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PS Say More


Ana Palacio
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group.

Project Syndicate: You’ve argued that the European Union needs to recognize that the United States is an unreliable partner, and take action to bolster its own security. Now, after years of trashing NATO, US President Donald Trump says the Alliance must increase its involvement in the Middle East to rein in an Iran that, thanks to Trump’s own actions, is no longer bound by the 2015 nuclear deal. How should European NATO members respond?

Ana Palacio: One of the unfortunate realities of Trump’s mercurial administration – and a leading source of global uncertainty – is that its pronouncements cannot be assumed to be authoritative or fixed. So his surprising and somewhat vague call for NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process” should be taken with more than a grain of salt. This is all the more true because Trump followed his initial call for greater NATO involvement in the Middle East with musings about enlarging the Alliance to include Middle Eastern states. There is no comprehensible picture here.

That said, America’s Western allies – and Europe, in particular – should be very concerned about the prospect of a large-scale US withdrawal from the Middle East. There have been worrying signs that the Trump administration is considering such a move – the most obvious being the leaked (and subsequently rescinded) letter from a US general suggesting that plans are underway to prepare troops to leave Iraq.

This would undermine efforts to keep the Islamic State in check and push regional powers even closer to Russia, reinforcing the Kremlin’s strategic position. To prevent this outcome, NATO’s European members should increase the Alliance’s presence in the Middle East, thereby bolstering security and providing tangible evidence of NATO’s value (and some political cover) to a US president who has consistently doubted it.

But NATO’s potential role in the Middle East is just the beginning. Europe must develop its own security identity. In light of recent weeks’ events – not only in Iran, but also in Libya –Europe’s need to take concerted action to strengthen its security is not a matter of opinion; it is a fact.

What was Europe’s role in the run-up to the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani? Virtually none. America’s European allies, like the US Congress, had no clue what was going on until after the fact.

And Europe’s response since has been slow, mealy-mouthed, and generally feeble. Europe’s knee-jerk reaction to the erosion of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – to which Iran has announced it would no longer adhere – has been to cling to the dimming hope of preserving it. This speaks to a lack of ideas or vision.

I am a JCPOA supporter. As I have written, I believe that it was an innovative and positive approach to a difficult problem. But the world has changed since 2015. Europeans need to read the writing on the wall and adjust accordingly. While we need to support institutional and rules-based approaches, that cannot be our only note. I hope that the timing of this crisis – right at the beginning of a new “geopolitical” European Commission, as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calls it – means that it will spur real action, rather than more of the usual empty rhetoric.

PS: You’ve underscored how Russian President Vladimir Putin has capitalized on America’s erratic foreign policy, including in Iran. In the wake of the recent Iran flare-up, what might Putin’s plans be, and how should Europe respond?

AP: Over the last decade, Putin has displayed a propensity to risk a little in order to gain a lot, by taking advantage of mistakes or inaction by the West. Looking at recent developments in Iraq and Iran – particularly the signs of de-escalation that followed the Iranian ballistic missile attack on air bases housing US forces in Iraq – I would expect Russia to do very little.

The worst-case scenario for the Kremlin would be a full-scale conflict that brought a massive American presence back to a region that has lately been largely left to Russia for the taking. That outcome now seems less likely.

By contrast, a withdrawal or significant drawdown of US forces from Iraq would be a boon for a Russia seeking to expand its influence in the country. Moreover, because it would open the way for a rebalancing of Iran’s regional presence toward Iraq, it would ease Russia’s position in Syria, not least vis-à-vis Israel.

For Europe, which has already suffered the consequences of Putin’s adventurism, the prospect of a deep and prolonged Russian presence should be unsettling, to say the least. That is why it should work to ensure a continued US/NATO presence, even while working to ease tensions and avoid conflict.

PS: The end of the three-and-a-half-year Brexit saga, you wrote last month, will allow for greater strategic clarity. What are the most urgent questions the EU must answer in the post-Brexit era?

AP: Brexit has been a dark cloud hanging over not only the United Kingdom, but also the EU since the June 2016 referendum. Now that the end is in sight, it is possible – and, indeed, vital – to move forward deliberately. This means thinking creatively and realistically about the EU’s institutional design.

The EU needs to come to terms with the fact that it cannot move forward with all 27 members in lock step. To survive, let alone thrive, requires greater institutional agility. This is not a call for a multi-speed Europe, but rather for more flexible institutional designs that allow different levels of participation in a range of areas – essentially, various adaptations of the Schengen model.

Such an approach would facilitate partnerships with countries outside the EU27, particularly prospective members. This would advance another important goal: developing a straightforward and workable process for joining the EU. Too often, the promise of EU membership candidacy has not been fulfilled, leaving countries bitter and frustrated. A constellation of cooperative structures could remedy that.

This approach would also enable the EU to maintain a robust partnership with the UK, particularly in security and defense. Here, talk of an informal or quasi-formal European Security Council is promising, as such a grouping could help to shape answers to fundamental strategic questions that, shockingly, remain unexamined – first and foremost, what type of international actor Europe should be.

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Palacio recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Palacio's picks:

  • La Hija de la Española/It Would Be Night In Caracas

    La Hija de la Española/It Would Be Night In Caracas

    The human suffering in Venezuela has persisted for so long and reached such depths that it can sometimes feel almost abstract. Borgo’s remarkable debut novel changes that, by taking the reader along on a deeply unsettling but supremely enlightening personal journey through a country’s disintegration. Told from the perspective of a young woman whose future is consumed by the struggle for survival, we see clearly how circumstances can propel a person’s life into a spiral of chaos and cruelty. It is a book that will not only deepen your understanding of Venezuela’s plight, but also cause you to reflect on the human condition. It has already been translated into numerous languages, but I recommend reading it in the original Spanish if you can, as Borgo has a unique style in the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes.

  • The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World

    The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World

    A powerful firsthand account of America’s role in the world over the last four decades, written by a consummate analyst of foreign affairs. Burns’ diplomatic perspective provides a clear and compelling picture of the ups and downs of US foreign policy through Republican and Democratic administrations, from the peak at the end of the Cold War to the depths of the current chaos. At a time when the State Department seems to be in disarray and the American diplomatic corps faces formidable challenges, Burns shows what US foreign policy at its best can achieve.

  • The World of Yesterday

    The World of Yesterday

    Over the holidays, I found myself picking back up this 1942 classic, not because I believe, as many others do, that we are reliving the 1930s. Rather, I did so because we are living at a time of upheaval. And it is precisely the disorientation that this type of disruption produces that Zweig so keenly captures, providing the reader with some much-needed perspective. Though not the most original, this book is a favorite – one that triggers different reactions each time I read it.

From the PS Archive

From 2018
Palacio worries that the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi's murder and the US response may accelerate a dangerous shift. Read the commentary.

From 2017
Palacio explains why the duty to defend the Western-led rules-based system falls squarely on Europe. Read the commentary.

Around the web

In a 2014 interview with the Tehran Times, Palacio promoted a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program. Read the transcript.

At a 2017 International Energy Agency Big IdEAs conference, Palacio discussed modern energy challenges from a geopolitical perspective. Watch the video.;