From the Hindu Kush to the Balkans, the threath to freedom, democracy and the rule of law is not a regional problem but a global challenge. How should the West and Europe work to defend these values?
The theory of ‘liberal peace’
The concept of nation-building, which lay behind the engagement of certain European actors in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, is linked to the ‘liberal peace paradigm’ that emerged a century ago. At the end of the First World War, at the peace negotiations in Versailles, US President Woodrow Wilson declared that spreading the American model of a liberal market economy and democracy would guarantee worldwide peace. He assumed that if governments did not rely on armed force but on the consent of those it governed, such force would only be used as a ‘last resort’.
His belief entered the field of international relations as the theory of ‘liberal peace’. However, this concept went on to generate fierce debate among experts. One finding revealed that while democracies tend to resolve conflicts among themselves without resorting to violence, they are involved in wars almost as often as other forms of government and hence are not really more peaceful. Anna Geis, a Hamburg-based specialist in conflict studies, is one of the experts who came to this conclusion. Democracies can also engage in aggressive forms of foreign policy, and states that become democracies can take unstable forms, thus endangering peace. Geis’s Frankfurt-based colleague Harald Müller has also criticised the theory because it serves as a political narrative to justify unilateral concepts of a world order.
Democracies can also engage in aggressive forms of foreign policy, and states that become democracies can take unstable forms, thus endangering peace.
Nevertheless, the idea experienced a renaissance in the second half of the 20th century. Many foreign policy actors in both the USA and Europe were guided by the belief that the spread of democracy as promoted by the West would bring peace to other parts of the world. Western-led missions to post-war regions were also guided by these basic principles of liberal peace. The EU and its Member States failed miserably when it came to preventing the ethnopolitical conflicts and wars in the former Yugoslavia.
However, the European Union subsequently took steps to consolidate peace within the framework of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe. This Stability Pact focused on democratisation, security and economic cooperation, including the economic transformation of former socialist economies into liberal market economies. Former socialist states that were transitioning to liberal market economies were assisted in holding elections and building democratic institutions. The regeneration and peacebuilding programmes in the protectorates of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo, as well as policies towards Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Macedonia, were rooted in the idea of liberal peace. It was also assumed that the prospect of EU accession would bolster the transformation process in these countries. Finally, the EU itself was generally viewed as an example of how wartime adversaries could be reconciled through close economic and political cooperation and legal relationships.
Since the 1990s, the EU’s enlargement policy has also been largely based on the idea of ‘liberal peace’. Negotiations with new accession candidates in Eastern Europe have always been linked to a willingness to establish democratic systems, institutionalise civil liberties, and the rule of law. Economic liberalisation was another of its conditions. The EU initially tied much of its political and economic cooperation with the Global South to a willingness to respect human and civil rights, for example by setting conditions for development cooperation and post-conflict reconstruction.
The establishment of constitutional bodies has to precede liberalisation if peacebuilding is to have lasting success, photo: Tori Nefores via unsplash
However, the weaknesses of the ‘liberal peace approach’ quickly became apparent in the Western Balkans and elsewhere in the world. Back in 2004, Roland Paris, a political scientist and professor based in Canada, concluded that, based on numerous case studies in Southeastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia, the approach was doomed to failure if it was essentially reduced to holding early elections and establishing parliaments without first ensuring the existence of constitutional structures. The establishment of constitutional bodies has to precede liberalisation if peacebuilding is to have lasting success. He stressed how economic liberalisation can lead to injustice and economic difficulties if there is no rule of law and an absence of judicial and political supervisory bodies.
Negative developments in the Balkans
The fact is, the international presence in protectorates in the Western Balkans led to some extremely negative developments (for example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where corruption and personal gain was the result of privatisation), and it has certainly not created widespread, stable frameworks for peace. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the state structure remains controversial to this day, and nationstate institutions have been questioned and openly challenged by certain political actors and sections of society. There is also an ongoing dispute over the status of Kosovo. Some of the lines of conflict have simply become frozen and the polarisation continues. However, open military confrontation has so far been prevented, and the promotion of civil society and cultural initiatives has made a major contribution to reconciliation at regional and local level. It is important to continue with this. Bosnia and Herzegovina provides a good example in this respect.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the international presence began with a military intervention (in the wake of the Srebrenica genocide) that, like subsequent missions, was backed by UN mandates and attracted broad international support. The Peace Implementation Council, which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Accords, includes 55 countries. The steering committee includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, USA, the EU and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, represented by Turkey.
