Partnering in an uncertain world
The international system has entered a transition marked by the diffusion of power, deepening interdependence and growing vulnerability to risks cutting across borders. The multilateral order has been struggling to adjust to the changing constellation of power and competition between ideas. Demand for global governance falls at the intersection of the mandates and expertise of separate institutions. Mutual trust is a vital ingredient to bridge the gap between the demand for and supply of international cooperation but it is also a scarce resource, and all the more so in the aftermath of the economic crisis. The questionable distinction between rising and declining powers may prove less consequential than that between introverted actors, largely driven and constrained by domestic concerns, and entrepreneurial ones, seeking to devise new forms of outreach and cooperation. In this context, pragmatic multi-level and multi-stakeholder engagement is critical when classic forms of institutionalised multilateralism prove out of reach.
Bilateral partnerships between major global and regional actors are an emerging feature of international relations in a polycentric world. In 2009, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the tilt from a multipolar to a multi-partner world as a core dimension of American foreign policy. This political approach fits well with the traditional role of the US as the hub of a large network of bilateral alliances and regional security structures. Bilateralism poses a challenge to a collective, consensus-based international actor like the EU. Nevertheless, over the last ten years or so, the Union has been experimenting with, and investing in, a range of so-called strategic partnerships with ten very diverse countries, namely Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea, Russia and the US.
This relatively new dimension of EU foreign policy has been criticised at three main levels. For one, strategic partnerships would detract from the traditional EU commitment to ‘domesticating’ international relations through binding norms and rules of general application. They would affect the identity and self-perception of the Union as a champion of ‘effective multilateralism’. For another, these bilateral relations would not deliver, whether in terms of tangible benefits or, where relevant, normative convergence. They would not be effective. On top of this, the concept would lack consistency and therefore fail to provide guidance to foreign policy, since it encompasses countries with little in common whether in terms of political and economic weight, value system or scope of relations with the EU itself.
This analysis acknowledges the many shortcomings of the practice of strategic partnerships by the EU (as well as by other important international actors) but suggests that poor implementation so far need not invalidate the concept and political relevance of the approach. If the EU has a grand strategy, it is essentially to replace rule of power with power of rules. It aims to shape the milieu of international relations by engagement and not by containment or balancing, with a view to shape viable frameworks of cooperation and leverage its comparative advantage as a sui generis civilian power. From this standpoint, truly strategic partnerships are those that help accompany power shifts with a shift from zero-sum to positive-sum relations between major powers. Strategic partnerships perform at the same time as confidence-building measures and as umbrellas for a variety of concrete initiatives that can engender broader policy convergence over time, on issues such as mitigating climate change and countering transnational threats.
Given the diversity of the countries in question, the depth and pace of the different partnerships can greatly vary. The broad-based and value-driven alliance with the US sits uncomfortably in the same category as the often controversial dealings with a challenging neighbour such as Russia or the less intensive exchanges with distant regional powers such as South Africa or Mexico. That said, strategic partnerships are about setting objectives and pursuing them consistently over time; objectives such as the modernisation of Russia, market access in China or a trade deal with India. Besides, these relationships can be seen as a key component of a broadly preventive approach to avert the drift towards sheer competition among major powers. In a world of assertive powers, failure to sustain structured dialogue (including with non-state actors) may pave the way to mutual alienation and further geopolitical tensions, which would defeat the very strategic purpose of the EU.
For all their differences, strategic partnerships share important common features in that they serve multiple purposes within both EU foreign policy and external action. First, strategic partnerships are reflexive ones because by announcing them the two parties affirm their role or status as pivotal interlocutors for each other and beyond. This is an important function for the EU, whose international actorness remains contested when it comes to foreign policy. Strategic partnerships put the Union on the map and require its institutions and member states to more sharply define common goals and tactics (a task that remains far from being accomplished).
Second, strategic partnerships are relational ones, directed to manage bilateral interactions in the direct pursuit of the parties’ interests through a mix of socialisation, persuasion and coercion. Those relationships that started off as asymmetric, between advanced Europe and developing countries - such as the EU’s partnerships with India and Brazil - are rapidly evolving towards partnerships of equals, with a focus on two-way trade and investment. The EU has concluded a free trade deal with South Korea, is nearing one with Canada and has come close to a major deal with India which may or may not happen this year. In his last state of the Union address, President Obama has announced the launch of EU-US free trade negotiations, mainly aimed to lower non-tariff barriers between the two biggest economies in the world.
Third and last, strategic partnerships are important vectors for cooperation beyond the bilateral level. As such, they are structural partnerships that can contribute to shape the context of international relations, whether on security or monetary issues. The 2008 report on the implementation of the European Security Strategy spoke of ‘partnerships for effective multilateralism’. While that formulation might have proven ambitious with hindsight, following the financial crisis, the crisis of the Doha Round, the trauma of the Copenhagen summit on climate change or the divisive intervention in Libya, the effort to leverage bilateral relations for multilateral cooperation remains central to the EU’s approach. For example, close engagement with South Africa and Brazil has helped the world take some significant steps forward at the 2011 Durban climate summit, with those two countries playing a sort of bridging role between, roughly speaking, North and South. The EU has established high-level (ministerial) dialogues on foreign and security affairs with China, India, Russia and most recently Brazil (as well as the US of course). It seeks to engage in particular rising democracies such as Brazil and India through triangular cooperation on development assistance, institutional capacity building and human rights in third countries.
In conclusion, EU strategic partnerships are not a quick fix to overcome significant differences, and beyond trade deals can only deliver lasting solutions if connected to other levels of engagement and rule-making. However, in a fluid and uncertain international system, they represent an important instrument for the EU to connect with pivotal actors, enhance trade and investment, fit into a growing grid of bilateral relations and, in some cases, pave the way towards multilateral cooperation.