Call for applications: Eastern Focus Short Term Research fellowship

Eastern Focus, a GlobalFocus Center research and analysis hub based in Bucharest, is launching a short-term research program (2 months) for (emerging) regional* experts. This program is a valuable opportunity for regional professionals to consolidate and publicize their work and skills, enhance their public profile and contribute to crucial debates. 

* From the following countries: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, the Republic of Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Turkey, Ukraine. 

SCOPE OF THE FELLOWSHIP:

The program aims to foster in-depth research into topics of high significance for the region, where existing knowledge needs to keep pace with the dynamic, fast-evolving realities on the ground. The four priority domains are: 

  • Reassessing the future relationship with Russia; 
  • Seeking independence from China; 
  • The next generation Turkey; 
  • The Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean: a microcosm of great-power competition 

Selected fellows will be able to choose their own focus and approach to one of the four topics. They will receive a USD 1,000 stipend to support their work (desktop research, monitoring of latest trends, and interviews with relevant stakeholders) and will benefit from the resources and guidance of the distinguished network of experts of GlobalFocus Center and its partners, including one-on-one mentoring by top international specialists.

The research output will be published in Eastern Focus (www.eastern-focus.eu), a project powered by the Global Focus Center. This English-language digital quarterly and platform for analysis brings the most debated topics of the region into the spotlight and facilitates the integration of new voices and ideas in the international arena. 

The fellows will be expected to write (in English) a final paper/ article of around 5,000 words to conclude their research. They will also be expected to hold an online/ offline briefing/ presentation for experts and they will be able to participate in GlobalFocus Center’s thematic activities. 

ELIGIBILITY:

The ideal candidate is a Ph.D. student (preferably of International Relations, Political Science, Economy, Sociology or other related fields), or a researcher with a similar level of expertise and at least a few years’ experience, with demonstrated knowledge of one of the priority domains and proven track record (published articles, research and analysis) in their field of interest. Candidates who do not meet the above criteria are welcome to apply, so long as they can make a compelling argument for their selection. Students without a BA or entry-level, very junior researchers are not eligible. English fluency is required (writing and speaking). 

HOW TO APPLY:

Submit the following to office@eastern-focus.eu:   

  • C.V. 
  • Brief research outline, max. one page (including preliminary steps, working theory and the plan towards the outcome)
  • Writing samples (already published or in progress) – demonstrating research abilities on the chosen topic and/or related subjects

Deadline for applications: October 31, 2020
Fellowship timeframe: November 2020 – January 2021 

“We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world:” Brent Scowcroft & the world he helped fashion

Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.

Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?

He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.

Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).

“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.

The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)

Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)

In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.

And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)

This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)

Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.

Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)

Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.

References:

  1. Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
  2. The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
  3. Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
  4. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
  5. Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
  6. George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
  7. Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
  8. John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
  9. For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  10. Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
  11. James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
  12. Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
  13. Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
  14. Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

Pandemic of discord: Will the EU allow Kosovo – Serbia peace to slip through its fingers?

The COVID-19 pandemic has engendered  an opportunity to reinitiate discussions regarding the controversial redrawing of borders along ethnic lines between Kosovo and Serbia.

Right when the COVID-19 crisis reached Kosovo, its government fell.

The Parliament ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti in a vote of no confidence. The pretext was that he refused to enact a state of emergency that would legally justify the restrictive measures he had put in place in order to curb the Coronavirus outbreak.

Kurti claims he was concerned about transferring the government powers to the Security Council chaired by President Hashim Thaci. Yet Kurti added that his concern was less about the coronavirus threat, and more about his fear that Thaci would use the powers given by the new act to conclude a controversial deal with Serbia to redraw Kosovo’s borders along ethnic lines. In the weeks that followed, the deal seemed set to become reality.

There is reason for Europe to take this seriously, as it may well become a defining moment for nation-states in Europe. The question of redrawing borders underlines a larger crisis of the nation-state in which ethnic minorities play a key role. In some cases, the presence of large ethnic minorities has been perceived as a legitimate factor in the demarcation of borders. Yet it has also been used as a claim to legitimise ethno-territorial fantasies that brought the Western Balkans to war in the 1990s.

Although governments aim to present their borders as stable, the ideological nation-state is in flux, and nationalism is swiftly evolving across Europe. Amidst rising populist sentiment and ensuing xenophobia, ethnic difference is increasingly presented as a problem for the nation-state. If the fall of the nation-state has been predicted already, the pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify its centrality in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse. While the grave health and economic consequences of the Pandemic persist, the rapid political shifts that resulted from it can bring about structural changes that will be felt for decades to come, and have implications for Europe as a whole.

The pandemic crisis has only served to highlight and amplify the centrality of the nation-state in debates over the future of Europe by now rendering it a crucial component of public discourse.

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has remained in a stalemate for quite some time, with Brussels hesitating to take any decisive action. However, to address lingering tensions in the Kosovo-Serbia relationship, Europe must also look at its own complex history in relation to ethnic minorities and nationalism. Moreover, it also needs to learn from recent history in order to keep a very volatile situation under control.

Pandemic of discord: could it bring about ethnic borders in Europe?

Prime Minister Kurti and President Thaci had long disagreed on a proposal for territorial exchange as part of a potential Kosovo-Serbia final peace settlement. Kurti was worried Thaci would seize the opportunities offered by the COVID-19 Pandemic to move forward with this deal.

While the specifics of such a land swap are largely unknown, Thaci’s statement in 2018 announcing the proposal suggested it would unify Albanian majority areas in southern Serbia with Kosovo. In return, Serb majority areas in northern Kosovo would be united with Serbia.

The thought of redrawing borders along ethnic lines led thousands to protest in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina. Given the EU’s acquiescence on the matter, several civil society groups in Kosovo and Serbia, as well as former highrepresentatives to Bosnia sent open letters to then-EU High Commissioner Federica Mogherini, urging her to oppose the deal. For the past two years, the issue has galvanised intense public debate, particularly after it was revealed that the Kosovo government had in 2019 commissioned a Paris-based company to lobby in favour of a land swap.