The international presence was directed at implementing the treaties that were signed by the governments of (residual) Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Bosnia in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, and it met no significant military opposition. To this day, numerous political actors in BiH have played the ethno-nationalist card in order to secure majorities in elections, thus undermining the reconciliation process. Nevertheless, numerous institutions have been set up or reformed with international support. In addition, German and European cultural institutes, along with political and private foundations, have provided vital orientation with a wide range of cultural policy measures. Along with promoting independent media, the main focus has been on supporting civil society and initiatives for dialogue and encounter, so measures aimed at encouraging understanding and reconciliation between opposing groups in divided communities and war-torn societies. The official cultural policy of the hostile entities was primarily directed at instrumentalising language and historiography to fuel political differences. They used educational institutions and the media to achieve this. Literature, film and the visual arts also felt the impact.
Cultural initiatives can provide significant impetus if they are integrated into compelling peace and development policies. Wherever there is a political openness to understanding, they can support healing after traumatic experiences, build confidence and help reconcile war-torn communities. Under certain conditions, they can also promote dialogue and tolerance.
However, writers, journalists, and cultural workers have contributed to a more constructive engagement with the war. With international support, the cultural and media scene has developed its own momentum, which has helped to establish social discourses that oppose the ethnocratic model that shaped political life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to Bosnian journalist Ivan Lovrenovic, a creative cultural scene that transcended ideological boundaries has been able to break through the camp mentality, at least in places. International funding programmes are essential to support such initiatives. Cultural production cannot break down the power of ethno-nationalist parties or eliminate corrupt practices in government. But it can help establish niches where alternative discourses are possible. Lovrenovic believes it can give people hope and encourage them to counter the mainstream through other notions of belonging, tradition, history and identity.
Cultural initiatives can provide significant impetus if they are integrated into compelling peace and development policies. Wherever there is a political openness to understanding, they can support healing after traumatic experiences, build confidence and help reconcile war-torn communities. Under certain conditions, they can also promote dialogue and tolerance. However, this presupposes that international actors who are engaged in post-conflict regions recognise their potential that they receive systematic support with a long-term perspective. The partners for this should be selected with great care.
Cultural practitioners, educational institutions and the media can support the romanticisation of war and myth-building. But they can also help to provide a more differentiated view of the past, thus contributing to long-term renewal. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, this was particularly evident in its remembrance policies, which were largely characterised by a one-sided view imposed by officialdom. War victims were shamelessly instrumentalised for this purpose while being left unprotected. For many years, the fate of women who had been raped or tortured during the war was treated as a total taboo. The film Grbavica by Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic, which won several international awards, helped to break the silence. In 2021 she received the European Film Award for Quo vadis, Aida?, a film that describes the contradictory dynamics of the events surrounding the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica from the perspective of a Bosnian translator.
Initiatives for reconciliation
In Bosnia and Herzegovina and other parts of the former Yugoslavia like Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo, where ethnopolitical conflicts continue to smoulder with varying degrees of intensity, cultural practitioners and civil society groups have sought a constructive way of dealing with the past and finding possibilities for reconciliation. Their focus has been on fact-finding, serious historiography, finding ways to discuss war crimes and human rights violations and to make remembrance inclusive.
Examples include the Documenta Centerin Zagreb and the Center for Nonviolent Action in Sarajevo and Belgrade, which organises cross-border training in nonviolent action with a multicultural team and supports war veterans in commemorating the victims on all sides. This is about replacing ‘heroic commemoration’ with shared places of remembrance. The creation of such centres has sparked controversy and also presents artistic concepts with some major challenges. It requires a strong capacity for empathy and dialogue processes that involve all sections of society.
Recent European funding initiatives in the Balkan region have also tended to focus mainly on young people, based on the view that lack of access to culture and poor economic prospects make young people susceptible to ethno-nationalist propaganda. The aim has been to encourage young people to get involved in rebuilding society and the processes of democratisation. In May/June 2007, for example, the Euro-Mediterranean Youth Parliament was launched as part of Germany’s presidency of the EU Council with a view to encouraging youth development.
