Friday, October 03, 2008

The EU's Powerless Power

It has long been accepted that while the EU may be one of the world's most powerful actor, its power was not measurable in traditional metrics, particularly not in hard power. The EU is no great military power, as the difficulties in Kosovo made abundantly evident. Instead the EU's power was economic (taken as a single entity, the EU's economy is around the same size as that of the US) and, more importantly, moral. The EU has been seen as one of the main purveyors of global soft power, stemming from the EU's global commitment to development, human rights, and the spread of international law and order. Traditionally, hard power has been the primary currency of international politics, but the EU has committed itself to a large degree to a new type of international politics. So, how has that new direction worked out for the EU?

Not so well, according to a new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations. The report, entitled "A Global Force for Human Rights: An Audit of European Power at the UN" makes a powerful, but not particularly surprising, conclusion. The report argues that the Europeans are losing their power and leverage at the UN: "this report shows that the EU
has also been the architect of its own misfortune. Europe has lost ground because of a reluctance to use its leverage, and a tendency to look inwards –with 1,000 coordination meetings in New York alone each year – rather than talk to others." The problem is that putting the European solutions into motion requires implementing a new, looser understanding of sovereignty. But:

If Europe can no longer win support at the UN for international action on human rights and justice, overriding national sovereignty in extreme cases, it will have been defeated over one of its deepest convictions about international politics as a whole. This is particularly true in cases involving the Responsibility to Protect against genocide and mass atrocities, when the humanitarian consequences of inaction are most severe.

The crisis facing the EU is apparent in the declining support among the UN’s members for European positions on human rights and the responsible exercise of sovereignty. That has been highlighted by 2008’s vitriolic Security Council debates, which have not only been about immediate crises but the principles of UN action. Russia justified its decision to veto action on Zimbabwe – despite an apparent promise to support it from President Medvedev at the G8 summit – as a defence of the UN Charter’s definition of sovereignty.


In the 1990s, the EU enjoyed up to 72% support on human rights issues in the UN General Assembly. In the last two Assembly sessions, the comparable percentages have been 48 and 55%. This decline is overshadowed by a leap in support for Chinese positions in the same votes from under 50% in the later 1990s to 74% in 2007-8. Russia has enjoyed a comparable leap in support. The trend away from the Europeans is markedly worse on the new Human Rights Council (HRC) where EU positions have been defeated in over half the votes.


The EU has lost much support from African states since the 1990s, despite common policies in some specific cases like Darfur. While African leaders are increasingly sympathetic to some forms of humanitarian intervention, they feel alienated by the European approach to matters like immigration.

The EU is faring even worse in the 47-member Human Rights Council (HRC). This was formed in 2006 – with European support against US opposition – to replace the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), which was the object of widespread criticism. But the EU and its human rights allies actually enjoyed a small but workable majority in the CHR, which it has lost in the HRC, primarily due to a reallocation of seats by region that EU diplomats had failed to anticipate.


The EU’s frustrations continue on the Security Council. Despite an even division among the current membership between the EU’s friends and foes, the Russian and Chinese vetoes are a permanent impediment to progress on human rights issues....

The EU has thus been forced to water down resolutions on subjects such as peacekeeping in Darfur to get them through; in 2007, a resolution on Kosovo had to be abandoned altogether because of Russian opposition. The 2008 Security Council debates on Burma and Zimbabwe resulted in further high profile failures for the EU – the former was presented by some Europeans as a setback for the Responsibility to Protect, while the latter was celebrated by Russia’s ambassador as a victory for traditional sovereignty.
What is to be done? The report makes several suggestions:
Europe must erect a big tent at the UN, constructing broad, shifting coalitions capable of isolating the hard-line minority of states which resist all attempts to impose limits on national sovereignty. It needs an engagement strategy to win back the support of the African and Latin American countries that it has lost, and win over more moderate members of the Islamic bloc. This coalition-building policy should help put pressure on the Security Council to act in crises.

To this end, the EU needs to mobilise all the political and financial resources it can – as well as examining the sanctions it can impose – to persuade other countries to support an international rule of law based on human rights and justice.
But these recommendations not only have the solution all wrong, they fail to properly identify the problem. The problem isn't the EU's inability to put together a "big tent" coalition; it's the UN's commitment to sovereign equality and the EU's lack of hard power. Go back and look at the one of the first passages quoted above: "If Europe can no longer win support at the UN for international action on human rights and justice, overriding national sovereignty in extreme cases, it will have been defeated over one of its deepest convictions about international politics as a whole." When has the EU ever overridden national sovereignty for internatinal action on human rights and justice? In Rwanda? In Bosnia? In Kosovo? In Darfur? It's not the EU's fault, it's the UN. The UN is simply not the correct forum for advancing such an understanding of the responsibilities of sovereignty in "extreme cases."

In fact, the only time sovereignty has been overridden in such cases was a direct product of American hard power when, in Kosovo, NATO was both politically and militarily strong enough to bypass the UN and take matters into its own hands.

The report recommends the imposition of sanctions to force countries to "support an international rule of law based on human rights and justice." How well have sanctions worked in convincing North Korea, Iran, Syria, Sudan, or Zimbabwe to respect human rights and justice? Sanctions are an inherently flawed instrument that are not only ineffective but that typically harm the wrong audience -- the public rather than the political elites.

The EU has proven itself time and time again -- in the early days of the Kosovo crisis, in the inability of the EU-3 to make any meaningful progress with Iran, in its unwillingness to take even minimal actions in Darfur -- to be a powerless power. It may have oodles of soft power, and a commitment to justice, international law, and human rights. But those things are meaningless and useless without enforcement. Just as domestic law needs the backing of the power of the state to enforce a society's norms and values, so is hard power is necessary if states are to spread an international ideal other than sovereign equality. The failure to recognize this and to seriously consider the relationship between hard and soft power has been of the biggest failures of the US in recent years. Now, the EU is making the same mistake.

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