The future of the multilateral global order, challenges for small democratic states

Keynote speech by Karel Kovanda, a former Deputy Director General of External Relations in the European Commission, delivered at the conference “The Future of the Global Order: The Challenges for Small Democratic Countries“ at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic,  23 September 2015. The conference was organized by the Institute of International Relations in Prague with the support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Prague office.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Freedom House is an American organization which gauges the degree of freedom (which for the sake of the argument I will equate with democracy) in 195 countries of the world. (Experts will have noticed that this number is higher than the number of members of the UN, and will have gathered that it includes Taiwan and possibly Kosovo.) Of these 195, 144 were deemed free or partly free. Take away the big ones – three of the P5, India, Indonesia, Japan, Germany, Brazil and a few others – and we’re still left with about 135 small democratic states. In my remarks I will focus only on Europe.

I am not a professional historian, many of you will no doubt find fault with many of my observations, opinions and especially generalizations. And since I always adopt the opinions of the last person I have listened to, I can assure you even ahead of time that you’re right, I absolutely agree with your objections.

The wave of immigrants that is overflowing Europe is endangering the multilateral order that we live in. Or at least it seems to be doing so. Or, in the very least, it inspires fears that this is so. Amazingly, these fears are harboured by many who themselves are uncomfortable with this order, by people who don’t like the EU, who would do away with NATO, who believe the Bilderberg conferences are a cabalistic conspiracy.

But even if the refugee crisis were endangering the world order as we know it (and I’ll examine this proposal a bit later), it would not be the first time in Europe’s history that its order would be upended. Let us do a little time travel to reflect upon some of the fundamental changes Europe has witnessed.

I spent a little time in Tuscany this past summer and became acquainted with what in England is known as the Road to Rome and in Italy is referred to as the Via Francigena, the French road. It is the passage that the Archbishop of Canterbury took to reach Rome at the end of the 10th century and ever since has been used by pilgrims of all types seeking to visit the Holy City. I’m going to be a bit ahistorical here and sweep across several centuries: the pilgrim paths threading through Europe symbolize a Europe linked together by the net of religion. Needless to say, only a tiny minority of Europe’s population ever visited more than the nearest market town; but this minuscule elite found a common cultural context – and a common language, Latin – wherever they would find themselves, be they men of the Church, feudal lords, or merchants. This common context was the Catholic religion.

The “order” of the day was anything but peaceful. The Black Death smote 30% or more of Europe’s population in its time, France battled England for 100 years, the Borgias gave us a wonderful TV series, the Ottomans conquered chunk after chunk of the Balkans. But couldn’t one agree that by and large, a degree or order reigned?

Certainly it reigned in comparison with what followed. Literally up the street, two miles from here where we are sitting, is a place called the White Mountain. It’s not really much of a mountain; but it’s a place where a fateful battle was fought which in 1620 kicked off the 30-Year War. That war engulfed most of Europe with devastating consequences. The Church schism put an end to Catholicism as the cultural and political glue of Europe. The multilateral order of the times collapsed. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia substituted something novel: a rule whereby every ruler was entitled to his own religion. And as for the emergent international order, it established principles which are not alien to our understanding: respect for boundaries of sovereign states and non-interference in domestic affairs of others.

If there was a force that came close to destroying this pan-European order, it was the French Revolution and its aftermath. If there was one person who almost destroyed it, it was Napoleon Bonaparte. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, Europe was reshaped again. The 1815 Congress of Vienna pushed back revolutionary ambitions but seeded the concept of nationalism. Within half a century or so, France incorporated the territory of Savoy and thus reached what had been described as its “natural borders”, namely the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Prussia emerged as the strongest state in the German-speaking region of Europe. Italy was on its way to unification.

I have always felt nationalism to be a doubtful principle of statecraft. First, with a few exceptions like Iceland, it is well-nigh impossible to define a territory whose borders would completely encompass a single nation. Ethnicity has a fractal character: at least in border areas, and often much more broadly, ethnic groups intermingle – so that however small a piece of territory one examines, there will generally be some prevailing ethnicity and some minority one. One of my favourite examples comes from Belgium. In addition to the prevailing French- and Dutch-speaking areas, there is a small German-speaking area in the east of the country. In this German-speaking area there is the town of Verviers, which is French-speaking. And in Verviers, there is a German-speaking quarter. In this German-speaking quarter, there are probably some French-speaking households.

But in addition to this fractal character of ethnicity, how to define ethnicity in the first place? Where are differences in language and culture great enough to define different ethnic groups? Very often, ethnicity is a matter of politics and history. It is a matter of politics and history, not of linguistics or cultural anthropology, that we have Germans and Austrians living in two separate states whereas we no longer have an independent Kingdom of Bavaria and an independent Kingdom of Hannover, or that Venice and Sicily are not viewed as separate ethnics living in separate countries.

