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'In world politics, there's a constant dynamic of cooperation and confrontation'
Foto: Rik Coolsaet

'In world politics, there's a constant dynamic of cooperation and confrontation'

Interview with Rik Coolsaet

Rik Coolsaet is a Belgian professor of International Relations and president of the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Gent. He worked in the Cabinet of the Belgian Minister of  Defense Guy Coëme (1988–1992) and afterwards in the Cabinet of successive Ministers of Foreign Affairs. He wrote a variety of books, among which a reference work on Belgian foreign policy.


Since the end of the Cold War, the world looks more chaotic. The new emerging economic powers want to become political powers too. How will this impact the way we deal with the big global problems such as climate change, scarce resources, social inequality, etc? 


In world politics there are two parallel dynamics. There’s a dynamic of competition, of conflicting interests, but there’s also a dynamic of cooperation. This is inherent to world politics, especially in the multi-polar world order as we know it today. The two dynamics are both in force. The question is which dynamic dominates at a given moment. For example: until the 21st of august 2013, the war in Syria caused competition between Russia and the US. However, the competition turned into cooperation as it became clear at a certain point that the vital interests of the two countries coincided. Russia got the recognition that it plays a central role in the Middle East and the US kept their credibility as a big power. They found each other in trying to avoid a post-Assad Syria trapped in a kind of Jihadi chaos, which they both fear. This is an excellent example of how a case or a crisis that causes competition at a certain moment, can all of a sudden turn into an opportunity for cooperation. 

When I get this type of questions I always try to look at the 19th century, as a lot of parallels with that period can be drawn. The basic dynamics of the world today are the same as those that played in the 19th century. Big powers come and go. The balance of powers between the big players changes constantly. There is a constant dynamic of cooperation and confrontation. This all leads to an unstable and unpredictable world order. But at certain times big powers have shared or coinciding national interests. This creates a period of stability. 


You just mentioned Syria. If you look at the behavior of the international powers there, you get the impression that the Cold War is back in another form – Russia vs the US. We also saw this in Libya. Then there is also the geostrategic struggle in Africa between the US and China, etc. 


I don’t believe in this comparison, because the Cold War was really a very unique period in global politics, with two big countries possessing so much power that they could dominate the world. Today we have a multipolar world order with shifting coalitions and alliances. This really makes a big difference. The emerging countries don’t accept anymore that the West automatically claims the leadership. International organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the UN Security Council adapt very slowly to this new reality. The big powers feel challenged and have difficulties with accepting the new situation, while the emerging powers become big powers and no longer accept their subordination to the old powers. It’s a very volatile game of shifting powers. The big powers are eroding. Sometimes they disappear, such as Russia at the end of the Cold War, while others emerge. If Dilma Roussef [the president of Brazil] and Tayyip Erdoğan [the prime minister of Turkey] do not resign themselves to American domination any longer, it is because they possess enough power to do so. 


Does this also have to do with the fact that the moral and political authority of the US is crumbling? The fact that the US has to spend so much on Defense could be, as often in history, a symptom of an ‘empire in decline’.


The best example is a chart that the IMF recently released about the economic share of what we call ‘the rest of the world’ in the year 1820: China, India, Brazil, Turkey,… In 1820 they represented 70% of the global economy. Thanks to the western industrial revolution, the current OECD-countries acquired the hegemony over the world around 1880. This hegemony lasted –depending on the way of calculating- until somewhere between 2011 and 2012. Now a post-western world order has emerged: the west doesn’t dominate the rest of the world anymore. If you lose economic power, then you automatically lose political influence. Barack Obama acknowledged this at the third gathering of the G20 in Pittsburgh in 2009, where he declared that not the G7 but the G20 would be the most important body for dealing with global financial and economic issues in the future.


Doesn’t this new situation have enormous repercussions for the whole international architecture? What about the composition of the UN Security Council or the voting power in the international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank?


The international institutions mirror the power relations in the world. When the power relations change, the international organizations are put under pressure. But as these institutions change incredibly slowly and because the existing powers don’t easily cede the positions they acquired and consolidated with so much effort, it will take some time before a more correct representation will be established within the international organizations. Changing the decision-making process within the IMF for example is very difficult and goes painstakingly slow. This is also the case for the World Bank and the UN Security Council. In the Security Council the debate about reforms already started in the 1990's. All the proposals to adjust the composition of the Security Council to the changed power relations, have had no results. This is not only due to the restraint of the traditional big powers, but also because of the internal rivalries among powers. If Brazil wants a seat, Argentina doesn't agree with that. If Germany wants a seat, Italy is against. Japan wants a seat, but China doesn’t want that. If an organization doesn’t adapt itself to the reality however, there is the danger of the emergence of parallel organizations. 


