European Security, Transatlantic Solidarity, and the “Moment” We’re In

A talk by Ambassador Daniel B. Baer at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy | March 19, 2015

Thank you—thank you for that kind introduction—thank you for having me, and thank you to all of you for starting your Thursday evening with me.

The last 2 years have turned out to be much more interesting ones for those writing about European security than some of those working on European security might have liked. While I think it’s too soon to say much of anything definitive about the new era we may or may not be in, I think that we can nonetheless say something about the moment we’re in today: we can say simply that, for many of us, certain ones of the assumptions on which our expectations for European security were based have proven to be illusions—or maybe delusions is more accurate, if we’re being honest with ourselves—and have been shattered.

Russia’s violations of international law and participation in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine have been a game-changer and a wake-up call.

Part of the evidence for this is the active discussions in our newspapers, our ministries, in the UN Security Council and the OSCE Permanent Council about European security, how to deal with Putinism and Putin’s Russia, what’s at stake in Ukraine, and the importance of the trans-Atlantic alliance and partnership.

We are all in a moment of sorting out the moment we’re in—and it is for that reason, among others, that what I want to offer up tonight is really more of a few initial thoughts and observations that are part of my own process of sorting through, rather than any overarching argument.

I’m going to talk for about 20 minutes, and then I’d welcome your questions or reactions. I’m going to split my comments into 4 observations or sets of observations, and will try to sign post them for you as we go along.

“What America Wants”

The first point I want to make is about “What America Wants”—and to offer some observations in that regard about Asia, Europe, and a rules-based order grounded in universal values.

As a U.S. ambassador one of the things I’m often asked about is the so-called “pivot to Asia” in U.S. policy. Obviously most of my interlocutors want to know what this means for Europe. Sometimes there is a note of anxiety or insecurity mixed in. So let me start by saying what many others in my government have said: Europe is our indispensable partner–the strongest, most reliable, most trusted partners of the United States are here.

The deepening of U.S. ties in Asia is not a form of infidelity with respect to Europe. Quite the opposite; it is, in many ways reflective of the continuation of what has been a common project of Europe, the United States, and other partners, and what remains a central strategic goal of U.S. policy: developing and strengthening a rules-based order grounded in universal values.

This rules-based order follows from a commitment to human dignity and is the way to establish the kind of trust and stable expectations that free leaders from “zero sum” thinking and break through to a positive sum world. The first paragraph of President Obama’s new National Security Strategy reiterates America’s commitment to lead “within a rules-based international order that works best through empowered citizens, responsible states, and effective regional and international organizations.”

The “pivot to Asia” derived, in part, from recognition that U.S. national investment in our foreign policy with respect to Asia needed to be bolstered in order to successfully achieve the objective of maintaining and strengthening the rules-based global order.

The U.S. has long been an Atlantic and a Pacific power, but we have recognized that in the 21st century, continued success in working for peace and prosperity requires deeper engagement in laying the foundation for sustained partnerships in all parts of the world, including Asia.

The idea European Security is “complete” is no longer plausible

There have been a number of flawed explanations offered for the so-called “pivot”—for example, that America considers “security in Europe” to be a done deal. While it’s true that American policy must reflect the tremendous amount of progress on the European security agenda in the last quarter century, the idea that European Security was somehow “complete” and static was never analytically sound and is no longer remotely plausible given the situation we find ourselves in today.

Our common affirmative project continues, including by enhancing the foundations for expanding and deepening the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. TTIP is an opportunity for the U.S. and Europe together to add another framework of common expectations to the expanding infrastructure of a rules-based order.

At the same time, we obviously face new challenges to the rules that have underwritten European security for decades and that are part of that rules-based order that we seek to reinforce.

Putin’s Russia has done violence to the international order. I want to point out two things about the damage that’s been done.

First, while it’s true that one could list Russia along with other actors and phenomena that are currently putting strain on the international order—like Daesh, Boko Haram, Ebola, or climate change—I think it’s important that we recognize that Russia’s recent actions are, in a way, doubly destructive.