Small countries! And isn’t it one aspect of this conference to reflect about small countries? The Balkans turned into nothing less than an incubator of small countries. Oppressed people resisted the Ottoman supremacy, Russia opposed the Ottomans, and the various ethnic groups fought one another. The San Stefano Treaty of 1878 recognized the independence of four such small countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro joined a previously independent Greece. Never mind that concerns of the British diplomacy about small countries ending up fighting each other turned out to be fully justified – as illustrated by the First Balkan War, the Second Balkan War and World War One which started out, one could say, as the Third Balkan War. Within 40 years of the San Stefano Treaty, President Wilson formulated his ridiculous principle of national self-determination, and subsequently had to admit that he never expected to face all these nationalities “which are coming to us day after day”. As a consequence, no fewer than 13 small-to-medium-sized states came to occupy the space of the former Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires. None of them democratic, with perhaps one exception.

And my narrative has reached the 20th century. The histories of WW1, WW2 and of the Cold War – and of its aftermath – scarcely need recapitulating. Five years ago, Jeremy Snyder published his magisterial Bloodlands. In it, he covers the history of the space between Germany and the Moscow-Stalingrad line from 1933 to 1945, detailing how 14 million of its civilians were annihilated. And elsewhere, what started with shots in Bosnia and Herzegovina, ended with the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which included the massacre in Srebrenica, the latest (and one fervently hopes: the last) European instance of genocide.

In terms of small-nation nationalism, where 13 countries existed after Versailles, 22 took their place after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Poland which in 1989 had three neighbours had no fewer than seven neighbours five years later, not one of them identical with the original three.

So what is the role of this multitude of small-to-medium-sized countries? First, they all jealously protect their national identity. The Baltics are coping with Russian speakers. The Bulgarians have been intolerant of their Turks. The Hungarians practically assimilated their Slovak minority, whereas the considerably greater Hungarian minority in Slovakia is a constant irritant both in bilateral relation as in Slovak domestic policies. The Czechs have come close to perfection as their country emerged as almost ethnically pure: their Jews perished in the Holocaust, their Germans were expelled in the aftermath of WW2 and they separated from the Slovaks in 1993. Now, if only they could solve the Roma question…

And second, these countries feel insecure. Alone, none of them have any particular power – not economic, not political, not military. Only Ukraine, Poland and Romania can be considered mid-size in terms of population. For all of them, it has therefore been imperative to band with stronger established European and Euro-Atlantic groupings – the EU and NATO. In the process, they willy-nilly ought to have supported each other as well. This process is not over: several West Balkan countries are still striving to join these organizations, the EU has pretty much shut its door to Ukraine and Moldova, Belarus is beyond the pale of even the European Council, generally the most inclusive of Europe’s organizations. Greece, Slovakia and Romania are among those who haven’t recognized one of the 22, namely Kosovo. But the need to belong has become stronger with the Russian military escapades in Georgia and Ukraine, and most recently Belarus.

Becoming part of something larger while maintaining their own national character has in general worked for these countries. One irksome question, however, is this – are they making their own contribution to the broader effort, to the broader responsibility? Are they not just coasting? Are they paying their dues?

This is where the refugee crisis serves as a prism for deconstructing various reactions. Before I go any further, though, I have to say that European institutions and politicians have failed us – and the refugees – miserably. Their reaction has been inconsistent, changing, unpredictable and outright wrong. In curtailing Schengen, as some would, the EU is shooting itself in the foot: skepticism about European integration is considerable under the best of circumstances, and for young people, the main attraction of the EU is precisely the freedom and ease of travel: Schengen, cheap flights, the Erasmus programme.

Refugees have met with hundreds of wonderful examples of solidarity and support. They have also met with inadvertent displays of thick-headedness – as when Czech police inscribed ID numbers on would-be immigrant arms. Only in ink, mind you, but the allusion was immediately obvious, however unintended. But they have also met with an outcry from far-right extremist parties like Jobbik in Hungary. Refugees have joined Jews, liberals and the EU as whipping boys of these elements. These attitudes are not of course limited to Central and Eastern Europe. Still, the 200 000 Hungarians who fled the country in 1956 and were welcomed in the democratic world don’t seem to have left an indelible impression on the national psyche. Nor have the 200 000 refugees, including yours truly, who escaped Czechoslovakia in the wake of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion.

One feels that the underlying motivation of the xenophobic attitude in Central and Eastern Europe (Slovakia has accepted fully 20 people) is fear. The fear of losing jobs is ridiculous: the latest Economist indicates that almost 20% of Czech companies have difficulties filling jobs. (But when one of them publicly offered a certain number of jobs to refugees, it got mercilessly harassed in the social media.) The percentage for Slovakia is almost 30%, for Poland over 40% and for Hungary, unbelievably, over 55%.

