LONG READ: The difficult dialogue of civilisations

LONG READ: The difficult dialogue of civilisations
Czech President Milos Zeman addresses the Rhodes Forum 2016.
By Ben Aris in Rhodes October 6, 2016

“Europe is not in crisis. It is a crisis!” thundered former Czech president Vaclav Klaus at a breakfast session at this year’s Rhodes Forum. “The EU has created all these crises [we are facing today]. Of course, there are other factors involved, but if there was no monetary union, there would have been no sovereign debt crisis!”

Klaus loves a fight and he was on fine form during the two-day meeting of academics and European leaders, past and present, at the Dialogue of Civilisations (DOC) event organised by the Berlin-based DOC Research Institute under the title of “The chaos of multiplicity”, which was held on the Greek island of Rhodes on September 30-October 1.

And Klaus is not alone in his EU ire; the Carnegie Endowment for Peace is to issue an article this week titled “Is Central Europe Destroying EU solidarity?”, listing a string of problems and protests that the trade bloc is facing today. On Rhodes the debates were lively and, while no one could agree on specifics, the Central European leaders were united in the feeling that things are not going well. The migrant/refugee crisis caused the most outspoken comments.

“I am for deportation of all economic migrants,” Czech President Milos Zeman told delegates in a typical bald statement that is bound to embarrass the Czech government. “Of course, I respect the cruelty of the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and so on. But we do not speak about those people, we speak about economic migrants,” he said, going on to suggest that these economic migrants should be settled on empty Greek islands or sent to other “empty places”.

Klaus had a simpler solution: “To frame it in economic terms, it is a question of divvying the problem up into the supply and demand of migrants. The supply is created in the Middle East and the failed states of North Africa. The demand is implicit due to the stupid irrational social policies [in Western Europe], and explicitly in the actions of Madam Merkel … All the migrants and refugees coming to Europe want to go to Germany. So why do we need quotas?”

Most of Central Europe shares that sentiment, although it remains doubtful that the so called Visegrad Group of countries can force the EU to change any of its policies and actually send migrants home. The day after the DOC conference finished, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, saw his referendum fail on whether Hungarians support the EU’s migrant policy: less than the required 50% of the population voted, rendering the result invalid, but 98% of those who did vote said “no”, highlighting the strong sentiments swirling in Central European societies over these EU issues.

Hungary’s referendum follows on from another EU-relayed referendum in the Netherlands in April that rejected ratifying a free trade and association deal with Ukraine, which leaves the future of it in doubt. And, of course, Britain’s Brexit decision was also based on popular unease with the whole EU project.

The theme of Rhodes Forum 2016 was to increase dialogue between all countries in a world where the fight between mega-blocs is becoming increasingly fraught. On several occasions the comparison between Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History”, which suggested that liberal democracy has “won” and politics will not evolve further, and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” which hypothesises that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world, came up in panel discussions. Zeman also mentioned it, commenting, “It turned out that Huntington was right”.

“If people were dishes, then we can talk to vegetarians and hope the conversation will be fruitful. But we can not talk to cannibals as we are the dish,” Zeman went on. “These people are what I like to call anti-civilisation. There is a long list of anti-civilisation movements in history. There were the Nazis, who tried to destroy the Jews and then the Slavs, and more recently we have Islamic State (IS) … It is a social cancer that is now metastatic. The only way to deal with these people is not through dialogue, but struggle.”

Zeman went on to point out that when IS appeared in 2006 it only affected six countries in the Middle East, but now it has begun to export terror it has affected 35 countries, according to the Czech president. More contentiously, he linked the wave of migrants to jihadist attacks in Europe, whereas authorities say there is only a tiny fraction of terrorists amongst the millions of people on the move. Moreover, deporting all migrants would do little to stop the movement of terrorists.

Great power politics

Underlying the debates over specific issues like the refugees were the themes of collapsing globalisation, increasing protectionism and a return to ‘Great Power politics’. The IMF just released its World Economic Outlook that concluded: “persistent stagnation in advanced economies could further fuel anti-trade sentiment, stalling growth.” Until 2008, Goldman Sachs reported that the world had enjoyed an unprecedented boom in trade that was increasing wealth across the board. But the start of the financial crisi in 2008 heralded the reverse of that trend and governments are under increased economic pressure to turn to protectionist measures, which is increasing geopolitical tensions.

