The EU/Ukraine and grey shades of foreign policy

[My previous post has started a trend of lengthier analysis, one which I mean to continue.]

My recent post on Realpolitik was intended to highlight what I believe states should strive for in their international conduct. Inevitably, the concession to reality required of such an argument is always significant. Following idealistic principles is, as a method, so often restricted by the limits of what is genuinely feasible. Moreover, the international stage represents such a multi-layered tapestry of relations with national leaders persistently called upon to compromise their beliefs and the values of their states in order to maintain hospitable dealings with other countries. Accordingly, leaders are frequently denounced for hypocrisy and duplicity. The extent to which this is deserved is not always clear.

I hope here to offer some remarks that will clarify my position on international relations, and shed some light on realistic approaches to contemporary developments. Two recent events in foreign affairs stand out to me, where the desirable approach has been rather ambiguous (controversies of foreign policy throughout the 20th and 21st centuries are many and numerous, yet recent events have spurred this post). The first is encapsulated in ongoing events in Ukraine. Viktor Yanukovich, the President of the country, during negotiations with the EU over closer ties between them, claimed that Ukraine required economic aid if it was to sign a deal that would begin integration into the democratic bloc. The Economist summarised his position as “desperate for cash to prop up an economy he has helped to ruin.” Yet the Europeans were unwilling to submit to such requests so swiftly. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s premier, was. This saw talks between Kiev and Moscow ensue with the result that closer ties between those nations were likely. In short, the Ukrainian President, in a case of thug-like politics, was taking his nation further away from the rule of law and respect for citizens and closer to post-Soviet corruption at a personal whim.

The importance of the situation comes from what ensued in Ukraine after these deals took place. Protestors have taken to the streets in Kiev in order to decry the actions of the government as anti-democratic and illegitimate, with hopes for EU ties still prevalent among most protesting groups. Of course, the situation has escalated. Protesting groups clashed with riot police this week and camps were stormed with beatings commonplace. Independence Square in the capital is, for now, in the hands of pro-democracy protestors, since riot police have backed off for now. Yet it is clear that individual rights and freedoms are at risk if the government continues down the same route.

The appropriate response required from the EU is unclear, and relates to the central issue I have raised. The obvious action to call for would be for the EU to impose political pressures on the Ukrainian government, with sanctions for its oligarchic elite. Supporting the protestors in their cause, at least explicitly in official releases, would solidify the justification the protestors believe they have in their calls for a new government and a more democratic process of rule. These are all convenient options that may well cover idealistic concerns as well as those of our friend, pragmatism.

Yet this final aspect – that it is convenient for the EU to apply pressure now, when the protests are in its name – has led to criticism. An interesting idea I encountered involved the claim that the EU is guilty of huge hypocrisy in its support for the protestors. This was based on the fact that protests of a similar nature – against blaze governance, ignorant of individual rights – received absolutely no support when they took place inside the EU. Notable examples include the protests in Spain and Greece against unpopular governments and austerity measures. It is apparent that it did not suit the EU to speak out against the policies it had itself imposed in these instances.

Two points, with reference to the second case of difficult policy; firstly, I would like to point back to The Economist, which also wrote, “hypocrisy does not make you wrong, but it hands your critics a convenient weapon.” This was written about David Cameron’s trips to Sri Lanka and, more recently, China. The British PM raised the issue of the former nation’s oppression of minority rights very openly and publically. This was certainly not the case with China – silence abounded over the country’s quite frankly appalling treatment of Tibetans. Justice and truth were not high up on the list of priorities for Mr Cameron in this second instance, as The Economist notes. Yet could we have expected our representative to do more? Chinese funds and investment are an extremely important and desirable resource soon to become much more accessible to Western markets than ever before. Dissuading these investors from coming to Britain through (what is likely to be) an ineffectual set of remarks and press releases condemning Chinese actions is not the most advisable course of action.

Thus, the “convenient weapon” finds its teeth in the difficulty of such a position. Some of the policies followed by China are reprehensible (such as its approach to domestic justice, often applied through findings from torture) and its international conduct worrying. For Mr Cameron and other leaders to continue to do nothing about it would be disastrous in the long-run; below I offer some suggestion that maybe the long-run is where the impetus should lie.

The second point is that the author of the allegations of hypocrisy against the EU has, I fear rather like myself, placed too high an expectation upon nations to behave with a pure moral and ideological compass. The EU is not even a nation – a supra-national organisation has even more practical concerns, ideologies to juggle, and differing priorities to attend to than a nation state. Thus it might be expected, even required for the stability of the organisation, that different principles be applied to those cases just outside of its borders to those within. This is by no means an ideal situation, but is maybe the best we can hope for.

Extending the ideological view to a long-term basis offers some hope. As I have demonstrated, a single instance of condemnation from a Western leader won’t change the Chinese stance overnight – equally, temporary austerity in Greece is necessary enough for the EU to condone it, on the grounds of greater stability and security for all citizens in all its nations in the long-run. Ukraine is an instance where short-term goals coincide with a long-run commitment to the rule of law. The fight for our values and principles is a drawn-out one, and policy does need to recognise that.

I would like to remark in conclusion, that perhaps there is more to be said for pragmatic concern for one’s nation, and the effects of one’s actions, in foreign policy than is sometimes given credit. In my post on Realpolitik, I claimed that ‘ideology first, Realpolitik last’ ought to be followed whenever possible. Unfortunately, the lines between ideology and pragmatism are so frequently blurred, and a policy purely focused on the former so unfeasible, that the ideological battle may have to be fought over many years, due to persistent delays caused by practicalities.

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