2016-11-10 By Richard Weitz
Pessimism about Europe’s global power potential was pervasive at the Valdai Conference.
Many speakers, from Russia and elsewhere, saw the Continent in current crisis and generation-long decay.
In particular, they cited deep dissatisfaction with the bureaucratic, technocratic, and formalistic nature of the institution and its disrespect for national diversity and traditional European values.
Europe’s defenders countered that there were no wars between EU members and that Europeans enjoy good housing, wages, and life expectancy. They denigrated European populists as nostalgic for an old but lost Europe that was much less developed and cannot be recreated.
Even so, hopefully the shock of Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president will act as a catalyst for imparting new momentum in Europe.
The international shock is clearly evident.
Carl Bildt, former Swedish foreign minister, described Trump’s election, along with the Brexit vote, as a “double disaster” for the West. Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defense minister, described the result as a “huge shock” that might signify the end of “Pax Americana” in Europe and the world. Jean-Marc Ayrault, France’s foreign minister, said Trump’s elections “raised questions” for Europe’s foreign-policy plans.
The most prominent Europeans welcoming the results were representatives of Europe’s leading anti-immigration parties, such as France’s National Front and the Alternative for Germany party.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Trump on his victory and pledged to work with the new administration to resolve Russian-U.S. differences and expand cooperation in other areas.
Other Russian leaders also expressed cautious optimism about future progress provided Trump could overcome the expected opposition from what is seen as the pervasively Russophobic U.S. bureaucracy and Washington political establishment.
At Valdai, Putin and other Russian officials said they regretted this animosity and wanted a strong Europe. The sincerity of these statements can be questioned, but the Russian speakers described Russia as a European nation (the largest in terms of population) with critical mutually beneficial social and economic partnerships with Europeans.
Some Russians also recalled how Russia has saved Europe on several previous occasions and, without offering details, insisted that Europeans cannot overcome their current crises without Russia’s assistance. Yet, one British speaker countered that a Europe stretching from London to Vladivostok would fail due to Russia’s unique traditions and interests that must be respected.
More interestingly, some Russian speakers argued Russian-European cooperation could be improved by focusing more on pragmatic interests instead of ideological principles (though many Russian participants stressed that they saw themselves as upholding traditional European social conservative values that have lost favor in many European countries).
One Russian participant believed that Russia-EU relations might improve if the parties followed “the principles for resolving contradictions in Central Asia between Russia and China….[with] recognition of the strategic interests of the partner in the region, advance warning about projects and actions to be taken, their coordination and discussion, as well as a multilateral, rather than a unilateral, approach.”
Even under current conditions, some European speakers noted that Russia had been able to circumvent the EU as an institution and cultivate good relations with key European leaders of various left- and right-wing movements in Europe.
Moreover, one speaker expected that Britain’s withdrawal from the EU would weaken trans-Atlantic ties since Britain has historically played an indispensable role in anchoring the United States in Europe and treating Russia as an external actor within Europe.
Former President of Austria Heinz Fischer, citing how Wallonia, a province in Belgium, was able to block a trade agreement negotiated by all EU national governments and Canada, and said that Europeans needed to strengthen the authority of the EU’s central institutions–the Parliament, the Commission, and other policy organs—to make the EU more effective.
Yet, Fischer noted that, for many Europeans, jealous of their autonomy and suspicious of EU centralism this was a sensitive point: “So if somebody says, let’s start the process of modernizing and changing institutions of the European Union, at this moment … it would create a very bitter fight in most or in several European countries.”
Perhaps tongue in cheek, Putin followed Fischer’s comments by observing that, while the EU’s rules may need to change due to the transformation of the organization’s environment in the decades since its founding, “in this case, you would first have to give the people who created this organization a chance to change it through a democratic process and then obtain their approval.”
In the security domain, Putin accused NATO leaders as talking up the Russian threat to simply sustain high military spending, despite knowing Russia would was not going to invade anyone and that NATO’s population was more than four times larger than Russia: “they continue to churn out threats, imaginary and mythical threats such as the ‘Russian military threat’. This is a profitable business that can be used to pump new money into defense budgets at home, get allies to bend to a single superpower’s interests, expand NATO and bring its infrastructure, military units and arms closer to our borders.”
Other Russian speakers also believed NATO is an outdated organization and its existence, and especially its membership expansion, harms European-Russian relations, something some of Trump’s advisors also believe.
Sergei Karaganov, one of Russia’s most notable international relations experts, said that he did not expect Europe to stop its decline for at least a decade since, in his view, a new generation of European leaders was needed to take charge and fundamentally chane their nations’ policies. This is why he advocated that Russians focus on building deeper ties with Asia and Eurasia, which he believed would eventually make Russia a more attractive partner for Europeans.
