"The Borrell Doctrine", A Conversation with The HRVP

"The Borrell Doctrine", A Conversation with The HRVP


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“The Borrell Doctrine”, A Conversation with The HRVP

Read this interview in French, Spanish or Italian on Le Grand Continent.

Your most recent speeches, given to EU ambassadors and also in Bruges, struck a chord. The speech in Brussels was pleasantly surprising in its frankness. The one in Bruges stirred up some controversy, especially the metaphor of the “garden and the Jungle”. Can you tell us what you really meant and wanted to convey through this metaphor?

I believe it was Milan Kundera who warned us against the use of metaphors… They must not be taken literally or out of context. I will nevertheless answer your question, because if my words have caused any misunderstandings, I wish to clear them up. Public debate is an integral part of political action. I will do so while immediately rejecting any proximity with neoconservatives, whom I have absolutely nothing to do with. Let me explain…

Let us begin with some background. Your readers — who are well informed — know that the origins of today’s interpretations of the world lie two visions: a realist one for which world order is dominated by competition between States, and that in the absence of global regulation, the strongest prevails over the weakest. Hence the metaphor of the jungle.

There is also a so-called liberal vision, which believes that international relations can be peacefully achieved through common principles. This is the metaphor of the garden. 

At the global level, through the creation of the United Nations, a balance between the sovereignty of States and cooperation to prevent confrontation between them was sought. In other words, tempering force through norms.

But the world is changing, and not always for the better. The reason I used this metaphor, which I did not come up with, is simply to express the idea that in today’s world, strength — the jungle —tends to override norms — the garden. This idea does not have any particular national, regional, ethnic, or religious significance.

In fact, it would be totally absurd to think so, since today the law of the jungle is prevailing at Europe’s doorstep, in Ukraine, where a great power is taking advantage of its strength to crush its neighbor.

But didn’t you also say that the jungle could overrun the garden?

Yes. In Europe we have pushed war out of our mental landscape, but we are not immune to global unrest. Violence and disorder can also reach us.

I said this very clearly when I presented the Strategic Compass: Europe is in danger. Some people seemed surprised by such an assertion. Then the war happened, and it became clear that I might have even been underestimating the truth…

I also said that in light of this — although some people pretend not to have heard it — the solution is not to build walls around ourselves, because there will never be walls high enough to protect us. I have always fought against the idea of fortress Europe and the euro-centric view of the world. We must therefore live and engage with the world as it is and not as we would like it to be. Engaging with the rest of the world, and in particular with our closest neighbors, must also be part of the second era of a European Union, which was born to solve intra-European problems before globalization began.

Are you saying that the world, through restructuring, would be subject to a “law of the jungle”?

Absolutely. The fragility of the world stems from an extremely weak, extremely tenuous consensus between States. The right of veto is increasingly used by those who have it, i.e., the permanent members of the Security Council. The Russian aggression against Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over an already very cloudy global landscape. In this instance, a permanent member of the Security Council decided to invade its neighbor without any acceptable justification under international law. It did so because it believed that it had the upper hand. That is the law of the jungle. And that is what I clearly intended to denounce. The Secretary General of the United Nations immediately indicated that the Russian aggression against Ukraine was a clear violation of international law. And this is very troubling. As I have said, the world is moving in a direction that is not desired by Europe. But without denying its heritage, it must face and look at the world with greater lucidity. This is a world where the erosion of international norms is leading to the resurgence of force. This is what I was warning about. Especially since this return of force is becoming widespread, including in the economic sphere where the dynamics of interdependence are being overtaken by the dynamics of power. This compels us to protect ourselves, for example by setting up more secure and less vulnerable value chains. The pandemic taught us this. And this is only the beginning. 

So then, why did you refer to Europe as a “garden”? What did you mean by this?

Let’s just say that this world is not the one we would naturally prefer. Europe, however, has the resources to bounce back and adapt. In order to do so, it must work along two directions. The first is to continue to develop its normative power in a whole series of areas where we need new rules. For example, I am thinking of digital technology, where there is considerable risk of fragmentation, such as the danger of seeing different internets existing side by side without interacting with each other, which is known as the “Splinternet”, among other things.

It is therefore absolutely necessary to continue this work on norms, which is Europe’s comparative advantage. But we must recognize that this normative power must be backed up with a sense of power. In order to have influence, you need to be respected. And to be respected, you must have a few tricks up your sleeve. In order to do this, we need to develop a strategy of coalition with those who are on our side in the multilateral framework where these issues play out. Our approach to multilateralism must be more forceful and, let’s face it, more transactional.