A relatively recent example of cross-border cooperation in the cultural field is the regional initiative to promote youth exchanges, supported by the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), an independent international organisation established by the governments of the Western Balkan countries on 4 July 2016 during the Western Balkans Conference in Paris. The aim is to encourage reconciliation and cooperation between young people in the region through exchange programmes, increasing mutual understanding and thereby introducing them to the culture of their neighbouring countries. It was modelled on the Franco-German Youth Office (DeutschFranzösische Jugendwerk), which has been instrumental in supporting youth exchanges in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. The RYCO was established under Albanian law with its headquarters in Tirana (Albania) and local branches in Montenegro (Podgorica), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo), Macedonia (Skopje), Kosovo/a (Pristina) and Serbia (Belgrade). Various European institutions are represented on the advisory board, including the Franco-German Youth Office, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, international and European youth forums and networks from the Member States, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the Council of Europe and the EU Commission, which also provides some funding.
Despite all the international efforts, government policy in parts of the Western Balkans continues to have a strongly ethnonationalist tone. However, it would be very wrong to conclude from this that it would have been better to refrain from supporting culture and civil society.
Yet, despite all the international efforts, government policy in parts of the Western Balkans continues to have a strongly ethnonationalist tone. However, it would be very wrong to conclude from this that it would have been better to refrain from supporting culture and civil society. In today’s tense situation, when certain politicians are speculating about separation or shifting borders and playing a dangerous game, it is more important than ever to promote free spaces and opportunities for youth encounter. But humility is required, and it is important to manage our expectations. On its own, cultural dialogue cannot bring about fundamental change. It can only have an impact in the context of a coherent European neighbourhood policy.
For the people of the Western Balkans, the overarching political and economic prospects are of primary importance, and, for many, these continue to be linked to the prospect of EU integration. If these prospects are lost, hope will also fade among those who are committed to more democracy and overcoming ethno-nationalism. This would lead to China and Russia, and also the regional actor Turkey, gaining greater influence in the region. In addition, it would mean that even more young people would turn their backs on their homeland.
Unlike in the Balkans, the Afghanistan mission can hardly be traced back to a unified and value-driven ‘idea of the West’. After the attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the US and NATO, declared an emergency and took military action against Al Qaeda and its supporters. It was only later, in Bonn – with significant support from the German government – that the allies agreed on measures for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. The international actors certainly shared the perception of a common threat, but it is less clear that they pursued consistent goals and strategies beyond the ‘war on terror’. In retrospect, we can see that this is exactly what was lacking.
In his speech on the occasion of the military withdrawal on 31 August 2021 US President Joe Biden made explicit reference to the fact that the focus was on threat prevention and military victory. He emphasised his personal belief that the focus should have been limited to destroying al Qaeda’s bases and capturing Osama Bin Laden, and not overburdening the mission with attempts at ‘nation-building’. This statement may have seemed cynical to many of those who had spent the last decades working to improve life in Afghanistan, but it was probably a realistic reflection of the nature of US foreign policy. It made it clear that those involved in the mission were primarily concerned with threat prevention rather than with the Afghan people. In this context, the notion of a unified approach and an ‘idea of the West’ to implement shared values reveals itself to be a myth.
The focus of US foreign policy in Afghanistan was threat prevention and military victory rather than the Afghan people, photo: Mariola Grobelska via unsplash
Reasons for the failure in Afghanistan
However, in Germany and other European countries, support for Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Stabilisation Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan was largely bought with the argument that they were also promoting the country’s development, democracy and human rights, particularly women’s rights. There is no doubt that many cooperation partners in urban regions have seen major improvements in their lives as a result of the international presence, development cooperation, and initiatives to support the media and culture. Nevertheless, it is clear that the idea of establishing Western political concepts, norms and value systems in the Hindu Kush alongside military action (against the Taliban and other Islamist groups) was a failure. Many political actors who supported or took part in the Afghanistan operation for twenty years still find it very difficult to admit the serious contradictions that were associated with this mission.
