Wake up to the real world, EU!
Samir Saran and John C. Hulsman
11 May 2012
One tired conversation that dominates most European institutions and forums threatens to become a fatal liability, distancing the European Union (EU) from its partners across the Atlantic and among the new capitals that influence global decision making in Asia, Africa and Latin America. It is Europe's obsession with "Common Values" and the Don Quixote-like quest for "Common Humanity." Wasting time and intellectual capital looking for this faux Holy Grail is doing nothing less than preventing the global community from discovering vital common ground on the key issues that the emerging multipolar world is confronted with. Be the issue of climate change, political intervention in unstable nations, or over geopolitical stability, spending time trying to find the fool's gold of universal values gets in the way of cutting the interest-based deals that will actually make the new multi-polar world work.
This European obsession also leads to an analytical failure at the geopolitical level, blurring Western understanding of the BRICS and explains their comforting dismissal that much has changed, due to the fact that the BRICS themselves seemingly share little in terms of 'Common Values.' From Brussels' point of view how can such an organization belong for this world if it doesn't adhere to the Gospel of Monnet?
But the BRICS do share common interests, with three among them being the most important. First, all BRICS countries stress there must be a stable external environment that cannot and must not be jeopardized by partisan interventions in Iran and other parts of the Middle East and Africa. Second, an accountable and stable global financial regime must evolve-with a far greater say for the rising economic powers--the promises for which remain unfulfilled since 2008/09. And finally, far greater global emphasis (if not commitments) on the development and poverty reduction efforts in Asia, Africa and Latin America and the fact that "green capitalism" or "green values" are new hurdles that BRICS must stand up against. No developing power is likely to commit economic suicide to make over-privileged western greens happy. As a global agenda, (and despite not possessing common values) that is a lot to agree upon.
It is time for the EU to wake up to the world they actually live in and now move towards the more workable paradigm of "Shared Interests and Shared Prosperity", terms that flow from the vocabulary of the "realist" camp, acknowledging that beneath every façade, nations and societies share only one common value, that of 'self-preservation' based on 'self-interest'.
This approach offers a far greater global potential for great powers old and new to collaborate and cooperate than the parochial moral approach of values that is viewed by most outside of the EU as a not so subtle attempt to propagate European interests in an ethical cloak, despite objectively lacking the power to impose such norms. A man in the gutter and a man in a mansion will share only one common value - self-interest and self-preservation. While the former will seek ways to reach the mansion, the latter will undoubtedly discover rules to remain there.
But this fetish with values and the lack of agreement on their universal existence and definition is not the only intellectual challenge that efficient global governance is confronted with today. The concept of sovereignty and the very different individual experiences of nation-states that compel them to define this critical notion differently is another potential stumbling block.
For example, the US certainly does not share the diluted notion of sovereignty common within the EU; as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made abundantly clear, if Europe continues to free ride on American defense spending in NATO soon it will not be seriously consulted on the strategic issues of the day, common values or no. For America, NATO has always been a means to an end, not Valhalla in itself, as Europeans complacently believe. Rather, the perilous state of the American economy and its increasingly fraught domestic politics will be altering its role as a global policeman and as things get ever harder, a more inward-looking U.S.A is inevitable.
Similarly, the BRICS and other emerging power centres view this transition period of their relative rise as precisely the time to consolidate their sense of nationhood and to reclaim sovereignty from a long Western-dominated world. Again Europe is the global outlier. Global governance in the new world we actually live in must be founded on the notion that sovereignty actually matters more than those in many European capitals so fatuously think. If the BRICS are to be made stakeholders in the new era, alongside the older, western powers, this is the first negotiation and accommodation that must take place.
The third reality of our times is that large economies in the Indo-Pacific region (India, China and some others) with low-income populations will now be the fulcrum for governing the most important regions of the world; if they succeed the new primary engine of global growth will be safeguarded, if not, we will live in a far more hostile world. Due to their own troubles and relative economic decline, the US and EU will increasingly need to carve partnerships with India, China and ASEAN to secure the sea lanes, manage the rules of trade, secure property and property rights and ensure peace and stability in this hinge point of multi-polarity. This dependence on large emerging economies--which for a long while will remain relatively poor--will change the ethos of governance.
Due to this sea change, priorities will change as well. Growth and not human rights will dictate the agenda. Industrialization will trump environmentalism and poverty alleviation will define sustainable development. The implementation of governance will alter dramatically. Due to the core difference in the understanding of sovereignty, partnerships between the Atlantic countries and countries of the Indo-Pacific will be tested. On the other hand, partnerships could strengthen when instead of patronizing sermons, efforts are made to accommodate the views, interests and needs of all.
So how to make sense of this confusing new world? The primary rule of the road must be the unbreakable link between burden sharing and power (or responsibility) sharing. This basic principle (while easily applied in terms of the voting weights controversy in the IMF and World Bank) must become nothing less than the overall new mantra of the multi-polar age.
Of course, this fundamental global change takes place on a continuum; it will take years for the transition from a Western-dominated world to a world with many powers (with the BRICS leading the economic transition) to be completed. But as the global financial crisis made clear, change may be occurring far more rapidly than anyone could have imagined. Along the way, a fading west and a 'not-yet-up-to-it' rest could well drop the ball over vital global governance issues, resulting in what Ian Bremmer (somewhat apocalyptically) has referred to as a G-0 world, where nothing much gets done.
It is time for Europe to get over it. Nations will not have common values, because nations themselves are a collection of diverse experiences and ambitions. However, there is no need to throw in the towel over global governance, for nations can have a vision for shared prosperity with different approaches to get there. To make all this work, there must be some common macro rules for the road to achieving this shared prosperity (the greatest common interest of all) and these must be negotiated on the realist terms of common interests and not through the fruitless semantics of ethics and morality.