Given the controversy, President Thaci later reframed his proposal with the more palatable framing of “border correction” (supposedly modeled on similar agreements between Belgium and the Netherlands) and promised that there would be no demarcation along ethnic lines. In promoting the proposal, he adopted a language grounded in liberal democratic values, speaking of normalization, reconciliation and the “preservation of a multiethnic spirit,” in line with EU aspirations. However, the ambiguity and complete lack of transparency of the proposal’s contents, as well as lack of concerted efforts to consult public opinion, has done little to diminish concerns.

The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans.

The prospect of a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia looks to be dictated by circumstance. The Trump-administration, eager for a foreign policy win, offered to host talks between Thaci and President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic in the White House on June 27th.

That is, until June 24th when Thaci was indicted for war crimes by the Special Prosecutor’s Office in the Hague, prompting the cancellation of the talks.

The timing was not an accident. The Court stated that Thaci was suspected to have made efforts to obstruct the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, and feared Thaci would attempt to negotiate amnesty for himself as part of a settlement with Serbia, as well as to overturn the law establishing the Court.

The EU now looks set to once again take charge of the dialogue, and has announced it will host a series of talks beginning with its Paris Summit in July 2020. To ensure that the Pandemic is not used as a pretext to rapidly conclude a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia, it is imperative to critically address the EUs approach to peace and state building in line with its perspective on multiethnic states and minority rights. This is particularly urgent given its acquiescence to border change, and in light of what appears to be a race towards a final settlement for Kosovo and Serbia.

The Pandemic has facilitated conditions in which a democratically elected prime minister could be ousted, without proper opportunity for the governing party to elect a new prime minister. Social distancing measures complicated the opportunity to hold a snap general election and limited protests. This has not gone unnoticed in Europe. 15 European MPs signed an open letter urgently warning against “using the extraordinary situation caused by the Pandemic for political maneuvers that can damage the country, its reputation and the path to democracy and freedom.” It specifically called on political leaders to “waive the rapid signing of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo if it threatens to risk the stability of the region (…) especially the case if the agreement provides for ethnic-geographical exchange of land between countries.” It concluded that any agreement must have public support and strengthen rule of law and democracy “beyond ethnic borders.”

Now is the time for the EU to take decisive action. Changes brought on by emergency measures enacted during the Pandemic may well affect the political landscape of Europe for years to come.

History has shown there are reasons to take this moment seriously. A state of emergency in the Western Balkans has through its history been used for political purposes. At times this has had dire consequences. Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who initiated a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Western Balkans in the 1990s seized on the opportunity of a state of emergency, and under the authority of the latter, captured power legally. When protests had erupted over proposed amendments to strip Kosovo of its autonomy, Milosevic declared a state of emergency. This allowed him exceptional authority to amend the Yugoslav constitution and return governing power over Kosovo to Belgrade. Amidst the Pandemic, governments in Russia, Poland and Hungary have all taken advantage of the current state of emergency to acquire greater powers internally.

The EU, given its prominence in the process, needs to be particularly wary of the risks of setting an ethnopolitical precedent in the Western Balkans. This extends beyond the Balkans – given Russia’s assertion of its right and obligationto protect Russian ethnic minorities everywhere, the EU may find itself inadvertently endorsing ethno-territorial claimssuch as that of Russia to parts of Ukraine, Moldova, The Baltics and Central Asia.

A future for the (multiethnic) state?

EU officials and academics have warned that redrawing borders along ethnic lines may open old wounds and cause ripple-effects across the Western Balkans and the EU itself. Ethnic tensions are not solely a Balkan issue. Underlying the rise of far-right nationalism in Europe today is fear, anger and hatred of a particularly ethnic character: grounded in xenophobia and a belief that ethnically different groups cannot coexist in peace. Despite efforts to foster diverse and multi-ethnic identities across the European Union, large ethnic minorities continue to be perceived as threats to the nation-state.

Even the more moderate of views tend to consider mono-ethnic groups as politically and culturally homogeneous, as if in a natural and inherent manner. Ethnic homogeneity, thus, is believed to ensure higher levels of social and political trust and thereby easier to govern within the framework of a nation-state.

Preached in this belief, tangible solutions to disentangle Kosovo’s ethnic apartheid system have been sparse and uncreative. Establishing concrete benchmarks and demonstrating tangible progress on minority rights is a precondition for EU membership. However, proposals for Kosovo’s Serbian minority have fallen little short of segregation. Addressing the internal biases that may be leading all parties into a stalemate on this issue is indispensable, as lack of progress in this field has been the major cause of dialogue impasse.

Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries.

The EU’s approach in the Western Balkans tends to see ethnic identities as inherently problematic. This is consistent with theories of ethnic nationalism that characterise ethnic identities as intolerant, irrational and xenophobic.

The EU’s Enlargement process attempts to make ethnic identities less salient, for instance by encouraging ethnically inclusive national symbols: a multi-ethnic flag asserting its EU-future and a national anthem called “Europa” without any lyrics – so as to respect Kosovo’s multiethnic nature. Across Europe and its neighbourhood, the EU has sought to promote civic national identities, considered liberal and inclusive, based on solidarity, democracy and political legitimacy.

Concurrently, ethnic identities are protected and empowered under universal values that lay the foundations for minority rights, as set forth in the EU’s accession criteria. While civic identities, in theory, should be permissive of ethnic identities, the result is an, at times, confused and contradictory approach: striving simultaneously for multiethnic coexistence that promotes and preserves ethnic identities, and for a unified civic national identity that attempts to make ethnic identities less salient.

Prospects for progress are not helped by the EU’s chronic lack of enthusiasm for the Western Balkans. Despite efforts to promote civic identities that embrace ethnic diversity, the EU has tended to accept that ethnicity has clear borders and boundaries. From this view, the conclusion is that ethnic relations need to be managed in a way that assumes the permanence of ethnic identities. A reading of Kosovo’s history, as presented by historian Noel Malcolm (who explores myths and facts of both Kosovo Albanian and Serbian histories), demonstrates that culture has been in constant flux since records began.

Instead of building resilient structures to protect against government neglect and mismanagement; instead of empowering civil society to come up with sustainable solutions permissive of multiple and transcendent identities and the evolution of these over time- such as desegregating the school system, facilitating multiethnic history exchanges, or to question how minority communities may have come to shape their own distinct culture- institutionalizing a framework for minority rights has failed to surpass ethnic segregation.