It is research institutions and civil society, rather than politicians, that have provided serious impetus for conducting a reappraisal of the failure in Afghanistan. In October 2021, the Berlin Peace Dialogue hosted by the Advisory Board for Civilian Crisis Prevention, which advises the German government on the implementation of its guidelines Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflict, Building Peace (2017), provided an opportunity for experts from Germany and abroad to discuss this topic in detail.
There is no doubt that many cooperation partners in urban regions have seen major improvements in their lives as a result of the international presence, development cooperation, and initiatives to support the media and culture. Nevertheless, it is clear that the idea of establishing Western political concepts, norms and value systems in the Hindu Kush alongside military action (against the Taliban and other Islamist groups) was a failure.
Their conclusions are summarised below:
Firstly, the actions of the Western allies were totally inconsistent. The decision to allow former warlords (whose influence had been suppressed under Taliban rule) to participate in government undermined efforts to unify the country politically. Corruption and fraud further destroyed the population’s trust in political structures. The military presence, which included combat operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban (Enduring Freedom) on the one hand and trying to ensure reconstruction (ISAF) on the other, gradually became perceived as an occupation. ‘War and development do not go together’, was the conclusion of one politician, something that should have been realised much earlier and the consequences understood. The incompatibility of the goals (counterterrorism, stabilisation, development, etc.) was highlighted, along with the fact that it was largely a military defeat that the parties involved refused to acknowledge for far too long.
Moreover, insufficient attention was paid to the regional context and Pakistan’s policy toward Afghanistan was ignored. The fact that the Afghan government was not involved in the negotiations in Doha hampered peace efforts because it removed any incentive for the Taliban to engage in a power-sharing model.
The fact that several times more money was spent on military operations than on civil reconstruction and development was also criticised. At the same time, the strategies for reconstruction and democratisation were characterised by exaggerated expectations; a realistic vision would have been: ‘Change Afghanistan into something like Tajikistan, but it was like: change Afghanistan into something like Denmark.’ The attempt to transfer ‘Western values’ and political ideas to a region with a totally different culture as part of a nation-building strategy failed, and it had also become clear that centralised forms of politics and administration could not be established in a decentralised country.
The strategies for reconstruction and democratisation were characterised by exaggerated expectations; a realistic vision would have been: ‘Change Afghanistan into something like Tajikistan, but it was like: change Afghanistan into something like Denmark.’
Those responsible for the operations in Afghanistan had moved in ‘echo chambers’, repeating the same arguments and perspectives over and over again, without learning anything new. Yet there was no lack of material to back up a change of course. In 2013, the Norwegian government commissioned an independent study that concluded the actions of the Western allies in Afghanistan were inconsistent and incoherent. In 2015, the European Court of Auditors presented a critical evaluation of the EU police mission in Afghanistan and recommended its termination in view of the bleak security situation. As a result, therefore, was no lack of facts and analysis to gain a more differentiated assessment of the situation, but there was a reluctance to draw appropriate conclusions.
In Afghanistan, allies with highly divergent and incompatible agendas were on the move, and aid organisations were among those who felt the impact. While certain players were focused on the war on terror (such as the US), others wanted to engage primarily in nation building, reconstruction and development cooperation (such as Germany). International forces established civilian/military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and used them to launch civilian assistance and reconstruction programmes. This was intended to create greater acceptance for the military presence among the Afghan people. As a result, humanitarian actors, who were keen to remain impartial, became barely distinguishable from military actors as far as the Western alliance’s opponents were concerned. Aid organisations became targets. Some decided to withdraw, others severely curtailed their activities and continued to emphasise their independence and neutrality.
The UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was supposed to secure reconstruction, gradually morphed into a counterinsurgency force as the Taliban and extremist networks ramped up their efforts to gain territory. ISAF coordinated closely with Operation Enduring Freedom units, and ultimately both were under US command. As a result, the perception of ISAF among Afghanistan’s civilian population began to change, and its ongoing presence was increasingly viewed as an occupation. Many humanitarian actors directly experienced the difficulty of reconciling waging war and promoting development, and some have left the country as a result. Western, and European, politics suffered a massive loss of credibility.
The images of Kabul have been etched into people’s memories all over the world and are accompanied by a serious loss of credibility. The message that will be taken from this in the Global South is that it is better not to engage with Western institutions that claim to be bringing democracy, human rights and gender equality to distant regions of the world, because you will end up being abandoned, alone and defenceless.
