Month: August 2014

The European Union as a Security Actor

View from India

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Das Bild zeigt die Glastüren des Haupteingangs zum Europapalast in Straßburg, Sitz des Europarats. Die Türen sind mit Euro-Sternen verziert.

Euro-Sterne auf den Glastüren des Hauptportals zum Palais de l’Europe, Sitz des Europarats in Straßburg. (© Ulrich Baumgarten/vario images)


What is a security actor and how is it different from being a great or major power? In many ways, this question is central to understanding the lack of appreciation of the European Union (EU) as an actor in the security arena in India and certainly in some other parts of Asia. The use of the word ‘security actor’ by EU agencies and research institutes is itself perhaps a neutralisation of the phrase ‘major power’. This reveals the ambivalence of the EU to power in contemporary times, despite having given the world several great powers in the past. This ambivalence, and the hesitant Asian comprehension of the EU’s role in the security domain shape the current debate.

However, to move beyond this general understanding and to try and understand the Indian perspective on this issue, three key enquiries are essential. First, does the EU have the agency to be a security actor? Second, does it have the capability and capacity to follow through in this role? And, finally, does the EU, or a significant part thereof, see itself as a Security Actor?

Agency: Who do I call?

The EU is a great economic power and is central to the construction of any polycentric order. In spite of this, it is not viewed as a security actor. Perhaps this can in part be explained by what Henry Kissinger once famously said, in an interview with Der Spiegel, ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’. While the EU now has a number of structures that deal with security its security policy has not evolved to the point where it can shape emerging international security scenarios.

The principal issue is that of integration. Collectively, it appears that the EU thinks of itself more as a civil and economic power, viewing military instruments as an option of last resort. Within the EU, France and the United Kingdom have a different approach in which use of force, or the threat of the use of force is a prominent instrument in their toolbox. Some others like Germany tend to take the opposite view and are generally more reluctant to sanction the use of force.

This can have consequences like France declaring that its permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council will remain a French seat and will not be ceded to the EU. France has also rejected the validity of a UN veto when humanitarian crises loom (as was the case in Syria)[1]. These two French positions have led to both disappointment and alarm in other members of the EU. Damagingly for the EU, the latest crisis in Europe, i.e. the occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia, has only confirmed this apprehension. The lack of a coordinated EU response is disconcerting, as what we have is a set of nations individually condemning Russian actions and others staying silent.

Trade and commerce across the EU is now so integrated that it allows for similar perceptions and ideas on most macro and several micro economic policies. This allows the EU far greater cohesion and therefore, weight in trade talks. On the other hand, political approaches and realities in each member country vary dramatically. This dissonance between a cohesive economic union and a relatively divided political union has a significant impact on the perception of the EU in a continent like Asia where the realist paradigm dominates. The EU is likely to be seen as a ‘hyper-successful’ regional trading and economic arrangement, but not a unified security actor or a ‘great power’. It is also seen to be creating a large political and security bureaucracy, which churns out some strategic and security objectives, without seeking to possess the hard power elements to realise these set of goals.

Capacity: Acute Deficit

Capacity is the key element that will define the EU’s ability in the Asian theatre. In 2012, as per the International Institute of Strategic Studies’ (IISS, London) estimates, Asian defence expenditure exceeded Europe’s. Indeed within the EU, member states are increasingly hesitant to commit towards defence expenditure. Additionally, the focus of current expenditure is on capabilities that are not decisive in the Asia-Pacific theatre or suitable for hard power projection in the classic sense. There is little political and public support for defence expenditure when social spending is deemed a higher priority.

As a result, the EU’s ability to play a role in the international system is going to be far more constrained than ever before. This is perhaps evidenced by the fact that not a single European or EU action has been carried out without US support even when taking on vastly inferior militaries like those of Serbia or Libya.

This acute capacity deficit means that if the EU chooses to act by itself, it comes up against the various perceptions among the EU member states on its role as security actor. On the other hand, if it chooses to act through the agency of NATO to bypass this internal dissonance, it is fundamentally dependant on the US for capacity.

Self-View: “Empire of Norms”

The recent description of the EU being an ’empire of norms’ is another important facet of the view of the EU as a security actor.[2] It connotes a renunciation of the modes and methods of traditional empires in favour of one that leads by example and rules, largely renouncing the use of force and prioritising economic integration. In this, the EU has something to teach the world; the postmodern construction of international relations. But beyond the EU, the post 1989 sense of euphoria, has not translated into political evolution that suggest support for any such new approach to sovereign relations.