Meanwhile, prominent U.S. political scientist John Mearsheimer warned that NATO and transatlantic ties faced long-term decline if Europeans, as he expected, do not help the United States balance against China. He expects Europeans to instead prioritize their own trade and other economic ties. As other speakers noted, these will likely deepen as China builds its Silk Road Economic Belt connecting Europe and China through Eurasia.
Trump has stated that he would pursue a much tougher negotiating stance with China; and might concerned if Europeans fail to support Washington’s tougher policies towards China. One Chinese speaker described his country as having become a major stakeholder in European stability and prosperity, given Europe’s status as China’s primary economic partner. However, he lamented that Europeans cannot get their act together on economic policy, immigration, and other issues.
Still, one prominent European speaker what they saw as the end of Pax Americana as forcing Europeans to come together and solve their own problems.
Editor’s Note: About the Valdai Conference
The Valdai Discussion Club was established in 2004. It is named after Lake Valdai, which is located close to Veliky Novgorod, where the Club’s first meeting took place.
The Club aims to promote dialogue of Russian and international intellectual elites and to deliver independent objective scholarly analysis of political, economic, and social developments in Russia and the world.
The intellectual potential of the Valdai Discussion Club is highly regarded both in Russia and abroad. More than 1,000 representatives of the international scholarly community from 63 countries have taken part in the Club’s work. They include professors from major world universities and think tanks, including Harvard, Columbia, Georgetown, Stanford, Carleton Universities, the University of London, Cairo University, the University of Tehran, East China University, the University of Tokyo, Tel Aviv University, the University of Messina, Johns Hopkins University, the London School of Economics, King’s College London, Sciences Po and the Sorbonne.
The Valdai Club’s regional programmes, the Asian, Mid-Eastern and Euro-Atlantic Dialogues, have drawn considerable attention from the international expert community. The Club holds a special session at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum.
The Club’s meetings have been attended by many leading politicians, experts, public figures and cultural figures from Russia and other countries. Russian participants have included Sergei Ivanov, Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office (2011-2016); Vyacheslav Volodin, First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office; Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister (attended as President of Russia in 2008–2012); Igor Shuvalov, First Deputy Prime Minister; Sergei Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Sergei Shoigu, Defence Minister; Sergei Sobyanin, Mayor of Moscow, and others. Foreign guests have included Wolfgang Schьssel, Chancellor of Austria (2000–2007); Romano Prodi, Prime Minister of Italy (1996–1998, 2006–2008); Dominique de Villepin, Prime Minister of France (2005–2007); Mustafa Barghouti, General Secretary of the Palestine National Initiative; Volker Rьhe, German Defence Minister (1992–1998); Franзois Fillon, Prime Minister of France (2007–2012); Krzysztof Zanussi, Polish film and theatre director and producer; Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli Foreign Minister (2000–2001) and Security Minister (1999–2001); Franco Frattini, Italian Foreign Minister (2008–2011); Robert Skidelsky, Member of the British House of Lords; Jбn Čarnogurskэ, Prime Minister of Slovakia (1991–1992); Vбclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic (2003–2013) and many others.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with the participants of the Valdai Club’s annual meetings every year since its founding.
In 2014 the Club moved away from the format of “telling the world about Russia” to practical work aimed at forming the global agenda and delivering a qualified and objective assessment of global political and economic issues. One of its main objectives is to promote dialogue within the global intellectual elite in order to find solutions to overcome the current global crisis.
The Club actively collaborates with opinion makers across various fields, including international relations, global politics, economics, security, energy, sociology, communications, and so on.
The non-profit Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club was established in 2011 with a view to expanding its activities to new areas, including research and outreach work, regional and thematic programmes. In 2014 the Foundation assumed all responsibility for management of the Club’s projects.
The Foundation’s founders are the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy (CFDP), non-profit partnership Russian International Affairs Council, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MGIMO), and the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE).
The Board of the Foundation is responsible for the Foundation’s affairs. The Board is chaired by Andrey Bystritskiy, renowned Russian media manager, author of articles and publications, and media and communications researcher. Fyodor Lukyanov, well-known Russian international relations and foreign affairs expert and editor-in-chief of the “Russia in Global Affairs” journal, is the Academic Director of the Foundation. The Foundation’s day-to-day operations are managed by Executive Director Nadezhda Lavrentieva, Honoured Economist of the Russian Federation, and former top manager at major Russian media outlets.