There is more to the images of desperate people at Kabul airport in August 2021 than just another human tragedy in the context of the ‘war on terror’. They mark a historical caesura, similar to the US withdrawal from Vietnam, which began in 1973 and ended with the Viet Cong’s capture of Saigon in 1975. Indeed, there are some quite astonishing parallels. There, too, it was obvious that the deployment of American troops was not about the people in Vietnam but related to quite different considerations of military strategy and power politics. At that time, too, negotiations were not conducted with a view to building a future and bringing peace to the country, but focused on a quick exit at any price, regardless of losses. The images of Kabul have been etched into people’s memories all over the world and are accompanied by a serious loss of credibility. The message that will be taken from this in the Global South is that it is better not to engage with Western institutions that claim to be bringing democracy, human rights and gender equality to distant regions of the world, because you will end up being abandoned, alone and defenceless.
Not only Western governments, but also NGOs and actors in the cultural sphere must ask themselves to what extent they are prepared to accept such contradictions, and what kind of operations they want to be involved in going forward. In Germany, in its coalition agreement, the newly elected government promised to examine the Afghanistan mission through a parliamentary investigative committee and a commission of inquiry.
The following questions arise with regard to German policy:
Why was the evacuation of local staff and people at risk not organised in parallel with the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr?
Why, despite being informed about the deteriorating security situation, had the German government issued visas to only a fraction of those in need of protection by mid-August?
And how did it come to downscale the number of Afghan personnel at risk and keep it to a minimum (local Bundeswehr staff since 2013, contractors working for the German foreign office and involved in development cooperation for the last two years only, with no mention at all of NGO partners)?
It is to be hoped that this reappraisal will take place with the involvement of peace researchers and European and Afghan civil society. However, the focus should not simply be on asking what needs to be done differently in the next international mission, but rather on the question of whether to participate in such missions at all, and on non-military alternatives to combating extremism and terrorism. An honest reappraisal and policy shift is the only way to potentially mitigate the damage and loss of credibility that has occurred. Politicians in Europe must also learn from the experiences in the Hindu Kush.
Restoring lost credibility
In order to at least mitigate the loss of credibility that has occurred, European governments must do everything possible to bring all vulnerable individuals who remain in Afghanistan to safety and to offer them and their families protection within the EU. This applies not only to local staff, but also to development cooperation specialists, NGO activists, women’s rights activists, journalists and cultural practitioners. This will inevitably involve negotiating with the Taliban. Germany and the EU also have the responsibility to provide emergency aid to avert the threat of famine. A third, long-term challenge will be to formulate a refugee policy based on a logic of peace.
Instead of perceiving refugees as a threat, says political scientist Hanne Birkenbach, the problem in the logic of peace narrative is the violence that people suffer before, during, and after their flight as a violation of their basic needs. This must be prevented (see Hanne Birkenbach, Leitbild Frieden. Was heißt Friedenslogische Flüchtlingspolitik, Dialog 14, Brot für die Welt 2015). According to this, people must be accepted without bureaucracy and asylum processes must be speeded up. Journalists and cultural workers who have escaped persecution by fleeing to neighbouring regions also need long-term support.
Reporters Without Borders have reported on the persecution of journalists who have remained in Afghanistan, revealing how urgently such support is needed. Some journalists are keen to continue reporting on what is happening in the country. Others were forced to flee and are trying to continue their work in exile, but urgently need the resources to do this. For example, Albania has taken in over 2,000 Afghans and 17 journalists have joined forces to continue producing online versions of two Afghan newspapers (Etilaat e Roz/ Kabul Now and Hasht e Subh/8am Daily). They have established their office in a hotel that serves as a refugee shelter. Elyas Nawandish, online chief and editorin-chief of Etilaat e Roz, explains: ‘We are covering all news, events and issues going on in Afghanistan and related to Afghanistan: poverty, culture.’ Mujibrahman Mehrdad, editor-in-chief of Hasht e Subh (8am Daily), is continuing to report from Afghanistan: ‘We are doing a hybrid job, since our office is still in Kabul and our reporters cover everything, but from here we cover the issues we see here and also analyse current affairs’ (from a post by Fjori Sinuruka on the Balkan Insight website, Afghan Refugee Journalists Keep Free Press Alive From Albania, 27 October 2021).