Transforming the process

The EU holds a key responsibility in supporting Kosovo to develop an approach to minority rights that avoids entrenching ethnic divides into its political system. Abandoning the all-stakes, high level, trickle-down approach of the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue in place of a transformative multi-level and bottom-up approach that makes governing officials accountable to their citizens- would make Kosovo more resilient against circumstantial political disruption and vigilant against officials using their positions to ensure their own impunity over people’s interests.

If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.

Commissioning an expert group of local and international academics, researchers, EU officials, politicians and policy-makers, students and civil society groups to develop a comprehensive, sustainable, and resilient framework for minority rights that holds governments accountable to the protection of rights and interests, and ensures minority representation in political institutions – could pave the way for sustainable peace and resilient, democratic institutions. The EU can do this by also opening up its own preconceptions of ethnic difference for debate.When it looked as if the US would take over the dialogue and negotiate a final settlement, it was a wake-up call for the EU. Now that the EU is back in the driver seat, it can use the opportunity of the talks to transform the dialogue’s format and put agency back in the hands of citizens, as well as to begin the process of putting options on the table that are centred on citizens’ interests. This is even more important given the risk of rapid political shifts spurred on by emergency measures enacted under the guise of the Pandemic. The EU needs to ensure that the dialogue is accountable to citizen interest by complimenting the high-level talks with formal and informal dialogues with mid-level leaders and civil society. The EU needs to establish guidelines and evaluate emergency measures on a case-by-case basis, and keep in mind its history in the Western Balkans. If the EU remains uninterested and inactive, it may end up with an unprecedented problem on its borders and, if a land swap is agreed to, risk endorsing a precedent with dire consequences.

Turkey and the quest for limited autonomy from the West

By over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself on a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

The summer of 2020 has been unlike any summer in recent history. Usually, during the long summer months, a sort of informal moratorium appears between Greece and Turkey so that there would be no particular spike in tensions between them, as the inflow of ever-growing number of tourists with their greenbacks on both sides of the Aegean was deemed too important for the economies of both countries. This summer, when the coronavirus has been wreaking havoc and tourist revenues have been negligible, the action has shifted to gunboat diplomacy and the search for leverage in an increasingly complex and unsteady European security architecture. Yet there is no novelty here, as this has been the state of relations between the two countries – both NATO members since 1952 while Turkey is still formally negotiating its accession to the European Union since 2003 – for a long time. It reflects the surreal pragmatism in both Turkey’s relationship with the West, to which it still belongs but doubts whether it does, as well as the transactional reflexes of both Greece and Turkey regarding their relations with each other, given the ambiguous positions of their partners and allies. Should there have been no NATO or EU, a good argument could be made that relations between the two countries would mirror Turkey’s relations with some of its other neighbours, such as Iraq or Syria, or even Iran and Armenia. 

Yet apart from this surreal state of play between Greece and Turkey, which most of their western allies do not understand or do not want to understand or pretend does not exist, this summer has been different because a number of other paradoxes are coming to the fore. Most stem from ideological imperatives and domestic cleavages within Turkey proper that have rapidly acquired an external or foreign policy dimension. Here the broader implications of the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque come into play, although barely six weeks after the 10 July decision to do so, the issue no longer seems to dominate the headlines anymore. 

‘It’s the domestic politics, stupid’

The decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was primarily motivated by domestic considerations and the deep dividing lines within Turkish society, which undoubtedly have political characteristics. The current Turkish government and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seem to favour the implementation of a civilisational discourse into a civilisational state reality, primarily for reasons of political expediency. This is particularly relevant in the perennial battle between Kemalists and Islamists that has shaped Turkish politics for decades. This does not imply that the emergence of a ‘clash of civilisation’ discourse does not have deep seated roots within both the governing party and its electorate, in particular as a revindication of the Kemalist turn toward modernisation, Westernisation and secularism upon the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, away from the virtues of Islam as the dominant ideology of the Empire. Nevertheless, a level of political expediency is very much in evidence, especially since the 2010s when the synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey today. According to political scientist Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, the decision represents an example of the assumption of moral superiority over Kemalism without necessarily impacting upon the nature of the relationship between the state and religion since Turkish secularism or “laicism, as the continuation of a Byzantine-era practice, is inherently dependent upon the state’s control and guidance of religion in line with the state’s interests and objectives.” As to the effect on Turkish multiculturalism, its practice is already problematic, as the inherent and privileged correlation between Turkishness and Sunni Islam has been a way of life throughout the 97 years of the existence of the Turkish Republic. The troubled history of the country’s Greek orthodox minority, as well as that of its Armenian, Kurdish, and Alevi populations, among others, are a testament to this sad state of affairs. Though successive polls since the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia do no show that it has had a significant impact in the government’s sagging poll numbers, the mitigated reaction by the Kemalist opposition reflects an acceptance that its ability to influence the country’s ideological direction has been further limited. What emerges is a very real existential dilemma for the country’s secular population as to what this gradual, overt promotion of political Islam means for their way of life. 

The synthesis between the instrumentalisation of religion, nationalism, and anti-western Kemalism or Eurasianism has been shaping the direction of Erdoğan’s Turkey since the 2010s.

For the Greek Orthodox minority and Bartholomew I, the embattled Ecumenical Patriarchate and spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christian worldwide, the reaction of the Patriarch encapsulates the reality: “What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting, a 1500-year-old heritage is dividing us. I am saddened and shaken.” As his close associates have told me, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has survived 567 years without the Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque in 1453 and then into a museum in 1935, and can continue to do so.

Promoting an Islamic agenda

A second dimension has to do with the perception within the Muslim world as to which leader is defending or promoting an Islamic agenda. Although many predominantly Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, are at odds with Turkey’s perceived infringement upon the global Islamic discourse (and their geopolitical interests), the battle is actually for the hearts and minds of Sunnis around the world. Erdoğan’s reference on 10 July that the “resurrection of the Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the Al-Aqsa Mosque” in Jerusalem is a case in point.

