LUXEMBOURG -- The European Union's curious history of applying punitive sanctions on non-member states is likely to prove short-lived. After EU foreign ministers decided on October 27 to remove all remaining restrictions on Uzbekistan, which has one of the world's most repressive regimes, the end of the whole idea of sanctions cannot be far away.
Sanctions are a relative recent addition to the armory of what was, until the 1990s, essentially a trading bloc. The end of the Cold War brought about a quickening of the EU's political pulse. The waves of enlargement which followed added a sense of mission.
The EU's own ideologues began speaking of the bloc as a harbinger of a more just and better-ordered future, in which selfish "modern" nation states would pool sovereignty to create a value-based "postmodern" world. A sense of moral superiority developed, requiring a practical outlet. The idea of sanctions was born.
Over the past 10 years or so, the EU has developed a complex array of punitive measures, ranging from asset freezes for individuals and organizations believed to be involved in terrorism and denying technical assistance to governments whose actions are not in line with EU principles, to wholesale cutting of links to regimes which kill or imprison their citizens for political motives. Uzbekistan, Belarus, Burma, and Zimbabwe are the most prominent examples of the latter.
But the ultimate test of whether the EU indeed has the courage of its convictions is its readiness to pass judgment on sovereign states. In this respect, the bloc's record is discouraging. A point seems to have been reached where interests take precedence over principles.
Uzbekistan and Belarus present two instructive cases in point. Those post-Soviet dictatorships have followed an identical trajectory which has taken them in the course of a few years from the depths of EU contempt to a restitution of their status as valued partners in dialogue.
Uzbekistan had a year's head start on Belarus, when in 2005 the EU froze all contacts with Tashkent in the wake of the massacre of civilian protesters in Andijon in May that year. Visa bans were imposed on top officials and an arms embargo enforced against the country.
Belarus followed in Uzbekistan's footsteps when President Alyaksandr Lukashenka rigged the parliamentary elections in 2006 and clamped down on opposition protests. The EU imposed visa bans and asset freezes on top Belarusian officials.
Barely two years after the sanctions were put in place, however, the EU was already looking for a way out. In exchange for minor and largely meaningless concessions, which could be grouped under the heading "increased dialogue," the burden of sanctions was progressively lightened.
As of today, Uzbekistan is completely free of EU sanctions, and Belarus is well on its way to full rehabilitation.
There is no single or simple explanation. But some similarities stand out. First, the EU's aspiration to be recognized as a moral avant-garde of world powers has been quietly laid to rest.
The reasons for this are manifold. They may go as far back as the bloc's powerlessness in the Balkans in the 1990s. But more tellingly, most of the damage has been done by the EU's self-professed "multilateral" persuasion.
The "multilateralism" preached by EU leaders since the start of the war in Iraq in 2003 has been partly inspired by the desire to undermine the global hegemony of the United States, and partly reflects the fact that the rise of Russia, China, India, and other new powers has reshaped the international arena.
As the EU tries to position itself in what it hopes and believes is an emerging multipolar world, it has come to realize that in that world, allies equal power. When sanctions were slapped on Uzbekistan and Belarus, both were seen by the EU as tin-pot dictatorships of little consequence.
Then the EU -- or, more precisely, shifting alliances of key member states -- began to see both countries, for different reasons, as key players in complex regional struggles involving Russia. Securing Tashkent's goodwill became essential if the EU was to make any headway in its relations with energy-rich Central Asia, where Uzbekistan is the most populous state, with its own significant gas reserves.
The EU's vision of Belarus underwent a similar evolution, as its tug-of-war with Russia for influence in the former Soviet space intensified.
It quickly dawned on the leading national capitals -- and a little later on Brussels -- that not only do sanctions close down vitals channels of communication, but they can also be perceived as calculated insults.
Visa bans proved particularly irksome. For Lukashenka and his cohorts, finding ways of dodging the ban to visit other European countries must have been humiliating.
But national pride is also at stake. Both Belarusian and Uzbek officials never let slip an opportunity to remind the EU that they should be treated as "equals," meaning that they should not be lectured or otherwise treated as junior partners on account of their values, politics, or anything else.
Weighing Its Interests
The EU's sanctions policy has also become increasingly size-conscious. Uzbekistan, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Burma are of little global consequence. But Russia and China, whose rights records are in some ways scarcely better, are a different matter.
The EU has in the past frozen assistance money meant for Russia and engaged in tit-for-tat trade wars, but these measures have always been calibrated not to cause political affront. Its ambition to act as one of the "poles" in a multilateral world means the EU cannot afford to makes enemies of permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Commercial interests often play a role. Countries whose companies are involved in places like Burma or Belarus have traditionally been more skeptical than others when it comes to cutting contacts. But at the end of the day, the most important lesson the EU has learned is that in a multipolar world, its own internal coherence and unity come under growing pressure.
In some cases that pressure is great enough to excite powerful national interests; consequently, EU unity has already become collateral damage. All roads no longer lead to Brussels. Russia is a prominent example of an outside force that exerts a powerful -- and fragmenting -- pull on policy choices made in Berlin, Paris, and London.
For that reason, member states with vested interests have increasingly become prime movers in decisions regarding sanctions. Germany, which aspires to a leading role in shaping EU policy in the former Soviet space, forced the rehabilitation of Uzbekistan to get the EU Central Asia Strategy it sponsored off the ground.
Similarly, Poland and Lithuania have pursued a pragmatic approach with regard to their immediate neighbor Belarus. Contacts are deemed vital. Views of Russia also tend to color policy choices in much of Eastern Europe, where Minsk's cooperation is now valued a long way above its readiness to respect EU values.
All this is not to say that the EU does not have a foreign policy. But it is turning out to be a foreign policy very different from what was imagined only a few years ago.