You just mentioned that alliances constantly change, but aren’t the Western nations who are also NATO-members, often positioned against countries such as China and Russia?

I don’t think so. Look at the difficult negotiations about a new free trade zone between the US and the EU. These two blocks are currently also embroiled in a big fight about the American espionage practices in Europe. Likewise, look at the current relations between China and the US. The Chinese need the Americans and vice-versa. On the other hand, the Chinese have the feeling that America is surrounding them [because of the mounting military presence of the US in the Pacific region]. Indeed Russia and China agreed with each other on the crises in Syria and Libya you mentioned, but at the same time there’s a huge mutual competition between these two countries over the Central-Asian region. So all big powers, without any exception, sometimes work together and sometimes compete. I don’t believe in the emergence of a new kind of bipolarity, but in the existence of shifting alliances.


What does this multipolar world order mean for the European Union? It’s clear that the EU struggles to find a place in it. Look at the precarious financial situation in Europa and the lack of internal cohesion. Agreeing on a common foreign policy is a big challenge.


If the EU succeeds in insuring the internal cohesion, which I think will be the case even if there are big obstacles as for example the announced referendum in Great Britain about a possible exit, there are two options. The first option is the classic Atlantic one. Some European countries feel that in world politics, Europe and the US have to speak with one voice. Supporters of the second option, which seems to grow in power, want Europe to affirm itself as an autonomous player on the international political scene. The countries of Western-Europe have to organize themselves so that they won't get crushed in the international power game. If they really want to have a say in world politics, they have to organize and affirm themselves as a union. When I was working at the Ministry of Defense, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq in the summer of 1990 taught me a great lesson. The first organization to intervene and issue sanctions against Iraq was the former European Community (EC). At that time, the European countries were able to reach a consensus very quickly because the EC had already organized itself as a union around certain topics. But from the moment the Kuwait-case turned into a military issue, the EC was sidestepped. This provoked a big debate among the Belgian politicians about how to avoid that Europe would get marginalized on the global political level. For a long time I cherished the illusion that it was best to keep military issues out of the EU and that NATO should be ‘Europeanized’ [more power for the European countries inside NATO]. But I quickly learned that the Americans intervene the moment that the Europeans act too autonomously. So it’s through the failure of the EU during the Gulf War that I came to the conclusion that the EU should also have a military capacity if they want to play a role on the international scene.


Isn’t it very conservative to think that a military branch is indispensable in foreign policy? It is an instrument that you can never truly disconnect from all kinds of interests. The various military interventions of the past years can hardly be considered as successes.


The biggest drama I experienced during my professional career was the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. I was working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs than, although I wasn’t involved in the Rwanda-case. Belgium had UN peacekeeping troops in Rwanda at the time, but we didn’t succeed in preventing the genocide. If Europe would have had a military capacity that could have prevented the genocide, it would have given the EU much more credibility. My ideal for the EU is to possess a military force, not to attack Russia, China or the US, but to be able -if necessary- to support what we say we want to achieve. If we want to accomplish on a world level what we created among the member states of the EU, namely the absence of war, than we need military means. But the use of these means has to be clearly defined in relation to our interests. This means that our military actions have to be in congruence with the discourse and strategy we use: the support of international law.


According to you, the biggest priority of the European policy has to be the support of international law. Can't the UN do this better and more selflessly, for example through a permanent peace keeping force? Won't the focus on European political priorities enforced with European military instruments, undermine the role of the UN to keep and to promote peace?


First of all, I would like to clarify what I mean by ‘international law’. The EU is morally not better than any other power. So, it has nothing to do with morality. The EU succeeded in developing a system in which everyone, big states as well as small states, has to obey the same rules of conduct. These rules are ensured by the European Commission, by international law, by the European Court of Justice and by the European decision making process, which protects the smaller member states against the power of the bigger states. It’s this system that provides the strategic doctrine of the EU:  striving for equal international rules. That is what I refer to when I talk about international law. And that is the vital importance of the European Union. If you want to promote the equality of the rules on a global level, you need the economic power, the political influence and when it really comes down to it also the military capacity to intervene if necessary. 

Secondly, a permanent peacekeeping force for an unchanged UN is not useful as long as the big powers possess a veto right in the UN Security Council. So the UN needs to be reformed first, but that will not happen soon. And as long as we are not in this ideal situation, I prefer a EU with a military capacity.


But is a just international legal system – what the EU is striving for according to you – even possible in a context where power will always triumph over law? Who will hold a powerful state accountable for a war of aggression, for war crimes, etc? It’s very meaningful that the African Union criticizes the International Criminal Court (ICC) because it convicts mostly African leaders.


