"Building walls," "closing borders" and "the protection of national values" have increasingly become the trendsetting phrases in global politics. Governments more and more demonstrate inward-looking attitudes with preference to safeguard themselves against transnational challenges, instead of reaching out to neighbours and partners for more cooperation in quest for solutions. How should the European Union and Germany prepare themselves to better cope with this new geopolitical environment?
FES Connect had the chance to talk to Prof. Dr. Ursula Schröder, expert and professor of international security at the Otto-Suhr-Institute for Political Science of the Free University in Berlin. As guest speaker and author, Prof. Schröder has contributed with her expertise to the work of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on several occasions. In our conversation, she shares insights and recommendations of how the European Union and Germany should prepare themselves for the current global security and peace context.
In your work, as academic and scholar you focus on international security policies. You have authored various publications, among others also a paper on how European security sector reform strategies can contribute to peacebuilding, and on the German role in this process. Looking back today, how would you reassess your statements against the background of today’s security situation?
Ursula Schröder: During the past years, European assistance to the reconstruction of effective and accountable security institutions in states emerging from conflict has become even more important. The EU’s new security sector reform (SSR) framework reflects this. It explicitly sees SSR as a key component of the EU’s conflict prevention, crisis management and peacebuilding policies. Having said that, recent research – also my own – has highlighted the highly uneven track record of international engagement in the field of SSR.
We are faced with a situation in which more complex and politically sensitive reforms of the security sector – those reforms concerning questions of democratic control, oversight and good governance of the security services – have taken a back seat vis-à-vis quick impact projects aimed at strengthening solely the capacity of security services abroad. Faced with a growing gap between comprehensive SSR concepts and their implementation, I would like to see a stronger commitment to the implementation of the new and comprehensive EU SSR strategic framework.
In practice, however, the EU’s recent ‘enable and enhance’ (E2I) initiative points to a reverse trend: we are seeing an ever more pronounced interest in pragmatic and quick-impact approaches focused on training, equipping and mentoring security services. From a peace research perspective, this is highly problematic. It fails to consider the adverse social and political consequences - both in the short term and, more importantly, in the long-term - that often result from strengthening security institutions without at the same time insisting on democratic oversight, accountability and good governance. If we take Germany’s commitment to foreign policy as a policy for peace seriously, the German government needs to take steps to ensure that its own security assistance initiatives are implemented in line with EU SSR guidelines.
The terrorist attacks in Belgium, Germany, and France over the past 12 months have raised the level of tension and fear in Europe. Since, voices within Europe have been getting louder, calling for EU armed forces. This idea is not new in the history of EU integration, but it has repeatedly been refuted pointing out to the fundamentally civilian character of the Union. Last year, the EU established a new military headquarter within the EU’s foreign service and is intended to mobilize a rapid reaction force ready on standby in case an emergency occurs. Even though the EU explicitly denied this force to be an EU army, do you think it could be considered as a first step in this direction? How much rejection do you think the EU would have to face if it wanted to create an official EU army?
US: I think there are quite a few misunderstandings when it comes to recent EU proposals in the field of security and defence policy. A real ‘European army’ at a large scale is simply not going to happen, not in the absence of a European state.
To understand the relatively small scope of the proposals tabled late last year, it is important to see that the EU’s security and defence policy is an intergovernmental cooperation agreement that leaves final decisions about crucial military and defence matters in the hands of EU member states. What was proposed was the creation of a small military headquarters within the European External Action Service.
The necessity of this step has been debated for a long time. Essentially, it would enable the EU to command its own non-combat military training operations – and this certainly does not amount to the creation of a European army. What is possibly more relevant is a parallel proposal to establish a European Defence Fund. This would give the EU the opportunity to enhance its military cooperation by supporting investment in joint research and development activities.
Overall, I think that the most interesting question here is not whether the EU will create an army, but rather to what end the EU is willing to use its existing security and defence policy. This is clearly an issue that should be debated more publicly.
With regards to the elections to the Bundestag taking place this September and to the current security situation in Germany, how would you assess the importance that will be attributed to security as a policy field within the upcoming electoral campaigns?
US: I believe that we will see election campaigns that focus on some security issues, but not predominantly external security. Particularly issues linked to perceptions of domestic security and safety will probably be relevant, but I am not sure election campaigns offer a good forum for this type of debate.
Obama’s presidency ended with reports informing of an average of 72 bombs dropped daily in 2016 alone. We are now on the eve of Trump’s presidency and the international community is holding its breath with regards to his rather vague, sometimes even contradicting, political statements. Trump courting Putin on the one hand and his hostility towards China on the other hand will evidently change the geopolitical situation and international relations. How would you see Trump’s rather vague security policy and what may we expect given the military legacy Obama leaves?
US: One policy field to watch is the U.S. government’s drone strike programme that has become a crucial part of its counterinsurgency and counterterrorism effort. This programme was initiated during a Republican administration. Yet, President Obama’s massive expansion of targeted drone strikes make it an enduring and very controversial legacy of the past Democratic administration.
The Obama administration interpreted the programme’s mandate very broadly, leaving the new administration a lot of leeway to implement its own agenda. I am worried that the massively increased use of drones without much oversight during the Obama administration has set a dangerous precedent. This is likely to have some problematic repercussions for the ways in which the Trump administration chooses to handle this instrument, and to what end.
Which recommendations would you have for Germany and the European Union? How should they prepare themselves when facing Trump’s vague foreign and security policy?
US: Both the EU and Germany would obviously be very well served to develop stronger forms of European cooperation in matters of peace and security. Now more than ever. The security challenges facing the European Union are already severe and may well become more so. However, in my view the external security challenges are only one part of the picture.
Much of the debate since Trump’s election has naturally focused on the external challenges facing the Union, and on the strength of security alliances such as NATO. But I strongly believe that we also need to revitalise the European Union as a peace project in its own right on the European continent. We have witnessed the rise of populism and right wing extremism, and we have seen the EU’s less than adequate response to migration.
The European peace project used to address peace between nations. It now needs to address peace within European society. This is a very different type of challenge. In my view, it is therefore essential that in response to a more uncertain Trump presidency, the EU focuses not only outwards, but inwards. It needs to work towards strengthening safe, peaceful and inclusive societies in Europe. This is the bedrock of European Union. Peace and security starts at home.
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