The refugees that Albania took in from Afghanistan include 50 journalists, according to reports by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. They currently enjoy temporary protection for one year, with the potential for extension, but are working under very precarious conditions. These provide starting points for European actors to work in the area of media support and cultural dialogue.
After the failure of the mission in Afghanistan, it is imperative that precautions be taken to ensure that participation in foreign missions is never again decided from within ‘echo chambers’. Foreign deployments must be evaluated on an ongoing, inter-agency basis.
After the failure of the mission in Afghanistan, it is imperative that precautions be taken to ensure that participation in foreign missions is never again decided from within ‘echo chambers’. Foreign deployments must be evaluated on an ongoing, inter-agency basis. This is the only way to determine whether the goals are realistic and compatible with each other, which measures and strategies are suitable for achieving them, and where they need to be adjusted or abandoned. Development actors can now look back on decades of experience with evaluation processes, whereas the security sector has, thus far, persistently avoided this aspect.
Regular evaluations are also necessary because of the huge challenges that are emerging in the Sahel region, where Germany and other EU countries are also engaged in a variety of military cooperation and training missions. There are clear indications that the various missions and security initiatives in this region are at times diametrically opposed.
For example, in recent years France has concentrated on combating extremism by military means, while the EU and the German government have focused on development policy and building up the police and military through training missions.
It is increasingly difficult for the local people and civil society to understand and distinguish between the many different mandates, and overall acceptance of the foreign military presence has declined sharply. But even non-military approaches are not tailored precisely to local situations and needs. Civil society organisations in Mali report on the futile efforts of European actors to transfer European norms and political ideas to foreign contexts, and on the attempt to embed centralised administrative structures in regions whose historical development means a focus on decentralised structures would be more effective. There is also a strong civil society that should be more actively involved in designing political processes.
Acceptance of the foreign military presence has declined sharply, photo: chrisaram2 via pixabay
Spotlight on the Sahel
Not only the engagement in Afghanistan, but also experiences with the international presence in the Sahel should be evaluated together with NGOs – especially with local activists and think tanks. Alternatives to using military means to tackle extremism should also be discussed with these stakeholders. In 2021, leading European NGOs and think tanks called on the EU to revise its anti-terror policy and recommended more support for mediation and negotiation approaches with armed actors in crisis zones. It is time to conduct an honest evaluation of experiences in the Western Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Sahel region. On this basis, the EU and its Member States should develop a coherent foreign, development, security, and migration policy that is not limited to perceived or actual threats from a European perspective, but that focuses on ‘human security’ and ‘human development’, as proposed by the United Nations General Assembly.
This idea of security is based less on military concepts and defence against threats and more on individual needs, and it also takes into account the rights and dignity of people in the Global South. On this basis, misguided foreign policy ideas involving nation-building and exporting values, which are based on the paradigm of ‘liberal peace’ but at the same time harbour a massive risk of entrenching neo-colonial ways of thinking and conducting policy, could perhaps finally be overcome. However, this requires a willingness to truly tackle this ambivalence.
It is time to conduct an honest evaluation of experiences in the Western Balkans, Afghanistan, and the Sahel region. On this basis, the EU and its Member States should develop a coherent foreign, development, security, and migration policy that is not limited to perceived or actual threats from a European perspective, but that focuses on ‘human security’ and ‘human development’, as proposed by the United Nations General Assembly.
In the 2020 Culture Report, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra wrote in his essay The Many Ideas of Europe that no continent or country can be the sole engine of global history. He castigated the complacency and arrogance that has characterised the continent: the ‘idea of Europe as the embodiment of reason and freedom’ should be mothballed because such flattering self-perceptions are ‘drenched in blood’ and any claims to moral and political pre-eminence are ‘at best provincial’. He said the idea of Europe as the embodiment of reason and freedom – an ideological notion that hardened during the long standoff between the so-called 'free' world and totalitarian Communism – was never shared unreservedly by the rest of the world. For Asians, there is no ‘idea’ of Europe, says Mishra, but many ‘ideas of Europe’ – including ‘imperialism, liberal democracy, racial and religious intolerance as well as individual liberties and struggle for justice.’