Ever since Imanuel Kant it is the dream of many that the international relations would be dominated more by the rule of law than by power. But that is a very difficult and slow evolution. The biggest breakthroughs in the last 10 years were the introduction of the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the creation of the International Criminal Court [2002]. I completely understand the reaction of the African Union concerning the International Criminal Court. But objectively speaking it is a big step forward that a dictator can be held accountable by the international community now. Is the ICC an instrument that is subjected to the international power relations? Of course, because international law also reflects power relations. That is why it is so important that the EU gains more credibility on the international political level, to strife for equal rules for everybody, small or big. Will this be achieved tomorrow or the day after tomorrow? No. But in politics you need targets.


You are talking about an evolution. But let’s take the example of NATO which describes Defense as something that is no longer geographically determined and that can also be organized overseas, as was the case for instance in Afghanistan. Isn’t NATO a very powerful alliance, with its own interpretation of what international law entails and that decides on its own where and when it will intervene?


You are absolutely right, but it depends on the examples you use. International law is indeed intertwined with international power relations. But the example of NATO is not a good one, because this organization has been suffering from an identity crisis since the end of the Cold War. The alliance has struggled to stay relevant by starting to operate outside its original work area. But now NATO has changed its mind and in the future this won’t happen anymore. The NATO of yesterday is not the NATO of today. NATO used to be a military alliance, led by the US. When the Americans said something, it was generally accepted. But in Libya (where NATO installed a no-fly zone in 2011) it was instrumentalised by the British and the French to achieve a target within the framework of the UN. The Americans didn’t play a big role in this mission. NATO used to be an instrument of the hegemonic power of the US, but now it turned into a toolkit for those member states who want to use it. That is why the US said that it didn't need NATO when it invaded Afghanistan. That is also why NATO didn’t play any significant role in the American war in Iraq and neither in the US-fight against international terrorism. According to me NATO turned into an inadequate instrument in this multipolar world because it is a remnant of a bipolar world. This means that NATO is in fact a big anachronism. 


When I look at the foreign policy of Belgium, I get the impression that there is currently more attention for NATO than for the Joint Security and Defense Policy of the EU.


Yes, you are right. In 2007 Belgium fell into a serious internal political crisis. That year, the European voluntarism of then prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Louis Michel (1999 - 2004) and others, ended. It was replaced by a kind of prudence. The politicians invented the formula of an equilibrium between NATO and the European Union. However, I think the pro-Europeans still outnumber the pro-Atlantics, as was the case at the end of the Cold War. But there is indeed -much more as before- a kind of wariness to oppose NATO now. I have to admit that I don’t know the main focus of the current Belgian security policy. I know that there is some sort of political consensus, more implicitly than explicitly, about the fact that our most important framework for Defense is Europe. That’s the big difference with the Netherlands, where they always think in a NATO-context.


This brings us to the subject of the Belgian defense policy. As in most other European countries there is an enormous pressure on the Belgian public finances. But NATO and the EU have the ambition to transform our military forces into a modern and mobile army. There are discussions about the F16 fighter planes and the frigates that need to be replaced, there is the debate about the future of the naval component in the army, etc. Is this all financially feasible?


I don’t think it’s possible to maintain everything as it is now. It’s not possible to replace the F-16’s by new fighter planes and at the same time invest in our transport capacity (A400 M transport planes) which is already agreed upon. It’s impossible to replace the frigates and to retain the  land component at the current level. So it's safe to say that during the formation of the new government, after the elections of june 2014, there will be a fight bout the Defense budget. Some very difficult choices will have to be made. I think that forming synergies with other countries is the only possible solution. We already established a Belgian-Dutch cooperation for the naval operational command  and recently it was decided to integrate the air forces of the Netherlands and Belgium. Financially it’s completely not feasible to do everything that the different army components would like to do, unless you abolish the land forces. But if we would do that, would we renounce the peacekeeping operations led by the EU or the UN? As all EU member states face the same problem, I think the context for a further denationalization of the armies in the EU is much more favorable now than five years ago.  


Imagine that the European member states would totally shift their strategies, that they would use the 200 billion Euro they currently spend on Defense to tackle the socio-economic causes of conflicts? Wouldn’t that be much more effective in the long term?


Yes, but imagine that tomorrow a genocide erupts? What do we do than? There’s a clash between the short and the long term goals. I think that we have a dimension within the EU that deals with conflict prevention in the long run. Don’t forget that the EU is the biggest aid donor in the world. I think it will take a long time before the causes of local, regional and international conflicts will be tackled and until then, we need an intervention capacity. Not an imperialistic capacity of course, but a real R2P capacity.


Artikel vertaald door Tine Vanhee


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