An increasingly coercive posture

The third facet linked to the conversion of Hagia Sophia is the wider geopolitical and geo-economic context which capitals around the world have been grappling with, given the consensus that the regional and global security architecture, and as a consequence the international liberal multilateral order in place since the end of the Second World War, has been faltering. With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities. While for the European Union and its member states, this implies a painful conceptual and material transition into a more geopolitical union, Turkey’s methodology has involved the promotion and implementation of a more transactional approach where assertive and coercive diplomacy predominates. Here the attempt is both to rationalise the vacuum that a less strategic United States leaves both within the wider European space and in the Mediterranean, and to ensure that consensual national strategies – such as the country’s place as a regional energy transit hub, and, by extension, as a regional power with global reach – do not get sidetracked. While for the European Union and its member states, some form of multilateralism and its normative framework are a sine qua non for addressing regional and global challenges, for Turkey the militarisation of foreign policy instruments as evidenced in the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as the challenge to international forums and institutions and their norms and rules to which Turkey is a party to, will be an acceptable means of conduct if these limit its ability to extend its Lebensraum and its ability to manifest itself as an indispensable regional actor. For example, the Hagia Sophia reconversion is a case in point, as Turkey went through the process without prior consultation, for example with UNESCO, as it was bound to do given the monument’s World Heritage Site status. 

The instrumentalisation of religion as a foreign policy tool, in this case, promotes the simplistic perception of a ‘Neo-Ottomanist’ turn in Turkish foreign policy where Ankara leads the fight against the West. In other words, as Nicholas Danforth notes, “[w]hen it serves their purposes, Turkey’s leaders will undoubtedly continue to dress their foreign policies in neo-Ottoman garb.”

More of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability 

Despite the aforementioned instrumentalisation of religion and the militarisation of foreign policy, Ankara has not made a move to either withdraw from the Atlantic Alliance or to break totally with the European Union. Yet the tell-tale signs are many, starting in particular with the overt attempt to couple greater strategic autonomy from the West with its growing relationship with the Russian Federation since 2016. Alarm bells were raised by the 2019 purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and its implications for Ankara’s relations with Washington as well as NATO as a whole. Its recent and ongoing strong-arm tactics against Greece and France, among others, have led many to suggest willy-nilly that Turkey has become the Alliance’s ‘elephant in the room’ with a proliferation of strategic divides on a variety of fronts, with implications regarding NATO’s already problematic reach in the Black Sea region and the Middle East. 

An argument could be made that Turkish actions imply the implementation of a security doctrine based on the concepts of forward defence and self help, given its assessment of the regional security concept as well as the synthesis domestically of political Islam, nationalism, and anti-Westernism. Yet the contradictions of Turkish foreign policy, and its possible self-entrapment due to an overestimation of its influence or an acceptance of the manner in which it tries to enforce it, make it more of a disruptor rather than a pole of stability in the wider European, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Eurasian spaces. In other words, by over-projecting its power potential, Ankara finds itself heading for a conflictual trajectory, on a case-by-case basis, with the interests of other major or regional powers such as the US, Russia, France, Italy, Israel, Egypt, and Germany.

With the United States – the crucial link holding the order in place – doubting both its role in the world as well as what its priorities should be, regional states have been scrambling to reconsider their priorities.

As long as Turkey’s break with the West does not become more permanent and the transition away from Kemalist tenets is slow and contained, the wider European regional context implies one of balancing and rebalancing, action and reaction between the region’s powers. The US’s ambivalence and ambiguities have led regional states to seek different ways to augment their security, many (especially the European countries) within the confines of international law and multilateral institutions, while others test the system’s limits. The pace of change is rapid, with the verdict still out as to whether the frayed relationship between Turkey and its partners and allies does remain a Gordian knot. The options on the table now are between limited strategic autonomy for Ankara or strategic independence. Both of these choices or developments can be managed, provided the methodology Ankara uses to promote either choice does not become excessively heavy-handed, putting at risk the interests, sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU and NATO member states, and by extension, the organisations they belong to. Although there is not much room for optimism at this point in time, a more permanent, long-lasting, value-laden binding agreement with Turkey is necessary. There is a need to move beyond the stopgap triptych of ‘solidarity, de-escalation, and dialogue’ as Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, suggested after the video conference meeting of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the EU Member States on 14 August. Whether this is possible remains to be seen.

This is Sparta! Insights from international relations theory into what the post-Covid world might look like

2500 years ago, in his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, the Athenian historian and general Thucydides made the ravages of the plague affecting Greece a central feature of the tragic decline and fall of the Athenian Empire. The plague ravaging the many territories that Athens had dominion over, at the time of a desperate struggle against its arch-enemy Sparta, undermined its power and hastened its demise. 

Today’s great pandemic consuming the world has produced similar reactions among some commentators. The trade and security struggles between the United States, as the receding hegemon, and a resurgent China have been interpreted by scholars and commentators as a reiteration of the ancient theory of power transition that defines Thucydides’ history. However, IR theory has more to say about the world of tomorrow than the dramatic effects that, according to Thucydides’ followers, the pandemic could have on security and trade relations between the U.S. and China. This piece seeks to offer a brief but comprehensive overview of the major approaches in IR theory, what they may say about the world after the end of this pandemic, and how it will affect global politics.

IR scholars are often criticised for their engagement in what seems a purely academic exercise centred on an obsession with theory and abstract debates. And, true enough, IR theory is ill-suited to providing pre-packaged solutions to current problems, but many scholars will argue that that is not their business. IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action. Moreover, IR theory is not in fact a homogenous, coherent‘theory’, but a divergent set of theories and approaches which look at different problems and phenomena in world affairs from different ontological and epistemological positions. No one theory can provide a comprehensive interpretation or predictions of world politics. However, taken together, these theories can help decision makers and the public fill the gaps in the puzzle we call ‘International Relations’. The aim of this essay is exactly that: to suggest a way we can integrate various pieces of the puzzle in a comprehensible way that makes the most of what we know from IR theory. IR scholars produce knowledge, not ‘solutions’ˋ to policy problems; nevertheless, this knowledge can become a tool for devising fruitful solutions.