In a globalized world, fluid exchanges lead to a greater fluidity of alliances. To this end, we must set up coalitions of the willing to advance the issues we care about and in which we have interests to defend. We must be at once firm and pragmatic, determined in our principles and flexible in our actions. As I have often said, the world is multipolar. However, by force of circumstance, this multipolarity leads to a proliferation of truths and points of view on all subjects. The paradox of today’s world is that the current multipolarity is resulting in the decline of multilateralism. Each country has its own truth, but these truths are not always able to fit together to form a common corpus. Of course, we are supposed to have the United Nations Charter in common. But it is clear that certain powers want either to interpret it in their own way or to change it altogether. This is particularly striking in the area of human rights, where some States claim that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not really that universal because economic and social rights should take precedence over political rights. This is not our opinion.

You mentioned a relationship between Europe and power, which is not always obvious. What do you think has changed?

The war in Ukraine has changed the way Europe looks at the world just as it has changed the way the world looks at Europe. It is a real game changer. Russia attacked Ukraine because it believed that Europe was unable to react. Of course, Europe did not send troops to support the Ukrainians, who are fighting on their own. But we did adopt two new and totally unprecedented initiatives that no one expected from us — certainly not Russia. We are in the process of freeing ourselves from our energy dependence on Russia, who saw this as an insurmountable obstacle for us. This choice is therefore an enormous victory over ourselves because our energy dependence led us to underestimate the risk that Russia posed to us. The invasion of Crimea did not wake us up. This was a strategic and political mistake that we are now trying to correct. The other important step we took was to use an intergovernmental European Fund, which is not part of the European budget approved by the Parliament, but which for the first time is financing the military expenses of a State at war. We have already raised more than 3 billion euros. These three billion are in addition to the efforts being directly made by States to support Ukraine militarily. Our military support is far from negligible. It is accompanied by an economic and financial commitment of nearly 9 billion euros. This is in addition, of course, to the very substantial military commitment of the United States.

The speech you gave to the ambassadors, in which you vehemently urged them to “get out of their comfort zone”, has also been criticized. What did you have in mind? Do you think you have had the desired effect on your diplomacy?

I wanted to talk about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ in the practice of EU foreign policy. It is regrettable that the analysis of the “why” — i.e., the analysis of “the state of the world” within a loose multipolar system — has not received much attention. But in a world that is changing and becoming more and more chaotic, more unpredictable, more dangerous, but also more open, more complex, and more pluralistic, we must adapt. And this imperative applies to all of us, whether we are politicians, citizens, business leaders, or diplomats.

As you know, we have a large diplomatic network spanning the globe with more than 140 EU delegations or embassies. This is no small thing, and the implementation of this network is already a great success for Europe. This network’s role is not to duplicate national diplomacy, but to act as a multiplier of member state influence in the service of what we call “Team Europe”: States and European institutions, working together. And believe me, this is no easy task. Our ambassadors face the same problems of coordination and unity on the ground that I see in the Council. As I told them, they are my eyes and ears all over the world. Without them I could not do my job, so theirs is very valuable to me.

What does this mean for them in concrete terms?

My message is simple and direct. In today’s world, where citizens are much more present in the public debate, where social networks influence perceptions and representations, in a world where misinformation reigns supreme, diplomats must venture further into the arena and pratice what I consider essential today: public diplomacy. This means not just talking to their counterparts or to authorities, but to civil society and its representatives in order to hear their point of view and to make our point of view heard. They are doing it, but more needs to be done. Here again, I cannot stress enough the significance of social networks, which have completely changed the situation. This is all the more true since certain countries that do not mean us well use these social networks to fight our ideas and values, or to discredit Europe as much as they can. We must therefore be able to respond in kind. We have to be able to clearly fight back every time someone tries to blame us. Diplomatic activity must reinvent itself to participate in a battle of narratives where rants and fake news are replacing reasoning and the simple presentation of facts. 

We have seen this with regard to vaccines, where they wanted to blame Europe, when in fact we were by far the largest contributor to Covax, the largest exporters and donors of vaccines, to a far greater extent than China and Russia combined. We see this today with regard to tensions over food products, where some would have us believe that it is the European sanctions against Russia that explain the difficulties in supplying grain or fertilizer. I have encouraged our diplomats, even though they are already doing so, to be much more active on the ground. This means defending us when we are attacked. This also means listening to other voices, other views, other ways of thinking than our own. This does not mean that we have to accept them all. Certainly not. Instead, it means that we must work with others without losing sight of being ourselves. It’s a balancing act.

By wanting to embody this “turning point of power” that you refer to, do you feel that you risk altering the initial European project, which is based on economic integration and respect for the rule of law?

The European project was built against the idea of power because it aimed first and foremost at pacifying relations between Europeans. This is a major achievement that we must preserve and which we can be proud of. But every project must evolve. We cannot afford not to be powerful. It must be nourished by new realities; it must live and not be frozen or set in stone. Converting to realism does not mean converting to cynicism and brutality. In this regard, I do not understand the remarks I thought I heard about my speech on a so-called neo-conservative shift in Europe. Unless you think that fighting Russian imperialism is a neo-conservative act. In reality, we are more committed than ever to the principles of the UN Charter. And not just in so many words. If you speak to the UN Secretary General, if you speak to the leaders of this institution, they will all tell you without exception that their favored partner is the European Union. In the Security Council, for example, the permanent European members have not used their right of veto for several decades now! In fact, we are extraordinarily involved in development issues, in financing the energy transition, and in human rights issues.

