As the new EU foreign policy chief arrives in Brussels and a NATO summit convenes in Wales, Carter Page considers alternatives for resolving the current morass.
At last, the fierce, widespread and unjust attacks of recent months surrounding the candidacy of Federica Mogherini as EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy have come to a respite. Scholars with unbalanced positions regarding Russia joined the chorus of policymakers leveling these personal salvos. Amidst a year of disasters in the realm of international affairs, seeds of strength, perseverance and optimism may have finally begun to sprout last weekend with the news of Mogherini’s appointment.
While her detractors will inevitably continue their efforts to squash this source of new life in European foreign policy, it has been many years since such a potentially game-changing leader has arrived on the scene. Avoiding a tilt toward the outdated outlooks of her predecessors and critics may stand as the greatest challenge she faces. Mogherini’s first days in office exposed risks that she may succumb and lean toward old paths. But despite her uncharacteristic early hints at additional sanctions and new rhetoric that Russia is no longer a "strategic partner" for the EU, her true convictions will become clear over time.
Although controversy surrounding Margaret Thatcher’s legacy continued even in the wake of her death last year, there is little question that she played a key role in ending the first Cold War. A reexamination of the earlier historic crossroads which Baroness Thatcher helped the world successfully navigate offers valuable insights into ways that the possibility of another Iron Lady from Rome might make up for the missteps which have drawn the West into a new Cold War.
The similarities between these two leaders are many. First, Mogherini and Thatcher each represent a contrarian voice that dramatically stands out from conventional wisdom on core problems of their times. This was primarily seen in their handling of fundamental issues, including Russia and free markets respectively. Just as Thatcher's then-controversial privatization programs of the 1980’s had long-term positive impacts, Mogherini’s past constructive approaches to dealing with Moscow stand in sharp contrast to the condescending and domineering tactics that have defined the West’s strategy for many years. Second, both then and now each have shown an understanding of the intrinsic value of personal relationships.
On the other hand, they represent different positions on the political spectrum in their native countries as Mogherini represents Matteo Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party while Thatcher led the centre-right Conservative Party. But of far greater relevance, the main difference between the two actually stems from the core source of the principal foreign policy problems they faced in their respective eras. While interventionist policies of the Soviet Union might have stood as the pivotal threat in Europe when Thatcher was rising to power as she argued at the time, similar aggressive policies of pushing NATO right to Russia’s doorstep have instigated today’s predicament.
Indeed, recent tensions between newer market-based approaches and antiquated security frameworks unfortunately came down in favor of obsolescent agenda items which have helped draw Europe back to the past. A reexamination of these precedents from the end of the Cold War brings this to light in ways that are often completely missed today in the narrow views amongst policymakers and commentators alike.
Expansionists in Europe, past and present
As Leader of the Opposition, Margaret Thatcher gave her famous "Britain Awake" address at London’s Kensington Town Hall in January 1976. Her speech explained how, “The strategic threat to Britain and her allies from an expansionist power is graver than at any moment since the end of the last war.”
In an earlier speech from July 1975, Thatcher offered an analysis which exposed circumstances that hold close parallels to the aggressive moves by Western powers which eventually set the stage for today’s problems in Ukraine. “Detente sounds a fine word. And, to the extent that there really has been a relaxation in international tension, it is a fine thing. But the fact remains that throughout this decade of detente, the armed forces of the Soviet Union have increased, are increasing, and show no signs of diminishing.”
A Moscow Times article last week entitled “NATO Expansion Plan Brings Back Iron Curtain Era”, describes the similar current situation in Europe: “NATO will set up new bases in Eastern Europe in an attempt to deter President Vladimir Putin from meddling in the internal affairs of countries that used to be under Moscow's control, the organization's secretary-general told journalists in an interview published Wednesday. The move effectively returns the state of European security back to the Cold War era.”
However, this time it was the West’s meddling in the affairs of Eastern Europe which incentivized Moscow’s approach and chilled relations between the two. A look at the profoundly changing map of NATO’s footprint (below) helps to clearly illustrate the reasons for Russia’s defensive response.
Banging on Russia’s Door
President Obama noted in his speech in Tallinn on Wednesday that, “It was not the government in Kyiv that destabilized eastern Ukraine.” But what he did not cover is the force that destabilized all of Ukraine and in turn sparked this current conflict in the first place, namely the U.S. Government’s support for the revolution across the country last year which helped replace the democratically-elected government in Kyiv. Even if President Putin’s reported quote that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” may have been taken out of context, it sounds less extraordinary bearing in mind that a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State already had similar impact almost as quickly within the past year.
Showing a wide gap with the realities of the new spheres of influence created by NATO expansion, President Obama also suggested that, “Just as we refused to accept smaller European nations being dominated by bigger neighbors in the last century, we reject any talk of spheres of influence today.” The in-your-face, incendiary aspects of his visit to this relatively new NATO ally were also evident in Tallinn’s location only about a four hour drive from Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg.
As most vividly seen in Ukraine, recent results of the North Atlantic Alliance’s unsuccessful interventionist strategy may largely speak for themselves. But another benefit of reconsidering past precedents from the end of the first Cold War is that this historic context helps highlight the extent to which elements of the legacy NATO framework have become severely antiquated. For example, the Alliance’s 2010 Strategic Concept stated that, “NATO poses no threat to Russia. On the contrary: we want to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia.” But actions speak louder than words. Advancing the alliance straight to Russia’s borders sends an entirely different message.
Few people have more experience in sealing constructive deals with Russia than ENI’s Paolo Scaroni, who gave an extensive interview during one of his final visits to Washington as chief executive before retiring earlier this year. “What is relevant is that this dependency [on Russian oil] is going to go up and not down because domestic European production [including North Africa] is going down," he said. "Norwegian production is not going up. Algerian production is going up, but Algerian domestic consumption is going up, too. And Libya is Libya. We are the persons in the world who know Libya best, and we know nothing. I was in Libya last Sunday. We have 3,000 people there and still we don’t know much.” Scaroni's perspective stands in stark contrast to tactics seen in NATO’s prior intervention in Libya. Had government leaders shown Scaroni’s humble outlook regarding how little they knew, it might have prevented the catastrophe seen across that country today. But the past pragmatic approaches of the two Italians leaders, Scaroni and Mogherini, may in part stem from the long-standing relationship their country once successfully forged with Russia.
Lack of experience: Another welcome change
At the end of the original Cold War, there was great hope that a new generation would eventually arise in the former Soviet Union as well as the West and introduce new ideas. But the complete mismanagement of Russia policy seen in recent missteps were primarily instituted by individuals from the West who had considerable experience during the Soviet period.
Among her rare distinctions, Mogherini graduated from Sapienza University in Rome after the end of the Soviet Union. By comparison, students of Russia trained during the Soviet era include Dr. Michael McFaul. His more extensive yet antiquated training did not prevent him from overseeing the steep downward trajectory in U.S.-Russia relations.
The current NATO-Russian situation requires nuance and a willingness to rebuild partnerships in the interest of advancing strategic aims. Mogherini would thus be well served to remember the mistakes of her predecessors and, looking to Thatcher's example, strengthen strategic relationships by implementing policies with long-term empowerment in mind. This task remains vital to Europe’s future security, irrespective of the mindless drumbeat in some Western policy circles towards archaic and irrelevant historical modes.
Carter W. Page is Founder and Managing Partner of Global Energy Capital LLC, an Adjunct Associate Professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Energy Fellow at the Center for National Policy in Washington.
Photo by Kaihsu Tai.