IR theory can provide insights into international behaviour, and may provide informed predictions about how international affairs may evolve and how states may react to shocks, but it cannot prescribe a course of action.

This essay is divided into three parts. First, it discusses the current pandemic through the lenses of the ‘agency-vs-structure’ debate in International Relations. Second, it uses the three mainstream approaches in IR to interpret and predict the effects of the pandemic on the development of the international system. Finally, it discusses what insights we can gain from other, more critical approaches in IR and their importance for understanding world events.

Changing the structure of world politics

International Relations is a discipline defined by structural theorising. Each of the three major schools of thought in the discipline, neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism, are theoretically dominated by a structural understanding of world politics. What makes them different is their assumptions about these structures and state behaviour. Neorealism and neoliberalism share a materialist understanding of structures, arguing that all that matters is the distribution of capabilities under anarchy. How wealthy you are (in weapons, natural resources, GDP, technology) defines your status and behaviour in the international system, which is taken as inherently anarchical and competitive. Where they differ is in their assumption about what drives state behaviour: relative gains, as neorealists argue, or absolute gains, as neoliberals suggest.

Constructivists criticise this materialist understanding of structure and argue that we should conceive structures as inherently social, as the product of social interaction. Structures are, therefore, the product of what we do and how we do it. This means that anarchy is neither pre-given, as the other two schools assume, nor exclusively based on material capabilities, but very much on ideas which give meaning to those capabilities. When the ideas actors have change, then their behaviour changes, and that produces a change in the structure of the international system.

Why does this matter in respect to the effects of the global pandemic in world politics? It matters because change in much of IR theory translates into changes in the structure of the international system. On the one hand, if the structure of the international system is material – defined by how wealthy you are – then change can happen only when the distribution of material capabilities (i.e. wealth) changes. Therefore, according to a materialist ontology, the global pandemic will produce change in the international system if it alters the distribution of material capabilities. On the other hand, if the structure of the international system is ideational, defined by shared ideas and norms, then change can happen whenever the overreaching ideas held by states change. It is thus apparent that the global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

How does this work in practice? From a materialist perspective, actual changes in the distribution of resources must happen in order for change in world politics to take place. This could happen due to the economic consequences of the pandemic, which may destroy economic capacity in some countries, decreasing their relative material capabilities and therefore shifting the relative distribution of capabilities. If, for example, the United States and Europe are substantially more affected economically than China because of the crisis in the medium and long term, and will experience lower rates of growth with higher rates of public debt, then China becomes relatively more powerful (i.e. it gains more assets than Europe and the US). Conversely, if the pandemic forces a reconfiguration of value chains in world trade, then the United States and Europe may benefit because of what economists call on-shoring, near-shoring, and shortening of value chains.

The global pandemic can effect change in world politics if it produces changes in the way states (i.e. politicians) understand the world and their role in it.

However, from an ideational perspective, constructivists would argue that in order for shifts in material capabilities to happen, changes in ideas need to happen first. The economic ideas dominating the economic models currently operating around the world will define the level of growth, depending on how successful their growth models will prove to be. At the same time, constructivists stress that the international structure is ideational in nature and a product of social interaction. How political leaders decide to act during the pandemic and afterwards will affect how the structure evolves. If decision-makers choose a confrontational approach, then the world of tomorrow will be confrontational. If they decide to cooperate, then the future will be cooperative. In the end, the world is what states make of it.

The distinction between material and ideational structure is important not only because it emphasises different factors that affect change, but especially because it delineates the importance of actors as producers of change. For neorealists, for example, history is deterministic, and agency has almost no role in it. In the great scheme of things, neorealists believe that what matters is how material power shifts, not what people do or believe. For constructivists, human agency is at the centre of structure, defining and re-defining it constantly. Human action determines the future of the international structure, not simply how material resources are allocated. However, this structural perspective of change in world affairs is not all that IR theory has to offer.

Power, institution, and ideas in times of global pandemic

Neorealism as a structural theory of international relations is informed by the political theory of classical realism. Therefore, neorealists conceive the world as a dangerous, anarchic world inhabited by egoistic states that seek either their own survival (defensive realists) or to maximise their power (offensive realists) and use any tool at their disposal to achieve these goals. In a world where survival is the main goal and the survival of the fittest is the main mechanism of ‘natural’ selection, states can only rely on their own strength and cannot trust other states. According to this view, international organisations such as the World Health Organisation or historical phenomena such as globalisation are devised and used by great powers to further their power and enhance their control over less powerful states. This is one of the reasons why neorealists dismiss the role of international organisations as venues of cooperation, together with the assumption that all states seek relative gains, making cooperation difficult.

During the current pandemic, a neorealist will ask: how does the pandemic affects the distribution of power in the international system? As mentioned previously, power is understood here in terms of the material capabilities that states have at their disposal. Here, the economic component becomes particularly interesting for neorealists. If the pandemic affects the US economy much more than that of China, for example, then this increases the relative power of China, which over the medium to long term may build an economy which is substantially stronger than the American economy. In the short to medium term, a weak American economy may create opportunities for China to acquire US assets or push to ‘reform’ US-sponsored international institutions, increasing its global influence. The Chinese takeover of Western assets is perceived as a real danger in several Western nations, with Germany taking active measures to prevent Chinese takeovers of strategic companies. The United States may seek to do the same. At the same time, a neorealist would predict that the US will react by counterbalancing China, seeking to preempt or block Chinese takeovers of US-sponsored international organisations, and perhaps impose new economic protectionist measures and create incentives to near-shore or reshore the American manufacturing capabilities currently abroad. In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

In the neorealist playbook, the pandemic will produce increased international tensions, a struggle for power and diminishing opportunities for cooperation.

Reversely, neoliberalism suggests that the outcome of the pandemic will be the opposite of what neorealists foresee. Neoliberals assume that states seek absolute gains, not relative gains as neorealists do, and states have a tendency towards cooperation in order to reduce transaction costs and the negative effects of unwanted events, and to enhance the benefits from deeper and denser ties. This means that when faced with a pandemic of global proportions, states have a powerful incentive to cooperate. For neoliberals, international institutions reflect the desire of selfish states to cooperate in order to reduce costs and maximise benefits. Institutions such as the World Health Organisation exist to allow coordination between national health authorities, as a channel for knowledge exchange, and as a forum for deliberation.