The EU firmly believes it has entered a post modern world, whereas in reality much collective action today is directed towards pre-modern situations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. To use an Americanism, ‘when you don’t have dirty work to do you can be dressed in white clothes’. As a result, when the EU piggybacks on US hard power, it can well afford to play the ’empire of norms’ role. This harks back to India in the 1950s and 1960s when India was ‘preachy’[3], telling Europe to peacefully coexist with the USSR, substituting rhetoric, largely to compensate for acute structural weaknesses. Today, India and Europe have traded places and the projection of EU rhetoric is seen as a sign of weakness, borne out by the structural factors discussed earlier.

View from Asia 1: Largely favourable

Immediately after World War II, the main goal was peace and stability and hence there was the need for a specific role for the set of actors who could provide this. But in the 21st century, the narrative has changed. Economic growth and prosperity, in an age of stagnant industrial growth, is the overarching political priority of these times. Even though the world may have moved beyond the post-war quest for peace, to the singular objective of greater economic vibrancy, the EU’s role in securing this objective cannot be denied given its economic agency. However, political stability is a necessary condition for sustainable growth and economic well-being. This stability is to be created and preserved collectively by the old and new powers. Therefore in Asia, in countries such as India, there exists a largely favourable view of the EU’s role in the world. India sees a decisive security role for the EU, albeit as an agent of ‘The Asian Century’.

Following from this, if the EU is a decisive player in the contemporary context, European hard power is not necessarily viewed unfavourably and is a situation that India can negotiate well. A strong EU is good for the balance of power and stability in Eurasia and therefore favourable to India. In fact, a not so uncommon view in India is that if there is a decline in the EU’s hard power, it might contribute to flux in the balance of power in Eurasia, leading to instability. Thus, the EU is still seen as a decisive actor in the security dynamics of Asia. And a real example is the EU’s arms embargo on China, which could be said to contribute to stability in Asia.

However, in India, the EU is also seen as hypocritical in its application and espousal of rules and norms. This is sometimes inimical to the larger objective of stability and prosperity because the EU is perceived to be trying to impose normative frameworks on societies, which are not yet ready to accept them. This is not necessarily an EU-specific flaw. Every country has displayed this hypocrisy where its core interests are at stake. India itself follows a very different set of rules in its own neighbourhood than in the rest of the world. For example, India intervened decisively in 1971 in Bangladesh and for much of the 1980s and 1990s in Sri Lanka. But where its core interests are not at stake, it adopts a very different stance.

While largely hypothetical, India’s main concerns, should the EU decide to play the role of a security actor would be: where and how does the EU want to operate? Does it merely look at its periphery? Or does it seek to project out? If it operates for longer periods of time in Asia, will it be in a continental or a maritime role? Given that the naval dimension and the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean have largely driven much of India’s strategic realignment post 1990, India would almost certainly welcome EU as an offshore balancer. This is evident from the fact that India welcomed the EU-led operation Atalanta aimed at controlling piracy off the coast of East Africa. Similarly, India voiced no concerns at the build up of a formidable projection force off the proximate Myanmar coast following cyclone Nargis, and actively cooperated with US and European navies in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.

View from Asia 2: Geography and Sovereignty Matter

Multiple path dependencies, along with the overarching economic prosperity objective mean that the EU’s cost-benefit analysis of engaging in Asia, for example, is very different from India’s. The EU would have more to lose economically in any prolonged military engagement in Asia and therefore prefers economic tools such as sanctions. Of course geography matters not just to the EU. This is evident in how India perceived Bangladesh in 1971 and how it perceives the situation in Syria today. In the case of the former, the instability in India’s neighbourhood had a direct impact on India’s demography and security and the cost-benefit analysis of action was very different to the likely costs of EU’s action in the region. Syria, on the other hand, was more of a normative issue for India on how it balanced humanitarian intervention against a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); whereas Syria had a more proximate impact on Europe and subsequently on its cost-benefit analysis of action.

Lastly, in a continent like Asia that has a history of being colonised, sovereignty is an important consideration. From this perspective, the EU’s rather relaxed interpretation of sovereignty, partly used in its explanations for humanitarian interventions, can be seen as unsettling. Moreover, the selective use of sovereignty can erode the credibility of the EU as a whole. For example, defence sales such as those of the Rafale, Gripen or Eurofighter are carried out under sovereign flags and these in turn guarantee certain sovereignties to recipient countries. However, when uncomfortable decisions are taken such as the arms embargo on China, the EU is used as the shield, effectively a policy of safety in numbers.[4] This means bilateral brownie points accrue to individual sovereign constituents of the EU, without translating into advantages to the EU as a whole. However, disadvantages and the resultant negative perceptions are spread across the board and impact on the image of the collective.

Conclusion: Going Forward

Going forward, there are four central cleavages between the Indian and European worldviews.

The first has to necessarily be language and the principle source of information that shapes Indian understanding of Europe and EU. Not having a core of experts trained in European languages, a disproportionately small foreign service and a structural incapability to collect primary data[5], much analysis of Europe and the EU rests on secondary source analysis of a euro-sceptic English language press. Consequently, the nature of the EU’s decision making remains even more of a mystery to Indian audiences.

