Accessibility links

Breaking News

'If No Common Values Exist, Then Common Interests Take Precedence'

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (2nd right) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (2nd left) -- do common values exist?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (2nd right) and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (2nd left) -- do common values exist?
British diplomat Robert Cooper, considered one of Europe's preeminent policy strategists, is the right hand of EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and works as the director-general for external and politico-military affairs at the Council of the European Union.

Cooper is best-known for his book "The Breaking Of Nations," in which he makes the case that the integration achieved within the EU represents a qualitative break with the 350-year tradition of the supremacy of the nation-state in Europe. According to Cooper, the EU has reached a state of "postmodern" development in which sovereignty is increasingly pooled -- as opposed to the United States, which remains a staunchly "modern" state, and to the "premodern" failed states with no functioning governments at all.

Cooper spoke with RFE/RL Brussels correspondent Ahto Lobjakas about the strategic implications of the conflict between Russia and Georgia.

RFE/RL: You wrote on April 10 in "Prospect" magazine in an exchange with American political commentator Robert Kagan that "Russia has run down its military and is mostly interested in getting rich." Would you still stand by this statement today?

Robert Cooper: I don't think the situation has changed altogether. It's true that the Russians have been putting more money into their military recently. But if you compare the Russian military today with the Russian military at the end of the Cold War, it's very different.

RFE/RL: Russia likes to use what you might term postmodern rhetoric, speaking of a preference for international law and universal values, while pursuing a world in which "national interests cleansed of ideology" compete freely, to use Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's wording. What does this amount to? A competing narrative for the EU or a mere smokescreen?

Cooper: Everybody says that their policy is about defending their national interest. But the question is how do you decide to define the national interest. If Russia thinks it has an interest in terrifying all of the states around it, you get one kind of policy. If Russia thinks it has an interest in good, friendly, open relations with states around it, you get another. So, to say that "our policy is a policy of national interest" normally doesn't tell you what the policy is. It's sometimes a statement which says, "We are going to do what the hell we like."

RFE/RL: What Lavrov seems to have been getting at was that, if national interests can compete freely in the world, then what emerges is a kind of perfect order. Would you agree with that?

Cooper: No. Of course not, because it's what we've seen for over hundreds of years in Europe and it was on the whole unsatisfactory. It leads to conflict.

Self-Determination Vs. Territorial Integrity

RFE/RL: In Georgia, Russia seems to be making its own case against chaos -- using again the terminology of your book -- maintaining that the Georgian nation-state has failed to accommodate its various minorities, which amounts to an imperial case for order. Do you think this is acceptable? Is Russia's view of Georgia adequate or correct?

Cooper: No, that's certainly not the case. It's not just their policy in the last period. There was appalling treatment of Georgians in Russia over the last 12 months as well. Of course, it takes two sides to make a bad relationship, but -- no, I don't think anybody could accept the Russian view of Georgia.

In your book, you make the point that there's a limit to the possibility of subdividing countries into ever-smaller ethnic units. The Caucasus thus seems a neighborhood par excellence where one might argue an imperial dispensation is preferable to nations-states.

Cooper: Yes, you could, but unfortunately it's the wrong era. The era of empires is over, nation-states, different nation-states have found different ways of accommodating different ethnicities. Of course, everybody quotes Switzerland, but every European country has got minorities of some kind or another, and there are different constitutional and social ways of ensuring that the minorities make a compromise, find ways of living with each other.

RFE/RL: Which would you say should trump in the end: the right to self-determination or the principle of territorial integrity?

Cooper: There are no absolutes in world politics and both of these principles are incorporated in the UN Charter. There's an essential conflict between them and the decision has to be made in particular cases one by one. But we need to have a reasonably settled world. We can't have a world which is being broken up into ever smaller and smaller units. People have to live with each other, either within states or between states. The difference is not as big as all that.

For my part, I think that the tendency to create more and more small states is a dangerous one. It imposes very high costs on the people who live there because the cost of government is very high. It imposes costs on the international community because the more states you have, the more complicated international negotiations become.