Like other global threats, Russia’s behavior has had an enormous human cost in terms of lives lost—thousands of Ukrainians but also hundreds of Russian soldiers whose mothers are told not to ask questions if they ever want to see a ruble of their deceased loved ones’ pensions—and tens of thousands of lives damaged through wounds, more than a million displaced and millions more, in Ukraine and in Russia, suffering economic devastation—all as a result of this chosen, unnecessary conflict.

But Russia is unlike the other challenges in that Russia is supposed to be a part of the international system. We all depend on Russia to be a partner in confronting the global challenges that strain the international system, not to be undermining our collective ability to do so.  Russia’s behavior is not only destroying human lives, it is damaging the international system itself by transforming Russia into an untrustworthy violator of international law. We have not only gained a threat, we have lost a partner.

Russia has as much at stake as the rest of us

The second point is that Russia has as much at stake in a rules based order as the rest of us. (And here I am talking about Russia as the Russian people and a government that, in theory, looks after their basic interests.)

Russia is a big country with many neighbors, not all of them in Europe. Putin’s Russia promotes through actions and rhetoric a 19th century world-view based on power politics, with a Russian sphere of influence that is accepted by others. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that no Russian official can opine about world politics for more than 5 minutes without repeating some version of  what has become a trope for them: that “we live in a multipolar world” or that “the 21st century is poly-centric in global politics”.

It can be tempting to confuse what they are selling as simply another version of what many recognize—that in the 21st century, leadership, problem-solving, economic stewardship and the rest cannot be the province or the responsibility of one state. But that’s not what is at the core of this contemporary argument emanating from Putin’s government—for the rest of what they say is about power politics and deal-making among great powers—much more 19th century than 21st century.

We live in a world where no one country can build success and confront challenges on its own. But it doesn’t follow from that truth that we should or even could therefore accept a global fragmentation into spheres of influence that jockey for power.

And the most important point is that not only can we not accept such a backward view, but neither should any Russian leader worthy of the label. To believe in Putinism, you have to believe in Russia’s being able to achieve and sustain internal stability and prosperity through a combo of internal repression paired with massive corruption, and the exercise of force externally.

Much more likely is that Russia will, like so many other states, benefit from an international order that brings stable expectations and fair outcomes to disputes that Russia has with its neighbors, even when those neighbors have an upper hand.

Sovereignty and territorial integrity are a Russian interest too, and Russia’s blatant violations not only attack the rules that undergird our system, they reduce the protections that system offers to Russia itself.

The second observation is that we should, in this difficult and unsettling time, take comfort in the fact that the state of the Transatlantic relationship is strong.

It’s a good thing that people are talking about Transatlantic unity, trans-Atlantic relations, trans-Atlantic partnerships again as more than placeholders or catchphrases dropped in passing on to other matters in world politics.

We have been forced by a circumstance, by a combination of global and regional challenges, to work more closely and more creatively together—on thorny, complex, urgent policy issues— than we have in some while. And we have done quite a lot.

One of the silver linings of the last 16 months is that what we all knew to be true has been validated once more—that Europe and North America are united by common commitments to universal values and that it is in part because of this that we are each other’s best partners in confronting global challenges.

We are not just united by relationships based on trust, we are united in shared work and common projects.

NATO has, for nearly 66 years, successfully contributed to the security that has allowed more and more people to pursue freedom and prosperity and to build the institutions both domestically and internationally to support those objectives.

Perspectives may differ on tactics, but not on objectives

I’ve heard questions recently about different perspectives on key issues emerging from the US, Canada and Europe, and what to make of those differences. Sometimes diverse opinions do arise within the trans-Atlantic space on how to tackle a particular issue. Who would expect anything else? We have debates on key issues within our democracies—why not among them? But if one looks at any particular examples of the differences of opinion that sometimes surface, they are almost exclusively parts of debates about effective tactics for achieving shared objectives, rather than differences about the objectives themselves. These are healthy debates, which are themselves a reflection of the fact that we’re doing real, consequential work together.