Therefore, the question that neoliberals ask is: how does the pandemic affect incentives for states to cooperate internationally? If the pandemic reduces the incentives for cooperation, then a more neorealist logic will dominate world politics. But if the human and economic costs of the pandemic as foreseen prove to be substantial and able to be managed more effectively through global coordination, than the pandemic may increase cooperation and may enhance the importance of international organisations such as the WHO. Signs of increased coordination and cooperation, particularly on economic matters, are already visible. The leading central banks (the FED, the BCE, the CBJ, the BoE) have already signed swap and repo agreements that will provide almost unlimited liquidity in the currency of each party, and the FED is playing its role as the lender of last resort for the world economy. In healthcare we can observe some signs of regional cooperation in Europe, among Latin American countries and, to a lesser degree, in North America and Asia.

Neoliberals would predict the emergence of cooperation frameworks for pooling expertise, sharing knowledge about the virus and how to fight it better. This is visible in the quest to develop a vaccine, even if the Trump administration has been acting in a less cooperative way than the rest of the world. At the same time, the crisis is forcing states to reassess the limits of their cooperation, and to consider why certain cooperative frameworks such as the WHO have not lived up to their expectations by pushing forward reforms. But all these are defined by what ideas are circulating in the national capitals.

Neorealism and neoliberalism presuppose that the way the world works and what interests states have as pre-givens are objective facts which can be taken for granted. Constructivists dismiss this as a lack of sophistication, and even an outright misunderstanding of how world politics works. Instead, constructivists such as Alexander Wendt argue that world politics is “what states make of it”. The beliefs and identities of political leaders define how the world is and how it will evolve. National identity, culture, political interactions play a substantial role in making sense of the world and constructing it as it is. The choice between competition or cooperation results, not from changes in the distribution of power or the incentives states have, but from their identities and beliefs. A state may exhibit bellicose or friendly behaviour in international politics depending on the ideas and identity defining its society and political elite. But these ideas and identities change over time, especially because of crises which force people to reassess their beliefs and who they are.

Therefore, a constructivist would ask: how does the pandemic change shared beliefs and identities, and what effect would these changes have on world affairs? If the pandemic produces new ideas and identities that promote competition and conflict, then international relations will be defined by conflict. Conversely, if the pandemic produces solidaristic and cooperative ideas and identities, then world affairs will be characterised by increased cooperation and harmony. The world is what we make of it; it is constructed by us according to our beliefs about what is appropriate.

A neorealist or neoliberal would find it hard to answer why states would build air bridges to transport COVID-19 patients from Italy to Germany, for example. Constructivists, instead, would say that this sign of solidarity is the result of the beliefs dominating the public debate in the societies of Italy and Germany and among the political elites of those two countries. Another example is the reappearance of policy debates about resilience, ideas about the need for strategic autonomy in the production of vital products such as medicine, or the need for European solidarity.

Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

At the same time, constructivists would caution about the impact of misinformation and information warfare on which ideas and identities become dominant. Malign actors may seek to produce bellicose beliefs and identities by promoting polarising ideas, or fake news which provokes anger and fear, or reframes truthful news in ways that promote conflict and social tensions. The world is what we make of it, as constructivists say.

Who is right? None of them and all of them. While these three major approaches to international relations are often framed in opposition to each other, they illuminate various parts of international politics. Practitioners and policy elites should use them together to make sense of the world and to build better calibrated and critically informed policy responses to global challenges such as the current pandemic.

Society, discourse, and security in the world of tomorrow

IR theory may be dominated by neorealism, neoliberalism, and constructivism as the three major approaches to the study of world politics, but they are not alone, and several other theories and approaches can fill other gaps in the puzzle. Among them, new liberalism and the critical approaches to IR and security studies are frequently mentioned in disciplinary debates.

New liberalism is a contemporary reformulation of interwar liberalism, and was proposed primarily by Andrew Moravcsik. New liberal theory looks at domestic dynamics to explain foreign policy. In its most common formulation, new liberalism argues that the most important actors in world politics are not the states, but the domestic groups and actors which define state policy and thus influence world politics. Adopting a bottom-up approach to foreign policy analysis, liberals assume that domestic actors have different interests and are in a constant struggle to shape state policy. Therefore, foreign policy is defined by this confrontation between various groups seeking to influence foreign policy. As a result, the question asked by new liberals is: how does the pandemic reshuffle or reinforce the configuration of power and influence between domestic groups?

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues. This may overcome the long dominance of austerity- driven fiscal hawks that have ruled the higher echelons of power in Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels. If that happens, the configuration of power between these groups will change, and consequently it will shift the policies adopted at national and European level.

In other parts of the world, such as in the United States, the effects of the pandemic are harder to discern, but they seem to be producing a new wave of social unrest which may or may not unravel the current political configuration, and with it the American foreign policy. In an increasingly dangerous world, ‘America First’ could become an even more persuasive idea, and the US may seek to shore up its current unilateralist and isolationist foreign policy. In totalitarian or authoritarian regimes faced with increased death tolls, such as Russia or Belarus, the regimes may seek to enhance their power over society by increasing the levels of oppression and intrusion, as well as the elimination of political opponents.

Finally, another perspective comes from the Copenhagen School’s ‘theory of securitisation’, which argues that security is intersubjective and socially constructed. This means that there are no inherent security threats, and that all threats are defined socially through processes of persuasion by powerful actors, which seek to securitise – to take outside the sphere of normal politics and life – certain issues. The pandemic itself has been securitised in much of the world, as an existential threat to life and our societies, with leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel using a martial language, talking about a ‘state of war’ in relation to the pandemic and the imposition of exceptional measures (i.e. lockdown).

In Europe, the economic consequences of the lockdown and the pandemic have the potential to increase the power of those social and political groups which seek a more solidaristic European Union, pressing for more social transfers at the European level and more integration, especially with regards to monetary and fiscal issues.