“We need to study this re-emergence of ‘Great Power politics’ as it creates conflicts. We are going to have live with Daesh [IS], that is clear, but are we going to have a war with Russia? Are we going to have a war with China? That is what worries me,” said Fabio Petito, a senior lecturer in international relations at Sussex University.

Russia’s presence at the Rhodes Forum highlights a specific aspect of this problem. Vladimir Yakunin played a prominent role and is the driving force behind the re-launch of DOC as a research institute. The former head of Russian Railways (RZD) until his ouster in August last year, Yakunin is now the president of the supervisory board of the Dialogue of Civilisations Research Institute, and founding president and co-chairman of the World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilisations”, which was previously associated with RZD over the last 15 years.

In part, the DOC is supposed to represent a middle ground between East and West. The Central Europeans at the conference are more open to dialogue with Russia, and both Klaus and Zeman gave interviews to the Russian press in excellent Russian. At the same time, there were many Asian academics and a smattering of African professors. “We Czechs have many reasons not to be satisfied with our Soviet past and the invasion of 1968. I am the last person who will defend Russia, but when we are discussing Europe at a conference in Berlin the biggest applause it got was when I said: ‘please don’t demonise Russia’. We need to discuss [the issues] rationally. It shows that attitudes [towards Russia] are changing in Europe,” Klaus said.

DOC claims that it gets no Russian state money, but admits that Yakunin has contributed to its endowment fund. The only other Russian contributor is Ruben Vardanyan, a well-known Russian banker and founder of the pioneering Troika Dialog investment bank. He was also one of the forces behind the establishment of the Skolkovo business school in Moscow. From here on in, DOC intends to raise more funds from international donors on the basis of its academic credentials and it is in the midst of beefing up its research team, based in Berlin, from the current six staff to 20.

Certainly, the other members of the supervisory board don’t have a problem with the Russians’ participation. Former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer defended the work of DOC, saying: “This is not an ideological exercise. This is not part of a manipulation. We are discussing the issues that are moving the world. To call this a propaganda operation by the Kremlin is simply as ridiculous as saying the conference is sponsored by the CIA.”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was chairman of the IMF between 2007-2011 until he resigned in disgrace over allegations of sexual assault, was a moderator on several panels and noted that academics had come from all over the world and were dealing with an increasingly pressing problem that was being ignored by the mainstream. “It’s great to come and meet people who are freely discussing ideas that are clearly not part of the mainstream. It is obvious that the [global] system has not worked and should. Our system is dysfunctional. The communist system and the liberal one from the 80s have both failed. One suddenly and one slowly. While communist central planning didn’t work, the decentralised alternative has not been decentralised enough and is also not working. We have to find new ways to analyse old problems. For that we need a new dialogue.”

Yakunin intends to take these issues to the next G20 meeting, making the argument that the way to solve the refugee and migrant crisis is not to divvy up the arrivals amongst member states, but to go to the root of the problem. “Why wait for the refugees to knock on our door? We should work to improve their situation at home. It is common sense, but we live in times when common sense has little appeal for politicians. The DOC will propose at the next G20 that the members create a special fund to aid people that have lost everything in terror attacks or war,” Yakunin told delegates.

Fred Dallmayer, professor of philosophy and political science at the University of Notre Dame, made the same point even more forcefully. “The reason people want to leave is because their country has been devastated and their homes destroyed. Who started those wars and created these refugees? There are geopolitical causes, military causes. To stop these causes we need to stop the war in Syria,” said Dallmayer.

EU fighting on

Many of these points are valid, but not exactly mainstream views. For its part, the EU is well aware of Central Europe’s carping, but remains confident that nothing will change.

Walter Schwimmer, secretary general of the Council of Europe 1999-2004 and co-founder of the DOC Research Institute, was almost alone on the breakfast panel in defending the EU and its policies. To focus on the refugee crisis is to focus on the wrong issue, argued Schwimmer. “This is not the first time the EU has faced a crisis, but every crisis has made the EU stronger. The EU will not dissolve. There is no going back to when conflicts dominated. The EU is a peace project, but we need to sometimes remind ourselves of that.”