Our common strategic goals—of building and maintaining that rule-based order, of supporting the rule of law and respect for human rights, of developing economies that can deliver shared prosperity, of countering global threats—are clear and genuinely shared.

I don’t think that the trans-Atlantic relationship has ever been stronger, denser, more inclusive, more diverse in its many aspects – than it is today. We have more work to do—both in strengthening our partnership and in using it—but we are starting from a position of strength.

As my boss, Assistant Secretary Nuland said recently “the trials we’ve been through over the past year have left us stronger, more resolved, and better equipped to defend and expand the community of values that defines us.”

My third observation is that bad behavior always attracts attention—in some cases that’s the motive behind it—but, while we must address the current conflict and the menace that is Putin’s Russia, we shouldn’t let it prevent us from noticing and appreciating the inspiring and good story that has unfolded in Ukraine even as war has ravaged the country.

The crisis in Ukraine has everything to do with the failures of the Russian government, and with those of successive Ukrainian governments that—in the best cases failed to establish decent institutions and the rule of law, and in the worst, willingly prostituted their citizens livelihoods and future, culminating in the rapacious and repressive regime of Yanukovych.

But, in addition to all the pain, loss, and heartache of the conflict and the invasion and occupation of Crimea—in the same country in the same year—there were also tremendous good news stories. And the thread running through many of these was a popular and sustained call—in many forms and all across the country– from the people of Ukraine for a future that would be founded on human dignity and a respect for universal values.

There were the students who first came out to the Maidan when Yanukovych caved to Russian pressure and broke his own campaign promises by turning away from reform and agreeing instead to continue his country’s subjugation in exchange for personal payouts. There were the hundreds of thousands who came out after the students were brutally beaten by security forces—collectively saying “no, this is not the brutal country we want to live in, political violence is not acceptable.” There were the tens of millions of Ukrainians who went to the polls first in May and then again in October and whose millions of voices reconfirmed their support for a government that would lead them toward a European future.

They weren’t choosing Europe over Russia, they were choosing fairness over corruption, they were choosing rights over repression, they were choosing the future over the past. They were choosing a way of life, not a sphere of influence.

And despite the war, President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and the government are working with the Rada—which now contains a number of the civil society activists and independent journalists who had worked for good governance outside government—and have begun the difficult process of pushing through reforms—to the gas market, to banking, to the prosecutor’s office, to pensions, and so on.

None of these is enough on its own, and yet each is painful short term investment in Ukraine’s long-term future. Last week’s IMF package should be used to pursue more reform.

Why what is happening in Ukraine is about all of us

And for Europeans, and those of us who share a commitment to the universal values upon which the European Union and European institutions are based, the fact that the idea of Europe and what it stands for was so compelling, so attractive, so inspiring to so many Ukrainians cannot be seen as anything other than a triumph of the European political project. Think about it: In a matter of decades, the European idea has become so strong that people outside “institutional Europe” came out to Maidan and to other squares in other cities around Ukraine with their Ukrainian flags and the flag of the European Union, and they drew courage and resilience from the ideas that European flag represents—equality of persons, rule of law, respect for human dignity.  Some of them were felled by snipers bullets as they carried the flag of the EU.

And for that reason, and because we have committed ourselves to universal values and the equality of persons, what is happening in Ukraine is not just about the people of Ukraine, it is also about all of us. They have said: we believe in universal values, we are ready for the future that those values will help us build. And because of what Europe stands for—because the commitment to those universal values underlies European and American politics and identity—we cannot ignore the thundering chorus of people in Ukraine—people who live in the North and South and East and West of Ukraine, people who speak Russian and Ukrainian and Hungarian and Romanian.

