Europe should stop following US

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

US President Donald Trump during the meeting with Commission and European Council chiefs Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, in May 2017. Juncker warned Trump about Europe's retaliatory measures if he imposed tariffs when they met twice last year. [European Commission]

President Trump walks the talk with his “America First”. But US Congress also supports this mantra. It is high time that the EU defends its own legitimate interests, including with respect to trade and energy relations with Russia, writes Tom Sauer.

Tom Sauer is Associate Professor in International Politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen (Belgium).

Congress just voted a law by which it imposes additional economic sanctions on Russia, and because of a two third majority President Trump will in all likelihood sign it.

That may be understandable from a US position. But what about European firms that because of this US law will be coerced and fined to stop dealing with Russian firms. That is a bridge too far. The EU does not coerce US firms, does it?

It fits the US narrative that Putin is making trouble on the international scene. Putin is the devil himself. It is Putin who plays a cat-and-mouse game with the West. But above all, it is Putin who took away the Crimea from Ukraine and who is a warmonger in eastern Ukraine.

That is all true. Nothing of all this can be approved, on the contrary. However, it is also abundantly clear that some economic sectors in the US gain thanks to this crisis with Russia, including the defence industry and the energy sector.

Is that the reason why the US foreign policy establishment does not have a lot of incentives to resolve the conflict?

Is it possible that there are reasons other than geopolitical ones why NATO, still dominated by the US, complicates the situation by imitating Putin’s bad behaviour by organising large military exercises in the Baltic States and surroundings, and by sending strategic bombers towards Europe just like during the Cold War?

Unfortunately, the fundamental question why Putin is behaving more assertively has been sidelined for a long time. The answer to this question, however, may help us assessing his future intentions.

If we try to guess Putin’s motivations, there are basically two schools: one believes that Russia has always been expansionist. The other school thinks that Russia was in a defensive mood, reacting to Western behaviour, more in particular to the Western attempt to incorporate Ukraine in its own sphere of influence.

If you make the post-Cold War puzzle, the second school seems to be closest to the truth. The West indeed forgot to integrate Russia on equal terms in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture when it “won” the Cold War.

In contrast, post-Napoleonic France as well as Germany and Japan after the Second World War were integrated in the international state system, despite the fact that these countries had started and had lost the war.

It had a stabilising effect in world politics. It is my conviction that if the West had integrated Russia in a similar collective security organisation after 1991, we would not have experienced the current crisis.

If states fail to aim for collective interests, they automatically fall back on a medieval balance of power game. One does not need to be a diplomat to understand that if you nag somebody, the latter will retaliate in one way or another.

From Moscow’s point of view, the 1990s are a period that should be forgotten. Russia remained as the main left-over of the former Soviet Union. The Warsaw Pact imploded, which was not unexpected as the enemy had been gone and as alliances are by definition temporary.

The road from a state-based economy towards a capitalist system was not easy. The West also reneged on promises not to enlarge NATO, the other alliance that naturally had to pass away. There are many rumours and misunderstandings about these promises.

It is a plain fact that both the US and German Minister of Foreign Affairs, respectively James Baker and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, in February 1990 more than once promised not to expand NATO in the direction of the East.

As a result of these oral promises, President Gorbachev gave the green light for German reunification. Russia felt deceived afterwards, and rightly so. Despite these humiliations, Putin was the first to call the US after 9/11. The Bush administration could not have cared less.

At a certain moment, one crosses the limit. That moment was 2003. It was the period of the first coloured revolutions in Russia’s neighbourhood, supported by Western NGO’s. Putin was afraid that these revolutions might spill over to Russia.

It was at that time that Russia’s informal attempts to become part of the West came to a standstill. Russia became more assertive, also thanks to rising oil and gas prices.

After the third round of NATO extension in 2007, when even Georgia and Ukraine were promised membership, Russia provoked Georgia into (a short) war. Nevertheless, the autistic West did not bother.

The most amazing diplomatic manoeuver was the idea of the EU to take Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of interest in 2013. On more than one occasion, the Kremlin had made clear that that was Russia’s red line. However, the West was either naive or expansionistic itself. The West made one mistake after the other.

It is still not too late to learn from our mistakes in the past. Let’s improve our relationship with Russia. Russia is needed for the stabilisation of the Middle East (and consequently for the terrorism and migration issue in Europe), energy, proliferation (including Iran and North Korea), and many other security related issues.

In addition, it is in our economic self-interest to not let the situation with Russia further go down the drain. Better relations with Russia will automatically improve the situation for the Baltic States and Ukraine. This logic does not hold the other way around, as we experienced.

Consequently, one better stop talking about EU and NATO membership for Ukraine. If not, and the US is actively thinking about arming Ukraine, one can easily predict further military actions by Putin.

In short, it is high time that Europe, just like the US, defends its own interests and its own jobs. There is nothing wrong with that. The time that Europe always follows the US should be over.

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