The second is that the EU (for reasons already discussed) is not viewed in India as a credible security actor. In fact, Europe’s recent humanitarian interventions are seen as creating dangerous precedents in Asia, changing the security dynamics in the region and creating fresh security challenges which the EU does not have the capability to deal with. This is where India and the EU are on a collision course. India wants Europe to be more cognisant of its hard security role. In addition, India wants the EU to be responsive to emerging security issues, which will be shaped by new specificities and geographies of conflict. Local understanding and localised responses would be in order and Europe must begin to engage from within and not from outside.

The third is with regard to global governance. European institutes tend to securitise the global commons and global public goods discourse.[6] Every economic and social service provision is being subsumed under a security discourse. This approach may be useful to galvanise public opinion in the Euro-Atlantic community; but in Asia, where societies are still evolving and discovering a balance of narratives between the political and military discourse, it could be dangerous and counterproductive. In countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh, if water, environment and trade become security narratives, discussions within and among these regional countries would essentially become zero sum games. Additionally, the preponderance of the military architecture and defence bureaucracy diminishes the role of democratic institutions and the role of civilian governments. This is counterproductive to the liberal democratic value system that EU espouses. It may appear that in order to compensate for its lack of military heft, the EU seeks to overbalance through the securitisation narratives.

Finally, the central division between the EU and India is the tyranny of grammar. Europe and the EU pursue their interests under the grammar of values, which is sought to be achieved through ideological underpinnings. India has sometimes also couched many of its strategic interests in its own grammar of ethics. Till a new language is discovered where the two can negotiate their individual interests (doing away with ideological sermonising), common ground (based on core interests of prosperity, growth and liberal market framework) will be lost to a rather unnecessary battle of perceived virtues.


Opinion expressed by French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, 5 October 2013, »«.
Jan Zielonka, »Europe as a Global Actor: Empire by example? (PDF)«, International Affairs, 84(3), 2008.
Bhaskar Roy, ‘Tharoor questions Nehruvian line’, 10 January 2010, »«
‘Tharoor for overhaul of Foreign Service Recruitment System’, 8 October 2012, »«
For example, when Finland wishes to raise uncomfortable issues with Turkey, »«.
See, for instance, ‘The securitisation of climate change in the European Union’, »«

Samir Saran is vice president at the Observer Research Foundation, India’s premier public policy think tank. Besides heading the business of the foundation, he writes extensively on and researches issues such as south-south cooperation, role for BRICS, cyber governance, economic and politics of climate change and trans-boundary water governance.


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Waking up to the BRICS

Opinion» Lead 

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BRICS members should democratise the New Development Bank’s functioning if new stakeholders are included in the future. If anything, the NDB must be a template for change, not a mirror to the existing hegemony of money

In his 2001 paper titled “Building Better Global Economic BRICs”, economist Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs calculated that “if the 2001/2002 outlook were to be extrapolated, over the next decade, China would be “as big as Germany” and Brazil and India “not far behind Italy” on a current GDP basis. Cut to 2013; Jim O’ Neill’s expectations seem modest. Last year, China was the world’s second largest economy, Brazil ahead of Italy and India just one rank behind in terms of current GDP. In purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, all the BRIC countries were within the top 10, with China and India at second and third position respectively. BRIC, in Wall Street lingo, is an “outperformer.”

Despite the crippling financial crisis, BRIC has done better on pure economic terms than most expectations. But the acronym is today representative of much more than an investment narrative alone. With the inclusion of South Africa, BRIC became BRICS, giving a pluralist and inclusive veneer to an economic idea. This group now has a significant political dimension, as is evidenced by the increasing number of converging positions on political issues.

In a follow-up paper in 2003, titled, “Dreaming with BRICs: The Path to 2050,” Goldman Sachs claimed that by 2050, the list of the world’s largest 10 economies would look very different. It is remarkable then, that in 2014 the list already looks radically different, and it is clear that it is time to “wake up” to the BRICS.

NDB versus existing banks

In this context there were at least two concrete arrangements inked at the sixth BRICS Summit in July, which will have a large economic and political impact. These were the Contingent Reserve Arrangement and the New Development Bank (NDB). Conversations and reportage on these two were shrill, coloured and obtuse in the run-up to the Summit. It continues to follow in the same vein. Indeed the NDB is at once the most celebrated and critiqued outcome of the Fortaleza Summit. Now that we are a few weeks away from its public conception, it is time for a reality check on this widely discussed BRICS achievement.

