Monthly Archives: February 2015

Letters from America (II): Unite to thrive

Ambition, innovation and flexibility (see my previous op-ed in the Letters from America series entitled “Where the sky is the limit”) also characterize the US when it comes to politics, including international politics. In this op-ed I focus on the role of the US on the global stage and compare it with that of the EU, to the extent that the two are comparable.

In the post-World War II world the US has been the undisputable leader most of the time, certainly in the West. Its predominance may have been challenged by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but its ultimate triumph and the dissolution of the Soviet bloc confirmed the superiority of the US. At the one universal organization, the United Nations (UN), the US occupies one of five permanent seats with veto power. There and beyond its superiority in terms of hard (military, economic, political) and soft (cultural, innovation-al) power, its social and administrative cohesion and drive for achievement distinguish it from the emerging superpower of China, a defensive Russia, and the long-declining former colonial powers of France and the UK.

A European patriot, if one exists, would rejoice in the fact of EU “double occupancy” at the core of the UN Security Council. Caution is in order, though. While the US is a unitary actor, to the extent that is possible for such a complex state, the UK and France certainly do not want to surrender their Security Council prerogatives to any joint EU decision-making. To make things worse, among the elected ten members of the Security Council at least one and often two are also EU members. Four votes out of fifteen? That would be a great deal for the EU. Well, forget it, it is four different sets of policies and interests, no matter what lip service is paid to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Of course, interests often coincide and that is reflected in frequently concurring European votes. That, however, is not part of really joint strategic planning that involves the European institutions. Let the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, these days Ms. Mogherini, say what she wants; the ultimate interests are defined at the national level by the corresponding national elites.

While the US formulates strategies through its National Security Council and its Departments of State, Defence, Treasury, Energy, etc., the EU struggles to formulate common positions through protracted negotiations of its 28 member states, plus the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS, headed by the High Representative). By the time the Europeans have managed to reach agreement among themselves in the margins of UN negotiation processes the other countries of the world have moved on, with the European position having less of the impact that it could have.

European money is welcomed for development and humanitarian assistance by a large part of the world, but no leadership is expected or sought from the EU. The standard leader and trend-setter remains the US, whether loved or resented. Increasingly, China is emerging as a leader too, individually or in the context of groups that it belongs to, notably the Group of 77 and the BRICS. A “dual hegemony” thus seems to be taking shape at the global level, with the US and China as the two leading powers, the “G2”. One would expect that the other emerging power, the EU, with its more than 500 million inhabitants (the US population is about 320 million) and the biggest economy collectively in the world, to be part of the core group, part of a “G3”, but that is not the case.

One would expect the EU, with its more than 500 million inhabitants and the biggest economy collectively in the world, to be part of a “G3” of leading global powers, together with the US and China, but that is not the case.

In fact, this is not the case even on climate change, where the EU is broadly acknowledged to be taking bold steps. The large greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2030 announced by the EU in October 2014 were less imagination-grabbing and relevant to global policy than the joint November 2014 announcement by the US and China of their corresponding, more modest but coordinated measures. Discreet but targeted actions taken in tandem by the G2 also played a major role in saving the recent UN climate change conference in Lima (December 2014), compared to a respected but rather marginal role played by the EU.

It should be pointed out, in all fairness, that individual EU states like the UK or the Nordic countries often demonstrate more leadership and have more impact than the EU as a whole, despite their limited resources. These countries, however, operate in a second or third tier around the US, China and even other major developing or middle-income countries, when acting alone. A core problem for the EU is that there is no defined common European interest, and actually no effort is being made to define it in a strategic way for the medium and long-term beyond declaratory generalities. Not that such an exercise is “a piece of cake” for the US, which has its own internal divisions and dysfunctional elements. In the case of the US, though, there is enough common discussion, vision and empowered central institutions that make rational planning possible and mobilize sufficient resources to execute it.

The clarity of the US interest in the case of its partnerships over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, from NATO to APEC, as well as in the “Western Hemisphere” (i.e. the Americas), leads to concrete political and economic outcomes. The same cannot necessarily be said for the EU’s policies towards its immediate neighbourhood, which manage to be at the same time intrusive when it comes to the details (strict adoption of the “acquis communautaire”) and politically disjointed on the big picture (see mishandling of Ukrainian case vis-à-vis the country’s internal divisions and Russia).

It should come as no surprise that EU members are steadily losing ground on the charts of state power and influence in the world, overtaken by more dynamic, emerging powers.

The EU’s central institutions seem to be stuck to what 19th Century Europe identified as “mission civilisatrice”, fuelled by an underlying sense of self-righteousness and superiority vis-à-vis others, while individual member states continue to pursue their narrow but concrete geopolitical and economic interests, which go in different directions. With all this, it should come as no surprise that EU members are steadily losing ground on the charts of state power and influence in the world, overtaken by more dynamic, emerging powers. Of course, the US steadily maintains one of the top posts, as would the EU as a whole, should it become really united.