If issues related to the pandemic or its aftermath are subjected to further processes of securitisation, this may further impact world politics. If the virus continues to be an existential threat, social, economic, and political links may be distorted by the perception of danger. If travel between countries becomes impossible, as the risk of infection during transit appears too great, then trade routes will be cut and investment and tourism will be imperiled. This, in turn, could escalate into political and diplomatic tensions and conflict between countries who ban travel to certain countries and those who are thus affected.

Conclusions

IR theory cannot provide prepackaged forecasts or solutions about and for the world after the pandemic, but it can suggest further possible trends in world politics, depending on the theoretical assumptions each approach supports. Neorealism assumes conflict as the natural state of the world, and therefore predicts more conflict. Neoliberalism presupposes cooperation and foresees as much. Constructivism tells us that it is what we make of it, that nothing is predetermined, and what matters is the ideas and identities that come out of this pandemic. New liberals look inside the state and tell us that what matters is how domestic groups will be affected by the pandemic, while the Copenhagen School argues that the socially constructed understanding of threats will define much of the world after the pandemic. Who is right? Again, none and all at the same time. Every one of these theories provides a piece in the larger puzzle we know as world politics. Understanding what each of them has to offer and what its limits are can help practitioners to better understand what is happening and prepare better for tomorrow.

Relocating production from China to Central Europe? Not so fast!

Western European imports from central Europe have fallen dramatically, while imports from China fell much less, and had already recovered to pre-COVID level by April 2020. Central European governments should instigate new measures to foster the transition towards knowledge-intensive economic activities.

The COVID crisis caused a major setback to global trade and disrupted the functioning of global production networks. From the perspective of Central, Eastern and South Eastern European (CESEE) countries, this has raised the hope that Western European manufacturers will bring their suppliers from East Asia closer, potentially boosting investment in CESEE.

The volume of merchandise trade is expected to drop by almost 20% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter of the previous year, the steepest decline on record according to the World Trade Organisation. Almost half of global trade is composed of intermediate goods for production, and there were companies in Europe and elsewhere which did not receive essential intermediate inputs for production during the height of the COVID crisis. Such disruptions to global trade and global production networks, or global value chains (GVCs), can call the benefits of globalisation into question, and might prompt companies to bring their suppliers closer. For Western European producers, the CESEE region would be a natural place to relocate their suppliers due to its geographical closeness. Relocation would boost investment in CESEE, which in turn could speed up the recovery from the corona-recession and support medium-term growth and jobs.

Foreign trade facts disappoint relocation hopes

However, recent trade data paint a sobering picture of such hopes: the imports of the first fifteen European Union member countries (EU15) declined the most from the CESEE region, while imports from China had reverted back to their 2019 level by April 2020, the latest available data at the time of writing (Figure 1). Imports from CESEE declined by a shocking 35%, while within the EU15 imports (such as German import from France and French import from Germany) declined by 30% on average by April. EU15 imports from the United States and Japan declined by about a quarter. The decline of EU15 imports from China had already started in February 2020, earlier than from the rest of the world, given that COVID-19 hit China first. Yet even at the lowest point in March 2020, the EU15’s imports from China was ‘just’ 16% lower than on average in 2019, while in April 2020 it had returned to the same level as in 2019. 

Figure 1: EU15 imports from different regions, euro billions at current prices, seasonally adjusted, 2019 average = 100

Source: author’s calculation, using bilateral trade data from the IMF’s Direction of Trade Statistics dataset (accessed on 6 August 2020), which includes US dollar values. Average euro/US dollar exchange rates from Eurostat were used to convert USD figures to euros. The euro values were seasonally adjusted using the X12 method. 

Note: EU15: first 15 members of the European Union. CESEE13: the 13 countries that joined the EU in 2004-2013.

Among the 13 CESEE countries, Slovakia was hit the hardest by its exports to the EU15 almost halving. Romania was the second hardest hit, followed by Hungary and the Czech Republic with about 40% export losses. At the other end, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania suffered from ‘just’ about 15% trade losses. 

Relocation would boost investment in CESEE, which in turn could speed up the recovery from the corona-recession and support medium-term growth and jobs.

The composition of EU imports from China shows that some product categories saw major increases, while others declined; however, several intermediate goods categories gained or did not suffer much from April 2019 to April 2020. The highest increases in April 2020 compared with the same month last year were recorded for automatic data processing machines (+€884 million, +33%), articles of apparel of textile fabrics (+€129 million, +36%) and electronic tubes, valves and related articles (+€92 million, +12%). (Textile articles include COVID-19 related products, such as textile face masks, surgical masks, disposable face masks and single use drapes). The largest decreases in absolute terms were observed for imports of footwear (-€254 million, -52%), telecommunications equipment (-€232 million, -6%) and baby carriages, toys, games and sporting goods (-€225 million, -28%). Other intermediate production inputs such as pumps, compressors, fans, electric power machinery and parts, motor vehicle parts fell less.

What can we make of these developments?

First, the limited fall and the quick rebound of EU15 imports from China is really remarkable, given that the economic activity and total imports of the EU15 was much lower in April 2020 than on average in 2019. Perhaps imports from China in April 2020 partially replaced imports from other countries suffering from COVID-related lockdowns. The rebound of imports from China suggests that East Asian supplier problems were short-lived; and from the perspective of disrupted supply chains, there is not much justification to relocate suppliers from East Asia to Europe. The adverse public health situation due to COVID-19 was addressed quickly in China, allowing suspended production and shipments to restart – and faster than in Europe. Such rapid control of the epidemic in China might even reinforce the reliability of Chinese suppliers.

The rebound of imports from China suggests that East Asian supplier problems were short-lived; and from the perspective of disrupted supply chains, there is not much justification to relocate suppliers from East Asia to Europe.

Second, while the CESEE countries are geographically close to consumer markets in the EU, they are still very far away for the value chains of some goods that are produced in China. For instance in ICT goods, the value chain is predominantly East Asian, so moving certain intermediate inputs from China to Europe would mean getting closer to the consumer but farther away from other suppliers. Replicating whole value chains in Europe seems to be a difficult and costly task.

Third, the lower decline of EU15 imports from the United States and Japan than from CESEE suggests that distance to Western Europe is not the primary determinant of trade flows, even in times of lockdowns and trade disruptions. The product composition of trade seems to be a more important factor. This again highlights that the geographic proximity of CESEE to Western Europe should not be overrated.