Our priority ought to be to ensure that state constitutions find ways of living with their minorities. The one thing that ought under all circumstances to be unacceptable is to give X -- whoever it is -- a right of self-determination if they are then going to use that treat badly ethnic minorities within their territory. But, in any case, I think one should be very careful about the, quote, "right of self-determination." There is no formula, there's no accepted international agreement on who has such a right.

Russian Limits To EU Policy

RFE/RL: Over the past decade, the European Union -- yourself included -- have been very much preoccupied with the United States. Have you perhaps missed a trick in the rise of Russia?

Cooper: Well, I'm not sure quite how one defines "the rise of Russia." What's true is that the price of oil and gas has risen. And with that, Russian balance of payments has risen. But, for the rest, I'm not sure what is meant by the rise of Russia.

RFE/RL: Using your own terms, Europe seems to be at a point where it will have to define its options taking cognizance of what Russia does and wants, where it will have to define its place in the world vis-a-vis Russia -- in the way you've said in your book that everyone has to define their strategy in relation to the United States.

Cooper: No, I don't think that's true. We live next to Russia, we have important relationships with Russia, Russia is an important supplier of oil and gas and we are Russia's most important customer for oil and gas, but we don't define ourselves according to Russia.

RFE/RL: So, you don't think that what happened in Georgia sets a kind of limit to what the European Union is able, or not able, to do in its neighborhood? That it does not force the European Union perhaps to opt for a different policy choice to that which it may have preferred initially?

Cooper: We would prefer a different relationship with Russia. We would prefer a Russia which behaved differently, for a start. We would have a better relationship with Russia if that was the case.

Well, you could say, if you like, that it's a limit on the European Union -- we're not in total control in Russia -- but you have to work with what you've got. There are things for which we need Russia and relationships will continue. It's a limit -- you know, that's life, we're not in control of the world. The world is as it is and we have to live with it.

RFE/RL: I'm asking more specifically with respect to countries like Georgia and Ukraine.

Cooper: Are we able to control what Russia does in Georgia?

RFE/RL: Meaning, are you obliged to limit yourselves in what you do in Georgia and Ukraine?

Cooper: Well, there are at the moment parts of Georgia where we're not going to go because they're occupied by Russia, so yes, if you like, there's a physical limit imposed. Does this change our relationship with Georgia? Of course it does because there's been a lot of destruction in Georgia and we'll now spend some time trying to help the Georgians to repair that. So, of course, these things have an impact on our relationship. Does this put a limit on our relationship with Georgia? I don't think so, except in the sense that there are now some physical limits.

RFE/RL: There are policy choices, possible membership prospects....

Cooper: The European Union has got enlargement talks going on with Croatia, it has a medium-term prospect of countries in the Balkans joining the EU, but beyond that it doesn't make sense to talk about enlargement beyond that at the moment.

RFE/RL: And Russia is not a factor in all this?

Cooper: No, this is driven by what people sometimes call enlargement fatigue, it's driven by what happens in a number of European countries where enlargement is not perceived as being very popular, although I think it's been one of the best things the European Union ever did. But the limits on that are imposed by us, not by anybody else.

Common Values, Or Interests?

RFE/RL: Do you think Russia has become too strong and large for the system?

Cooper: Well, one of the puzzles is -- sorry to keep saying this -- I never know what is meant by 'strong' in this....

RFE/RL: In your sense, the way Germany became uncontainable twice in modern history.

Cooper: Well, look, this is a country which once used to have an ideology which a number of people in the world found attractive, which actually did have some force in the world. Half the intellectuals in Europe were communists at one time. It used to occupy a large number of European countries either directly as a part of the Soviet Union, or indirectly through the Warsaw Pact.