Thus, in expanding their local and international power, China’s leaders would always refer to a ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers. Ultimately, Mishra called on Europeans to engage in critical selfreflection and more humility: ‘The political assertiveness of Islamic countries as well as the rise of Chinese nationalism has already exposed the interconnected but highly unequal world that European imperialism made.’
He combines with this a recommendation for a fundamental shift in identity and policy: ‘Certainly, the attempts to define the European self by violently detaching it from the other, and by setting up oppositions – civilised and backward, coloniser and colonised – cannot succeed in an age where the other also possesses the power to write and make history. The ground has been cleared for more complex ways of self-understanding, shorn of self-congratulation, nationalist myth-making and racial triumphalism.’
Unfortunately, political mandates and decision-makers at the EU level currently show little willingness to critically reflect on European policies in an international context. Prominent foreign and defence politicians in particular have been quick to draw one conclusion from the failure in Afghanistan: that Europe needs to be stronger on the military front. In the wake of the shocking pictures that came out of Kabul in August 2021, the argument is that we should never again be dependent on the USA to defend an airport.
The failure in Afghanistan coincides with the perception of conflicting goals in the transatlantic relationship and the Union’s search for a new direction in its security policy. This is why EU Foreign Affairs Representative Josep Borrell recently presented a draft of a ‘Strategic Compass’ to the Member States. This departs from the idea that the EU can defend its interests through soft power and emphasises the need to build up its own military capabilities. The Strategic Compass is currently being discussed in the Council of the EU and is expected to be adopted in spring 2022.
Europe is in danger because it has to operate in a strategic environment that is subject to increasing competition. The traditional distinction between war and peace has become increasingly difficult in the face of cyber-attacks, the instrumentalisation of migrants and private armies, and it is also about control over raw materials. What Borrell has in mind goes far beyond the EU Global Strategy formulated in 2016 by Foreign Affairs Representative Federica Mogherini.
This paper suggested there was still a sense of pride in the EU’s soft power, describing it as a comparative advantage, and called for greater military cooperation more as an enhancement in order to ‘contain power politics’. The Strategic Compass goes much further, as seen in the draft drawn up by the European External Action Service. If Borrell has his way, Europe should ‘learn to use the language of power’, and be able to hold its own in the game played by the great powers in order to defend its ‘vital interests’.
Borrell’s comment that ‘We like the world of Kant, but we live in a world of Hobbes’ reveal a perception that we live in an anarchic, dog-eat-dog world. Negotiations are underway with EU Member States on a rapid deployment capacity of up to 5,000 soldiers, which is to be ready for deployment by 2025. To this end, the previously unused EU Battlegroups will be modified, regardless of the fact that NATO has long had such a unit in place. Decision-making processes are to be accelerated by activating Article 44 of the EU Treaty (according to which only fundamental decisions must be taken unanimously).
Should building up additional military contingents really be the EU’s answer to the growing global challenges?
In this way, coalitions of the willing could take strategic action in future. Over the past five years, the EU Member States have already set a clear course towards closer military cooperation, including through the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund. In terms of foreign policy, they have supported the build-up of military intervention capabilities by the G-5 Sahel in the Sahel region. They are also represented in a number of training and equipping missions – primarily in North Africa and the Sahel, but now also in other African countries – to help police and armies in third countries fight extremists and secure their borders against migrants.
We have to ask some very serious questions: should building up additional military contingents really be the EU’s answer to the growing global challenges? The reference to the EU’s ‘strategic autonomy or sovereignty’ is problematic in several respects. European politicians should be aware that the EU will always remain a junior partner of the USA in military terms, unless they are prepared to upgrade the Union to a superpower and blanket the world with military bases.
The EU member states have failed to draft a coordinated foreign policy, photo: Joshua Fuller via unsplash
Europe’s contribution to global peace
This, in turn, would be at the expense of all social standards. It is unlikely that such a project would gain the acceptance of EU citizens. The option of ‘strategic autonomy/sovereignty’ is totally unrealistic, particularly as the EU Member States are unlikely to merge into one nation state in the foreseeable future and have to date failed to draft a coordinated foreign policy. There will certainly be no breakaway from the US in the foreseeable future, but it is very likely that completely overpriced duplicate structures will be built. These would hardly serve peace in the world, which is in urgent need of dialogue and the expansion of collective security systems.