There is nevertheless criticism of the West’s practice of double standards. How do we respond to this?

I am familiar with this criticism, and I have heard it many times, including with regard to Ukraine. Yes, the Western world has also at times contributed to the misuse of force. And it is true that it has not been able to resolve certain regional problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But I don’t see how refusing to condemn Russia or pretending to not have a position will advance the cause of other issues! Overall, I believe that as Europeans, our contribution to the international order is positive. We must now ask ourselves how we can contribute more effectively to food security and energy supply in the developing world while promoting the energy transition and the fight against climate change. These are the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Hence my appeal to the ambassadors: pay attention to the exasperation sometimes expressed by the Global South, which feels it has to pay the price for problems which it is not historically responsible for, such as climate change. The food, energy, and financial crises pose very serious problems for many countries. It is normal that they are more worried about the consequences of the war than its causes. It is important to understand them and to act in a positive way without asserting the principle that whoever is not with us is against us. At the same time, aggression is aggression, and going easy on Russia will not lead to advancing peace in the world; on the contrary, it will encourage the big to devour the small.

Now once again, as I said at the beginning of this interview, the shock of the Ukraine war will not be without consequence for the way Europe approaches the world. We cannot continue to be abstractly concerned about peace without recognizing the dynamics of power and force that are being deployed to undermine it. We must never lose sight of the fact that while it takes at least two to trade or make peace, it only takes one to start a war.

But doesn’t this vision of things carry the risk of plunging us into a logic of civilizational confrontation?

No. Quite frankly, I think we are immune to what you refer to as a civilizational risk. Although we must always be vigilant. This is all the more true because what the war in Ukraine has revealed is the absurdity of the notion of a war of civilizations. If there are two countries that have strong civilizational unity, it is Russia and Ukraine. Except that on one side you have a State that wishes to turn this civilizational convergence into political subjugation. And that is what is unacceptable. Putin’s Russia is essentially the heir to an imperialist project that would like Ukraine and Belarus to be integrated into Russia. It is as if the fall of the Soviet Union had not taken place in the meantime. This is why I consider that this conflict is basically the second death of the Soviet Union.

Does this leave a place for Russia? In your opinion, what is it?

Of course there is a place for Russia, which is a great country that is not going to disappear and which nobody wants to disappear. We have nothing against the Russian people. And they know it. Those who are fleeing the regime are trying to reach Europe in large numbers. But Putin’s Russia must understand that it can only live in peace with its neighbors if it abandons its imperialist project and agrees to commit itself to a national project within its borders. One may certainly say that the loss of an empire is always painful. Yes, this is true, and Europeans are well positioned to know this. But I believe that Europeans have managed to shed this imperial nostalgia. And it was the united Europe that was the political response to the loss of the European empires. This is a point that we do not highlight enough. When you put the history of European construction into its global geopolitical context, you will notice that the Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, came one year after the Suez debacle. The Treaty of Rome was therefore basically a peaceful and constructive response to the abandonment by the European powers of their colonial heritage…

With these speeches, you seem to be striving to make your voice heard and to leave a legacy. How would you define yourself in foreign policy? As a realist?

My identity is like sediment, it is made up of superimposed but complementary layers: I am Catalan, Spanish, and European. As such, I am attached to the French heritage of the Enlightenment, even if my experience at Californian universities also left its mark on me. I am fundamentally Kantian, but I try to look at the world as it is from my vantage point. I would say that I’m a realist Kantian.

But I said over and over again; Europe must wake up because international relations are not at the image of those prevailing among the member states of the Union. This was the essence of my message in Bruges. The world is tougher and is based on new power relationships that we must assess and manage well. We no longer have the benefit of a status quo, even though we still have an enormous social capital based on our national, and especially European, institutions. Building institutions is much more difficult than building physical infrastructure.

My values are linked to my personal history because we always come from somewhere. At the same time, I am not naive, and I said that Europe should make itself respected and speak the language of power. This is what I have tried to do and to say, and this is what I will continue to say and to do, without abandoning the need to explain myself and what I do. The pedagogy of action is an essential element of public action. I was a professor of mathematics at the University of Madrid for many years and I have always seen politics as a form of pedagogy. I thank you for giving me the opportunity to do so in your columns. On some occasions, such as in some parliamentary debates, this desire to explain has been met with a certain lack of understanding. I hope that this interview will be useful in clarifying my thinking and defining the Borrell doctrine.

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Alberto Alemanno, Adam Mouyal, “The Borrell Doctrine”, A Conversation with The HRVP, Oct 2022,

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