Last year the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize. This year it finds itself threatened by a new European war. What went wrong? Can it be that the EU is, as some critics suggest, an agent provocateur seeking to encroach and undermine Russian interests in its sphere of influence? Is the EU nothing more than a sneaky side-kick to America’s ambitions of dominating eastern Europe? Or has it been acting in good faith trying to help boost Ukraine’s economy, prosperity and freedoms? EU Perspectives investigates.
The crisis in Ukraine took many by surprise. One moment the EU is finalising negotiations on a bog-standard trade agreement with the Ukraine, the next protestors are being shot at by unidentified snipers, Russian troops have invaded Crimea and Putin has ordered a massive build-up of his military force at the eastern borders of the Ukraine.
Ukraine is no longer a sub-item – it is big news.
Amidst the accusations, counter-accusations, retorts and propaganda it is hard to distinguish truth from fiction. To try and establish some level of coherence the problem has to be approached from differing angles which is why the first part of this piece, is going to examine Putin’s approach to world affairs and contrast it to that of the EU’s. The second part will examine what it is that the EU stands for and what it is that Putin is beginning to stand for. The third part examines events thus far and attempts to divine in what direction this crisis could go depending on how the various actors play their various part.
Part I: The differing approaches to international relations
Putin it is said plays chess. If Putin plays chess then the EU plays a game called prosperity. The two approaches are quite different – but are key to understanding how this crisis is likely to unfold.
Chess: An old-world perspective of international relations.
In many respects the rules of chess reflect the geo-political approach to international relations. Geo-politics – a term coined in the nineteenth century by a British geologist reflects nineteenth century thinking and a world in which states sought to build grand empires by grabbing territory. A nineteenth century world in which Emperors, Kaisers and Tsars governed vast expanses of land with an iron fist and despots ruled through absolute power. The “great game” – yet another nineteenth century term coined by nineteenth century British politicians – refers to the fight for influence between Russia and Britain over a continent colonised by the British.
In this world view of “great games” and territory grabbing national borders are rigid and outlined by thick black marker-pens, the white space in between coloured in block, primary colours. Minorities do not exist – only dominant states. Which is why geo-politicians do not favour an impressionistic, fudged look to national borders. Rather, geo-politics is a “colour-by-numbers” approach to international relations. The more primary colour you control the greater your power base. That is why states go to war – to grab more territory and retain power.
To the geo-politician the international stage resembles a chequered chess board – it is either black or it is white. There is no grey. Chess is a zero-sum game. There is only a victor or a loser – never something in between. As with chess world leaders have knights and bishops to aide and abet them and pawns to exploit when needed. In chess diplomats and negotiators do not exist. The geo-politician will seek strength in fortified castles. Never a gentleman’s lodge. The victor wins through elimination not assimilations. Victory is complete through a fait accompli not through a negotiated settlement. The King is symbolically toppled by the victor to show-case total annihilation of the opponent.
Geo-politics appeals to two sorts of people – firstly, those who enjoy manipulating outcomes and secondly, the simple-minded who can understand a colour-by-numbers approach to world affairs and who feel warm, fuzzy and confident about being part of a great tribe protected by a great leader. In a geo-political world minorities and differing languages are dismissed as irritants to the greater glory of the more powerful tribe who will seek to dominate by erasing any shades of grey and colouring the patch in in a primary colour that represents the identity of one homogenous tribe.
Geo-politics, EU Perspectives proposes, is the politics of a by-gone era when monarchies and despots ruled the world with little or no interest in the ambitions, desires or needs of local populations. Prosperity was a concept lobbied for by the petty bourgeois, by merchants and cobblers. Never the landed gentry. It was a game favoured by emperors, monarchs and later party secretary-generals.
“Putin” Angela Merkel suggested to Obama, “lives in a different world.” Is Putin’s world veering towards a nineteenth century approach to geo-politics as described above?
Prosperity: a modern, progressive approach to the new world order
It is the failures of geo-political thinking that gave birth to the present-day EU. Like many second generation kids the EU rejects in its totality the thinking’s of its forbearers.
In dealing with international relations the EU has no territorial ambitions – though it has a long list of countries wishing to become a member. The EU has no military branch – but it does have a very fine judiciary. The EU never threatens military action – but it can and does threaten sanctions. The EU never talks of spheres of influence – it prefers to talk of trading interests. The EU has association agreements – not backyards. The EU seeks partnerships – not alliances; agreement not discord, consensus not fait accomplis. The EU is based on the rule of law which in turn facilitates trade, commerce, finance, internal markets and cross-border exchanges.
Within the EU, borders are not black lines delineating spheres of influence. Borders are becoming increasingly invisible in order to facilitate trade, travel and thinking – not darker and higher. An approach the EU would like to see extended to those countries that border the EU – with one important caveat they must apply the rule of law and show respect for human rights.
Without respect for these two fundamental differences the EU’s prosperity will crumble and the continent once again become vulnerable to those who favour the geo-political view of world politics.
The EU is not without its flaws but in terms of delivering, prosperity, peace and commerce it has succeeded. This success has created admiration, envy and as we shall see suspicion in equal measure.