The first reality is the NDB can neither replace nor supplant the role of the existing development banks. The NDB will not be able to compete with the reach and expanse of existing institutions such as the World Bank, which has a subscribed capital of over $223 billion. The bank borrows $30 billion annually by issuing Triple-A rated debt in international bond markets. Such easy access to capital markets on the back of high promoter creditworthiness allows the bank to have a lower cost of funds. Other development finance institutions enjoy similar financial backing. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) too has a large balance sheet, backed by 67 member nations and a subscribed capital of $162 billion.

In contrast, the NDB will require over half a decade before it can accumulate the stated capital base of $50 billion from within BRICS and another $50 billion (approximately) from other countries and institutions. Indeed, in the immediate term, only a modest $150 million has been promised by each of the BRICS countries. A contribution of $1,850 million thereafter, staggered over five to six years, will require some doing as the BRICS countries are grappling with weak balance sheets, fragile current accounts and other domestic imperatives.

Then, there are other questions that will need to be answered in the days ahead. If China is unable to dominate this institution, will it prefer to prioritise investments through its (proposed) Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank? How soon can the central banks of the member countries devise arrangements to act as depository institutions for the NDB? And, how will the NDB raise funds in different countries? What will be the currency or currencies of choice? All important posers which can be addressed if the resolve is unerring.

Development finance

The second reality is, in spite of its modest economic weight in the initial years, the NDB can change the ethos of development finance irreversibly. Rather than replacing or supplanting existing development finance institutions, the NDB will seek to supplement existing resources. In fact, the World Bank President, Jim Yong Kim, has welcomed the idea of the NDB and acknowledged its potential in infrastructure development and the global fight against poverty.

An important difference could be in the way conditions and restrictions are imposed on loan recipients. Bretton Woods Institutions such as the World Bank have been known to impose conditions for lending that create structural mismatches between project funding, demand and supply. As recently as last year, the World Bank Group decided to restrict funding for new coal plants in developing countries, deciding instead to invest greater resources in “cleaner” fuels. Of course, the World Bank would be well advised to reconsider this decision given lifeline energy needs and the energy access realities in developing countries such as India.

The NDB’s mission must be to create a business structure where borrowing countries are given greater agency in prioritising the kinds of projects they would want funded. Over a decade, this could become the demonstrator project through which the relationship between donors and recipients, lenders and borrowers, will be rewritten. Hopefully this will be in favour of developing economies and will enable the reimagining of economic pathways.

Location and ownership

The third reality — perhaps, the most debated — is that the location of the NDB is immaterial when governance and ownership is equally shared. Location has frequently been confused with ownership, skewed by our imagination of existing institutions such as the World Bank. According to its Articles of Agreement, major policy decisions at the World Bank are made through a Super Majority — 85 per cent of votes. Vote shares in turn are determined by the level of a nation’s financial contribution. With around 16 per cent voting share at the World Bank, the U.S. has a de facto veto. Conversely, BRICS, with 40 per cent of the global population and a combined GDP of $24 trillion (PPP), collectively accounts for a mere 13 per cent of the votes at the World Bank.

As such, the concentration of voting power and headquarter location in Washington DC in the case of the World Bank is merely a coincidence. Japan dominates the functioning of the ADB with a 15.7 per cent shareholding, despite the headquarters being located in the Philippines.

It is also useful to note that previous World Bank presidents have been U.S. citizens and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) list of managing directors is composed entirely of Europeans. Even the ADB’s presidents have been Japanese citizens, with almost all of them having served in the Finance Ministry in Tokyo. In this regard, the NDB, with its intention of rotating leadership, seeks to overhaul the existing governance framework prevalent in the international development finance institutions. Through equal shares of paid-in capital in the NDB, there is a clear intention of creating an alternative model that focusses on voting-power parity. The smallest country can negotiate at par with the biggest country.

Will BRICS create a framework that is as democratic in sharing governance space with other investors and stakeholders? This will be something to watch for as the systems and structures evolve. The notion that the NDB has been “Shanghai-ed” is perhaps a shallow understanding of this exciting new initiative.

With an equal voting share, all five countries have to be on board to move in a particular direction. Admittedly, this can be hugely inefficient and troublesome. Therefore, it is incumbent upon BRICS members to ensure that this initial at-par equity in governance does not unexpectedly allow for a super majority like gridlock, restricting decision making because of a lack of consensus. The NDB must be dynamic and lithe, much like the BRICS grouping itself. It would be useful for BRICS members to institute a professional management body for steering everyday operations of the NDB as well as all non-policy related decisions, including those dealing with project funding.

And most importantly, as discussed earlier, BRICS members should democratise the bank’s functioning if new stakeholders are included in the future. They must find ways to engage the recipients and beneficiaries in its decision-making apparatus. If anything, the NDB must be a template for change, not a mirror to the existing hegemony of money.

(Samir Saran is vice-president at the Observer Research Foundation and available at @samirsaran on Twitter.)