And so leaders in America and Europe must explain to our publics that the quest of the people of Ukraine is our quest too. And that even in difficult times we must continue to work creatively together to support the people of Ukraine and their government in their path toward a rights-respecting, secure, prosperous democracy. We must be prepared to do big things—in partnership and on our own—to advance our shared goals.

My final observation or set of observations is about the future, and I would summarize this by saying we need to be adaptive and smart in the short term, and strategically resolute in the long term. To modify a phrase—everything that’s true is still true, and what was once possible is still possible.

With respect to Ukraine, we must acknowledge—no, we must embrace—the fact that the choice of the Ukrainian people is a choice that demonstrates once again the universal appeal and attraction of universal values. This is a choice we had been predicting not for 25 years but for 70. It is a lifetime in the making. And the best way that we can answer the resounding call by the people of Ukraine is by delivering to their government the support—and the pressure—it needs to drive those reforms forward.

The international financial institutions, the United States, Canada, the EU and European countries must all continue to work to support the Ukrainian government’s efforts to put the economy on a solid footing, to reform government institutions and to establish the rule of law needed to sustain a 21st century future. And we must help the people and government of Ukraine defend that future against those who would derail it.

With respect to Russia, we must first and foremost hold Russia accountable for its violations of international law, and to impose costs until Russia ceases these violations. To not hold Russia accountable is to treat it with a kind of condescension, and to undermine further the system of international law on which we all depend.

Dusting off lessons learned in the past

At the same time, we engage where we can to address some of the near-term risks that Russia’s actions have renewed. The CSCE—before the OSCE—was a platform for this sort of engagement and for mitigating the risks that come from confrontational politics. We should dust off the lessons learned in the past about practical steps that can be taken in the absence of significant trust to reduce risks attendant to misperception. And we should continue—even in these difficult times—to be prepared to make the most of opportunities for progress—for Russia and for Europe and European security—that will come when Russia is moving toward rather than away from Europe.

With respect to our approach to European security, we should have confidence that what was true 5 years ago, 25 years ago at Paris, and 40 years ago at Helsinki is still true today—that the principles in the Helsinki Decalogue remain core to and the right recipe for durable security. That the vision of a new Europe reflected in the Charter of Paris is the vision that Europe has pursued and should continue to pursue.

We should remain confident that what is best for European security, what is best for the citizens of our countries, and what is best for the citizens of Russia is for Russia to be integrated into the rules-based system grounded in universal values, not for Russia to go it alone.

In this respect we should be clear with Russian leaders and, even more importantly, with the Russian people—no matter how much the vile propaganda they’re fed tells them otherwise—that our vision of the future is not one of camps or spheres of influence or East-West divides, but of progressive integration, of shared prosperity and shared security based on rule of law internally and internationally.

So we should stay the course—we should reinforce not reevaluate or rewrite the rules that have been broken.

Some have talked about reaching a new compromise or bargain with Russia—I don’t think that is possible, but even if it were, I think that the proponents of such a course must admit what so far they have not: to modify European security to accommodate Putinism is to give up on Russia—and to weaken European and international security. And neither of these is strategically smart or morally defensible.

Our commitment 40 years later to the principles of Helsinki is and ought to be deeper than it was on the day the Helsinki Final Act was signed. For in Helsinki was not only a grand bargain but also a grand theory about how comprehensive security could be achieved. And we now know that it is true.

So, while we are living in a time when the promises made by states in that bargain have all been violated by Russia, we must also recognize that the events of the last year-and-a-half have also validated the enduring empirical promise of the Helsinki principles—that security among states is inseparable from security within it, and that the security of states is inseparable from the security of persons in their exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is the worst of times but also the best of times for Helsinki.

And so, knowing this, knowing that universal principles reflected in Helsinki and in international law are not the peculiar taste of a particular group of states, but rather a verified and universally applicable prescription for security, we should hold fast and strong to them.

These are the principles on which trans-Atlantic unity and cooperation are based—and these are the principles that can and should guide us going forward.