It doesn't seem to me that today's Russia in those 19th-century terms is stronger. I can't remember what the life expectancy in Russia is at the moment, but it's certainly not rising and I'm not sure that makes them into a strong country either. So, there are no doubt some ways in which they are strong -- they've still got large numbers of nuclear weapons, but does that make them stronger than -- I don't know which European country's GNP is roughly the same as Russia's -- maybe the Netherlands?

RFE/RL: Perhaps what matters is intentions?

Cooper: Well, yes, you are right, but strength is not unidimensional, it's not just a matter of military power.

RFE/RL: Coming to the EU and its postmodern world order, in your book you say they rest on two pillars -- first the EU itself and its achievements, and secondly things like the Conventional Forces in Europe [CFE] Treaty, the OSCE, and Council of Europe with their values. Now both of these pillars have been crumbling in their own particular ways recently. What does that bode....

Cooper: Well, the CFE Treaty is something that worries me because that was a key treaty and it is a treaty that I have a kind of emotional attachment to because the ideal of transparency in this area seems to me to be very important.

So, you're right, that's weakening and the dream of a kind of a postmodern Europe that was going to cover the whole of Europe including Russia, that seems to be on hold for the moment. But the EU is not crumbling.

RFE/RL: I was referring to the Lisbon Treaty and the crisis within the EU.

Cooper: Crisis is too strong a word. I would like to see the Lisbon Treaty ratified. I think that it would be extremely good for Europe, I think that we'd more effective with that. But to say that the EU is not going as fast as it should is not the same as saying it's falling apart.

RFE/RL: Essentially, these are just temporary setbacks then, as far as the EU goes?

Cooper: I assume that. You never know, you never know whether something is a blip or a trend. But if you look back through the history of the EU, it's one crisis after another and prophecies that the EU is finished I think you'll find on average once every three years, probably. It's now bigger, it covers more fields, it looks more solid now than it ever did before.

RFE/RL: If the EU reaches an essentially "modern" accommodation with Russia, one based on interests -- and I don't mean just Georgia, but the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement....

Cooper: A wider thing -- it's important to underline that there's much more to Russia than Georgia, which of course is in the headlines and this was a profound shock for a lot of people in Europe. But there are other areas in which we have cooperation with Russia and where I think everybody wants that cooperation to continue.

RFE/RL: But if Russia does force the EU to choose between interests and values -- and German politicians, for example, say if there are no shared values then interests must suffice for cooperation -- if this happens, would this not eventually end up contaminating the values the EU stands for themselves? This is an argument often made in Eastern Europe.

Cooper: This in a sense was part of the argument of my book. This was a phrase that has been misquoted and misunderstood, where I said, "we have to get used to double standards." What I meant by that was that among ourselves we can operate on the basis of values, outside we may have to operate on the basis of interests. If you have common values you operate there, if you can't, you operate on the basis of common interests.

RFE/RL: But the question remains: if, for example, Georgia is left in the state it's in now, Ukraine becomes stymied, for whatever reason, Russia basically gets away with certain things, the European Union reaches an accommodation and accepts it, will that not start some sort of a rot within the European Union itself?

Cooper: Well, you could say that this was what happened for 40 years during the Cold War. We didn't try to reverse the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. We continued to cultivate our garden and defend ourselves and waited for change. We never gave up the idea that we wanted change. Nor did that contaminate our values in some way. You know, to be honest, I think, far more dangerous is the illusion that we have to change everything in the world that we don't like. That's too much, the world's not like that.

RFE/RL: And finally, another quote, from your book. This time you say that "U.S. military power is no longer essential for Europe's long-term survival." Do you still abide by that conclusion?

Cooper: I would not like to see the United States go home. And I've always thought that if you took NATO out of the picture, if you took the U.S. security commitment to Europe out of the picture, then the world would look very different in Europe.

I wonder what context I said that in? I think, probably what I meant was "Actually, we're rich, we've got a larger population than the United States. If it was really necessary, we ought to be able to generate that military power ourselves." But, for the moment, we haven't, and as things are at the moment the U.S. security guarantee is a vital interest for every European country.