Fourth, the extent of trade losses depends on the sectoral and product composition of exports to EU15, including the mix of intermediate and final products. It seems that CESEE countries which are more integrated into Western European production networks, such as Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, suffered from larger declines in exports. Since the bulk of exports includes manufacturing products, export decline should coincide with industrial production decline. Indeed, industrial production fell the most (by about one third) from May 2019 to May 2020 in Slovakia, Hungary and Romania among EU member states, according to Eurostat. This suggests that greater participation in European value chains exposes an economy to greater variation in production, with associated consequences for employment and GDP growth.

Fifth, as industrial production recovers, so does trade. Eurostat data shows that industrial production started to recover from April to May 2020 since lockdowns were eased, and is expected to recover further in subsequent months. At the time of writing, the latest bilateral foreign trade data available is for April 2020. Hence the large drop in intra-EU trade by April is expected to correct itself, at least to some extent, over the coming months. It will be interesting to analyse whether intra-EU trade will recover as fast as EU15 imports from China, or whether it does so at a slower pace.

Greater participation in European value chains exposes an economy to greater variation in production, with associated consequences for employment and GDP growth.

And sixth, GVC-related trade also suffered much more in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis than traditional trade, but it also recovered faster after 2009 (see Figure 1 here).

Thus, greater participation in GVCs exposes trade and production to greater variation, which can have adverse consequences for output, employment, government budget balances and many other indicators in times of economic shocks. Such adverse variation should certainly make CESEE policymakers think about their industrial policy strategies, although shorter-run (or cyclical risks) and longer-run structural impacts should also be jointly analysed.

Global value chain participation has longer-term benefits

Participation in GVCs has a number of longer-term benefits. As Richard Baldwin argues, emerging and developing countries with less developed industrial structures and smaller domestic markets can join the supply chains of firms from high-tech nations, instead of building such supply chains as Korea and Taiwan had to do over a long period of time, since these countries developed themselves before the GVC era. Joining GVCs since the mid-1980s has allowed less developed countries to embark on a faster-track development, specialising in certain tasks. 

A recent IMF study concludes that it is GVC-related trade, rather than conventional trade, which has a positive impact on income per capita and productivity, even though such gains appear more significant for upper-middle and high-income countries.

Such longer-term benefits have likely induced CESEE governments to attract as much foreign direct investment (FDI) as they can by offering the maximum amount of state aid which is possible in the EU, such as tax exemption for a decade, or financial support to train employees and reduce labour costs. FDI can foster participation in GVCs by local suppliers. The recent races between CESEE countries to attract prominent foreign manufacturers seem to suggests that this development strategy is set to continue. 

Most CEESEs have not moved up in the value chain

An important aspect of development is whether companies participating in GVCs gradually move up in the value chain: that is, whether the initial contributions to low-wage sectors are gradually replaced by higher value-added and higher technological-level production. The IMF study mentioned above finds unfavourable results for most CESEE countries, by analysing Germany’s auto supply chain: for the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, the contributions of high and low technological-level sectors remained broadly the same between 2000 and 2013, suggesting there had been no moving up on the value chain. For Romania, in contrast, there has been a shift away from low-tech to more high-tech manufacturing. As regards non-EU countries, the study finds that China’s contribution to the German auto supply chain is showing a shift towards more high-tech services, while Russia’s contribution became more intensive in low-tech manufacturing due to the mining and quarrying sector.

The region’s advantage as a low-wage supplier of western European manufacturing networks is gradually diminishing.

Related indicators suggest similarly unsatisfactory progress for most CESEE countries. The European Union’s innovation scoreboard, which is measured using 27 performance indicators distinguishing between ten innovation dimensions in four main categories, concludes that with the sole exception of Estonia, CESEE countries rank well below the EU average in 2019. Moreover, the improvement in innovation performance from 2012 to 2019 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia was below the average improvement in the EU, and there was even a setback in innovation performance in Romania and Slovenia. CESEE countries do not rank highly in the World Economic Forum’s Innovation capability component of the Global Competitiveness Index either. Slovenia (28th), the Czech Republic (29th) and Estonia (34th) have the highest rankings in the CESEE out of 155 countries, while the lowest rankings in the CESEE region belong to Latvia (54th), Romania (55th) and Croatia (73rd). 

Overall, it seems that while participation in global value chains has brought major benefits to CESEE countries in terms of growth and jobs, it has not been associated with improved technological and innovation capabilities. This is a key problem, because with continuing fast wage growth and a deteriorating demographic outlook, the region’s advantage as a low-wage supplier of western European manufacturing networks is gradually diminishing. Most CESEE countries rank disappointingly in the World Economic Forum’s Skills ranking, which considers various indicators related to the current and future workforce, suggesting that the workforce is not up to the challenge of moving away from low-wage activities.

Sustained convergence requires transition towards knowledge-intensive economic activities

Sustained convergence toward western European productivity and living standards will be possible by moving up the value chain towards more knowledge-intensive activities. This, first and foremost, requires better education and research, which in turn necessitates higher public spending. 

For example, public expenditure on tertiary education is below 1% of gross national income in most CESEE countries, but around 1.5% or more in most northern and western European countries. In a forthcoming study we find a statistically significant correlation between public spending on universities and a number of educational result indicators. Primary and secondary education are equally important. As James Heckman argues, in disadvantaged families the highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, because skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. There are many poor and disadvantaged families in CESEE. Secondary education, vocational training and lifelong learning are similarly crucial. 

Given the relatively low public debts of CESEE countries and their prospectively faster economic growth than in Western Europe (which will help their fiscal sustainability), it is surprising that these countries do not devote more resources to education and research. The COVID-19 economic shock and the associated collapse in trade should serve as a wake-up call for policymakers in CESEE countries. The existing economic model, which has fostered as much foreign direct investment as possible as well as greater participation in global value chains, has served its purpose, but it will soon run its course. Even a short-term boost cannot be expected from a hypothesised strategic reorganisation of suppliers from East Asia to CESEE. Instead, policies fostering upward movements on the values chain should be significantly stimulated.