Despite the frisson, the Visegrad countries are unlikely to have the power to change anything, was the opinion of EU delegates at the event. “There are three types of relations between countries in the European parliament: coalition, the strongest, when everyone acts together with a common interest; partnership, when countries coordinate policy for overlapping interests; and alignment, when countries have the same sort of complaints, but few common interests,” one EU delegate told bne IntelliNews on the sidelines. “The Visegrad countries are a weak alignment. They are very vocal at the moment, but they have no idea of how to cooperate. In three to four years their governments will change – nothing will happen.”

The jury is still out on whether that is true. Russia is actively working to undermine EU unity, while at the same time the smaller countries are clearly unhappy with the way the larger ones are running their foreign policies, a fact that Russia has exploited. If nothing else, the DOC acted as a forum for these countries to express their disquiet. “We need geopolitical humility from the West. Development migrants from the south to the north, but security is bombs and drones from the north flying south,” Richard Falk, Milbank professor of international law at Princeton University, said during the panel on closing the gap between north and south, east and west.

This view was echoed by Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former UN assistant secretary general for economic development, who added: “True multilateralism is being stymied and the leading role in the world has been taken up by G7 or G20, which are not truly representative.”

Against this, Austria’s Gusenbauer countered that the EU allows countries plenty of freedom – in fact probably too much freedom. “To argue that the EU is over-centralised is simply not true,” said Gusenbauer. “There is a dichotomy in the European Central Bank (ECB) as the regulator and the single currency, which is shared by almost all the members. But the rest – the fiscal policy, the allocation of national budgets – is left to the member states. The EU crisis is the product of an unfinished process: the decision to create the EU was made but not taken to its logical conclusion and that has resulted in this crisis.”

Who will win this debate depends on how international relations develop. The general return to big power politics and reversal of the globalisation trend cannot be denied. The question is whether the economic pain everyone is feeling now is just a regular cyclical economic downturn, or symptomatic of a deeper change. Clearly, the delegates at the event were convinced the latter is true. “We have reached a point when we have to start to move beyond the old Westphalian sovereign states to a world in the coming century which belongs to no one. The emerging markets have emerged. The West is in relative decline. But no one is collapsing, and no one is booming. The upshot is no one will be able to dominate and the next century will belong to no one. It is a chaos of multiplicity,” Jean-Christophe Bas, founder of Global Compass, said on the same panel, referring to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that scholars take as a marker for the appearance of the concept of nation states with well-defined borders.

In academia this problem was tackled head on by Philip Bobbitt’s book “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History”, published in 2002, that argues that since the end of the Cold War we have started to moving beyond the nation state to a “market-state”, whcih emphasises maximizing citizens “opportunity” over “freedom” and social security. The process started with the UK’s Margaret Thatcher and US’ Ronald Reagan, argues Bobbitt, who undermined unions, the universal welfare state and advocated in their place ideas like trickle-down economics.

The end of the Cold War has clearly shifted the emphasis from ideologies to markets, as even Russia and China have market economies now. Socialism has been defeated; everyone wants to get rich. The Russians, for their part, have been very careful not to use the phrase “Cold War” in the current clash with Washington, as Moscow sees the current conflict as not an ideological clash but a dispute over which economic model is most appropriate for running countries. Both China and Russia have rejected out of hand the so-called Washington consensus, which has put them both into confrontation with the US, and advocate a multi-polar world that would promote their interests on the international stage.

The same debate is going on in Europe on a smaller scale. Hungary and Poland have become increasingly critical of the EU’s model and want to take back more power from Brussels – a reversion to the nation state model vs the EU’s most appealing attraction, a Continent-wide market. And many of the other states in the region sympathise with these ideas.

Klaus personifies the attitude: he told bne IntelliNews in an exclusive interview that he resisted signing the Lisbon Treaty, which forms the constitutional basis of the EU, because he was unhappy with the grand political plan built into the wording that he believed would leave Germany as the dominant European power.

“The EU elites are like the Soviets. They want to create a European man – a homo europeadicus in place of a homo sovieticus – but they couldn't make one out of Vaclav Klaus,” the former Czech president said in his habitual provocative and bombastic style. “They needed new material and maybe the rootless migrants are the clay.”


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