Equally ridiculous is the fear of terrorism. National intelligence agencies repeatedly signal that they have no indications of such a danger. After all, terrorists don’t engage in weeks- or even months-long desperate treks to create havoc – if nothing else, the Islamic State has been joined by some five thousand people with perfectly valid Schengen passports, a much easier vehicle for effecting terror attacks.

Perhaps the underlying fear is national, ethnic, cultural. Diluting the ethnic stock, in essence, after having defended it for centuries against assorted empires. (Would I let my daughter marry him?) But would the Hungarians become less Hungarian if they accepted a couple of thousand refugees? Would the Poles become less Polish? Before World War 2, Czechoslovakia successfully integrated hundreds of thousands of Russians escaping Bolshevik power. A generation ago, the Czechs integrated many thousands of Vietnamese. Have we studied the lessons of these efforts?

There is a sense, not only in Central and Eastern Europe, that multiculturalism, the principal policy for integrating non-native people, has failed. Some ethnics do integrate into the mainstream population, others not so easily. On the basis of the German experience with Turks, of the French experience with North Africans and indeed the Belgian experience with Moroccans, it appears that it is particularly difficult to integrate Moslems. One wonders how the US managed to integrate hundreds of thousands of Iranians. Still, even while facing mounting domestic disagreement, Angela Merkel would have Germany absorb 800 000 refugees, amounting to about 1% of its population. In our small countries, it’s a question of a couple of thousand people, nowhere near even 0.1% of our respective populations. I do hope we take them in, for a variety of reasons. I for one am looking forward to the first Syrian restaurant in Prague.

Now, it is patently obvious that the current refugee crisis Europe is facing is nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the cataclysms I discussed at the outset: Black Death, the Thirty-Year War, the Napoleonic wars, the genocides and blood lands of the 20th century. However, there is a much broader question to consider. To the extent that the current wave of refugees is “only” a result of the conflagrations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, and of the dictatorial regime in Eritrea, one simply has to hope that it can be and will be managed, with whatever difficulties. Resettling people in Europe should of course be just the last link in a chain of various efforts which should include energetic prosecution of people smugglers, robust protection of Europe’s external frontiers, very, very generous support for refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (which together house close to four million people), and finally efforts to end the conflicts in countries that source the refugee outflow. All of these points have to be addressed and I suspect our leaders are addressing them today in Brussels, even as we speak.  

But I fear this refugee crisis is only a wedge of what is to come. I fear that the continued flagrant income disparities between Europe, on the one hand, including its poor parts, and many other regions of the world on the other hand will result in ever greater population pressure on Europe’s borders. These disparities will magnify the push factor, even while Merkel’s welcoming gesture may have increased the pull factor. The misery of some parts of the world will also, by the way, probably lead to fragmentation of countries and the formation of new entities. Robin Wright who specializes in the Islamic world predicted two years ago that Sunni areas of Syria and of Iraq might unite – and the Islamic State has done just that. Iraqi Kurdistan is independent in everything but name. Syria and Libya have already splintered, probably irredeemably. But while Ms Wright predicted the split up of Libya into its three historical provinces, the latest map of who controls what indicates no fewer than 7 or 8 different forces in control of different areas. But I digress.

I go even further. I look to a world 20 to 50 years hence, to the world of my teenage children. Today, there are 60 million refugees world-wide, a scary number. But I look to a world affected by irreversible climatic changes that force mass movements of people in search of food, in search of water, indeed in search of dry land. Call it ecological migration. And let me point out that this will not be a complete novelty either. Timothy Snyder of Bloodlands has just published a new book, Black Earth, in which he apparently interprets Hitler’s genocide of the Jews as retribution for the Jews allegedly causing a global ecological crisis.

The fact that Hitler was mad didn’t help his victims; and the concept of Lebensraum is one very aggressive expression of ecological migration. The changes I foresee might indeed spur cataclysms the magnitude of which is hard to foresee. But consider - a would-be Czech politician would create a concentration camp for immigrants, in Theresienstadt no less. He’s a twit but a recent public opinion poll has indicated that 51% of the population would vote for Adolf Hitler today if he’d rid Europe of the refugee crisis! The number of victims of this coming cataclysm will hopefully not compare with past horrors; then again, when the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s broke out who would have anticipated that they will result in 140 000 victims. But the chaos and disruption that will ensue will amount to a tempest, caused in our multilateral global order not by a religious schism, not by imperialist expansion, not by radical ideologies – but, prosaically, by global warming. They will amount to a perfect storm in which small democratic states will find it very challenging to maintain an even keel.

These issues may be far from our minds today – but perhaps conferences like this one might concentrate our thinking in that direction. In that, I wish you lots of luck.

Thank you for your attention.