West. Through mutual respect and understanding, collaborations can be nurtured to support sectors that would best benefit from European expertise, such as in science and heritage projects. Europe can also benefit from the expertise of others to enrich its own cultural initiatives.

Foreign cultural policy and soft power are important tools of rebuilding trust abroad. They can maintain relationships that outlast shifting hard power priorities and can also lend support to hard power.

Europe must also be mindful that reckless hard power can end up undermining soft power.

In deploying them successfully Europe must acknowledge two factors: resources need to be adequate for them to serve policy objectives; and foreign cultural diplomacy can support hard power but does not replace it. Europe must also be mindful that reckless hard power can end up undermining soft power. It is therefore crucial that Europe embraces the principle of ‘do no harm’ in international relations.

Ultimately, European values need to be deployed as a check on Europe’s own political behaviour both at home and abroad. They are also necessary for maintaining a peaceful multilateral world that is being threatened by trends like the rise of the Chinse counter-democratic model.

Europe therefore must not abandon its values or keep them to itself. But it also needs to embrace modesty so that it can rally allies to its side and rebuild trust in its relationships outside its borders without unrealistic promises or expectations.

 

About the Author
Portrait of Lina Khatib
Lina Khatib
Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House

Lina Khatib is the outgoing director of the Middle East Program at London-based Chatham House and the new director of the SOAS Middle East Institute. Previously, she directed the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut and co-founded the Arab Reform and Democracy Programme at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Her research focuses on international relations in the Middle East, Islamist groups and security, political transitions and foreign policy, with special attention to the Syrian conflict.