Instead of investing more European taxpayers’ money in military structures in addition to NATO, Member States should focus more strongly on building up global, regional and local peacekeeping structures and on preventing violence conflict. Most of these are currently raging outside Europe. In 2020, there were 220 armed conflicts around the world, 21 of which were classified as wars by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research. Although they are mainly being fought in far-off countries, political developments in Europe have a major impact on them. European trade and agricultural policies have a negative impact on Africa because they distort markets and contribute to keeping people in poverty. And when multinationals force people off their land, or when mining companies endanger the environment, livelihoods and natural resources are destroyed.
Failures in climate policy have an adverse impact on people’s lives and can spark conflict, as has been seen in the Sahel region, the Middle East and Afghanistan. European policy on arms and security also promotes violence, particularly when military materiel and knowhow are transferred to countries in crisis and dictatorships. In many places, European military hardware (especially small arms and light weapons) is involved in the deaths of people in violent conflicts.
Peace policy must be directed at eliminating causes of discord and preventing the escalation of violent conflict. The causes of conflict must be examined in detail and identified at an early stage in order to bring the parties involved to the table and influence political decisions. This is the only way to prevent violence and facilitate reconciliation. Peace processes have to be carried out by the people concerned, but external actors can provide support. Promoting mediation and supporting negotiation can help improve relations between the parties to a conflict and enable them to work together to resolve grievances and lay the foundations for peaceful coexistence.
But this requires a long-term commitment that is sensitive to the particular conflict. Cultural work can also play an important role in this context. Instead of filling their military arsenals, the EU and its Member States should help strengthen the capabilities of the United Nations and its regional organisation the OSCE in terms of conflict analysis, early warning, and peacebuilding. In doing so, they should consistently observe and develop international law. Military operations without a UN Security Council mandate and led by coalitions of the willing cannot serve peace, but at best endanger it.
Trying to promote culture from within a ‘Fortress Europe’ guarded by police and the military is pointless and will inevitably lead to a loss of legitimacy at international level. Europe’s credibility stands and falls with its refugee policy.
It will also be necessary to talk to China and Russia if we want to implement the 2030 Agenda and achieve something in global climate policy; all the industrialised countries have an equal obligation here and have to work together. There should be an ongoing emphasis on promoting civil society and cultural initiatives to support understanding and reconciliation. With its wide range of funding programmes in the area of peacebuilding and human rights, the EU has become a key frame of reference for activists in the Global South.
Soft power in the sense of promoting dialogue, culture and diplomacy has always been an important element of the EU and should remain so. However, it will only be possible to promote culture and have a positive impact if it is organised as a partnership of equals in a way that fosters mutual learning. It is not compatible with a culture of dominance and military-based missions that are primarily aimed at warding off perceived or actual threats to EU citizens or preventing an influx of refugees.
Trying to promote culture from within a ‘Fortress Europe’ guarded by police and the military is pointless and will inevitably lead to a loss of legitimacy at international level. Europe’s credibility stands and falls with its refugee policy. The Member States are gambling away their credibility by refusing to formulate a unified and just asylum policy and to participate in the implementation of the UN migration pact, by seeking to shift EU borders to the African continent together with partners who despise human rights (such as the Libyan coastguard), and by unlawful ‘pushbacks’ of refugees. If there is no change of direction here, the values that the EU still likes to invoke (such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights) will end up sinking into the Mediterranean.
About the Author
Policy Advisor for Peace and Conflict Transformation at Brot für die Welt
Martina Fischer is a Policy Advisor for Peace and Conflict Transformation at Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World). She holds a doctorate in political science and has been involved in peace studies since the 1980s. From 1998 she worked at the Berghof Foundation in Berlin, primarily on peacebuilding in post-conflict societies and the role of civil society in conflict transformation. She has produced a number of academic papers on these issues and worked on a range of practical projects, for example on reconciliation in the Balkan region. From 2011 to 2017, she was a Member of the Steering Board of the German Protestant Kirchentag.
Culture Report Progress Europe
Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.