Georgios Kostakos

Originally published as op-ed in Katoikos.eu on 4 February 2015

Letters from America (I): Where the sky is the limit

I was recently visiting the US again, more than a year after my last visit and some two-and-a-half years after I moved from New York to Brussels. Twelve years working for the United Nations in New York may not qualify me for US citizenship or a green card, and I am not sure I would want either at this stage in my life, but certainly a New Yorker I feel, then, now and forever.

New York for me is the capital of the world, not only because of the United Nations, and less so because of Wall Street, but certainly also because of the immense diversity in cultures and cuisines, languages spoken, music, exhibits and other cultural activities from across the globe. You can find everything in New York and you can find New York everywhere – in the movies that the world watches, in the change of the year at Times Square, in what the New York Times publishes, in the trends that New York sets. The city is full of beautiful, ambitious and creative people. It is dynamic and intense. It is where you live your dream, if you want it hard enough: the sky is the limit here.

Brussels - Borse - 8 June 2014 - 20140608_142001Quite a contrast from Brussels, the capital of Belgium and the seat of the main European Union institutions, where I now live. “Gotham City” or “The Big Apple”, as New York is also known, rises into the skies, with its high-rise office and residential buildings. Brussels has an area of high-rise buildings, ambitiously called “Manhattan” by the way, but it is mainly a beautiful, art deco, low-rise city with some medieval structures still intact at is famous Grand Place. New York’s skies may pour down with rain and snow, lots of snow during a heavy winter, but they are deep blue and sunny the rest of the time. Brussels, in turn, tends to be milder but often overcast and with drizzle, giving you a claustrophobic feeling when you do not see the sun for weeks at a time.

New York is multicultural, with distinct neighbourhoods, restaurants and supermarkets, with its numerous national parades spreading their special flavour each time – from St. Patrick’s Day Parade to the Puerto Rican, Greek, and many others. Brussels is also becoming increasingly multicultural, mainly with Europeans from other countries and Arabs from North Africa, some sub-Saharan Africans too, and of course it has its indigenous linguistic divide between French and Dutch/Flemish speakers. As apparently is the case in the rest of Europe, rather than being a source of richness and pride these diverse cultural identities seem to be a cause of concern, with political correctness trying to ignore them and political expediency trying to accentuate them.

Plays and musicals on Broadway, performances at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, exhibits at the MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim, movies shot in and about the city, set trends and are points of reference worldwide. Brussels, of much smaller size than New York, has a surprisingly vibrant artistic scene that its inhabitants enjoy thanks to institutions like Bozar, Flagey and Ancienne Belgique, but has no claim on influencing people beyond its limits, not even within the EU.

New York is known as “the city that never sleeps”, with the subway (metro) running 24/7, delis and some other stores the same, shops opening long hours including on Sundays, and with attentive service offered by shopkeepers to waiters to bank tellers. Brussels thankfully has an increasing number of night stores and supermarkets that also open on Sundays, but most shops open during office hours, making it difficult for office workers to visit them. Services often seem to be offered with the rights of the person serving in mind, rather than of the client, who undoubtedly does not seem to “be king”… And I could go on and on making such comparisons between the two cities.

What am I getting at with these arguments? Is this an unqualified eulogy for New York and a scathing criticism for Brussels? A praise for America and a castigation of Europe? Not really, not least because I am aware of the many problems New York and the US model have. The infrastructure has a lot to be desired, notably the train system, which is still old and slow; no TGV or Thalys connecting New York to Washington or Boston for example, unlike the impressive connections that Brussels boasts of with Paris, London, Amsterdam, Cologne. Criminality is lower in Brussels and life is quite comfortable, more family-friendly and less stressful than New York. Working people are entitled to longer vacations and other benefits, and can count on high-quality healthcare and education at significantly lower cost. Inequalities may be rising but still in Brussels and Europe there is a large middle class that enjoys a good life. There may be racial tensions but Europe is not facing situations like in Ferguson, Missouri or in New York, with deadly attacks between black US citizens and the police.

My critical comparisons between New York and Brussels have been an attempt to distil the best of both worlds, and hopefully infuse what is missing from one to the other. For Europe, which is the focus of this publication, it would mean, among other things, less parochialism and more ambition for the future at individual and collective levels; more client orientation and more flexibility in employment conditions, while keeping an overall guaranteed social safety net that is the jewel of the “European model”; more openness to other cultures and influences, notably those from other countries of the EU but also beyond; much more openness towards and investment in new ideas, innovation and creativity; and an overall more optimistic attitude and can-do spirit.

Georgios Kostakos

Originally published as op-ed in Katoikos.eu on 29 January 2015