What is a security actor and how is it different from being a great or major power? In many ways, this question is central to understanding the lack of appreciation of the European Union (EU) as an actor in the security arena in India and certainly in some other parts of Asia. The use of the word 'security actor' by EU agencies and research institutes is itself perhaps a neutralisation of the phrase 'major power'. This reveals the ambivalence of the EU to power in contemporary times, despite having given the world several great powers in the past. This ambivalence, and the hesitant Asian comprehension of the EU's role in the security domain shape the current debate.
However, to move beyond this general understanding and to try and understand the Indian perspective on this issue, three key enquiries are essential. First, does the EU have the agency to be a security actor? Second, does it have the capability and capacity to follow through in this role? And, finally, does the EU, or a significant part thereof, see itself as a Security Actor?
Agency: Who do I call?
The EU is a great economic power and is central to the construction of any polycentric order. In spite of this, it is not viewed as a security actor. Perhaps this can in part be explained by what Henry Kissinger once famously said, in an interview with Der Spiegel, 'Who do I call if I want to call Europe?'. While the EU now has a number of structures that deal with security its security policy has not evolved to the point where it can shape emerging international security scenarios.
The principal issue is that of integration. Collectively, it appears that the EU thinks of itself more as a civil and economic power, viewing military instruments as an option of last resort. Within the EU, France and the United Kingdom have a different approach in which use of force, or the threat of the use of force is a prominent instrument in their toolbox. Some others like Germany tend to take the opposite view and are generally more reluctant to sanction the use of force.
This can have consequences like France declaring that its permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council will remain a French seat and will not be ceded to the EU. France has also rejected the validity of a UN veto when humanitarian crises loom (as was the case in Syria)
Trade and commerce across the EU is now so integrated that it allows for similar perceptions and ideas on most macro and several micro economic policies. This allows the EU far greater cohesion and therefore, weight in trade talks. On the other hand, political approaches and realities in each member country vary dramatically. This dissonance between a cohesive economic union and a relatively divided political union has a significant impact on the perception of the EU in a continent like Asia where the realist paradigm dominates. The EU is likely to be seen as a 'hyper-successful' regional trading and economic arrangement, but not a unified security actor or a 'great power'. It is also seen to be creating a large political and security bureaucracy, which churns out some strategic and security objectives, without seeking to possess the hard power elements to realise these set of goals.
Capacity: Acute Deficit
Capacity is the key element that will define the EU's ability in the Asian theatre. In 2012, as per the International Institute of Strategic Studies' (IISS, London) estimates, Asian defence expenditure exceeded Europe's. Indeed within the EU, member states are increasingly hesitant to commit towards defence expenditure. Additionally, the focus of current expenditure is on capabilities that are not decisive in the Asia-Pacific theatre or suitable for hard power projection in the classic sense. There is little political and public support for defence expenditure when social spending is deemed a higher priority.
As a result, the EU's ability to play a role in the international system is going to be far more constrained than ever before. This is perhaps evidenced by the fact that not a single European or EU action has been carried out without US support even when taking on vastly inferior militaries like those of Serbia or Libya.
This acute capacity deficit means that if the EU chooses to act by itself, it comes up against the various perceptions among the EU member states on its role as security actor. On the other hand, if it chooses to act through the agency of NATO to bypass this internal dissonance, it is fundamentally dependant on the US for capacity.
Self-View: "Empire of Norms"
The recent description of the EU being an 'empire of norms' is another important facet of the view of the EU as a security actor.
The EU firmly believes it has entered a post modern world, whereas in reality much collective action today is directed towards pre-modern situations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. To use an Americanism, 'when you don't have dirty work to do you can be dressed in white clothes'. As a result, when the EU piggybacks on US hard power, it can well afford to play the 'empire of norms' role. This harks back to India in the 1950s and 1960s when India was 'preachy'
View from Asia 1: Largely favourable
Immediately after World War II, the main goal was peace and stability and hence there was the need for a specific role for the set of actors who could provide this. But in the 21st century, the narrative has changed. Economic growth and prosperity, in an age of stagnant industrial growth, is the overarching political priority of these times. Even though the world may have moved beyond the post-war quest for peace, to the singular objective of greater economic vibrancy, the EU's role in securing this objective cannot be denied given its economic agency. However, political stability is a necessary condition for sustainable growth and economic well-being. This stability is to be created and preserved collectively by the old and new powers. Therefore in Asia, in countries such as India, there exists a largely favourable view of the EU's role in the world. India sees a decisive security role for the EU, albeit as an agent of 'The Asian Century'.
Following from this, if the EU is a decisive player in the contemporary context, European hard power is not necessarily viewed unfavourably and is a situation that India can negotiate well. A strong EU is good for the balance of power and stability in Eurasia and therefore favourable to India. In fact, a not so uncommon view in India is that if there is a decline in the EU's hard power, it might contribute to flux in the balance of power in Eurasia, leading to instability. Thus, the EU is still seen as a decisive actor in the security dynamics of Asia. And a real example is the EU's arms embargo on China, which could be said to contribute to stability in Asia.
However, in India, the EU is also seen as hypocritical in its application and espousal of rules and norms. This is sometimes inimical to the larger objective of stability and prosperity because the EU is perceived to be trying to impose normative frameworks on societies, which are not yet ready to accept them. This is not necessarily an EU-specific flaw. Every country has displayed this hypocrisy where its core interests are at stake. India itself follows a very different set of rules in its own neighbourhood than in the rest of the world. For example, India intervened decisively in 1971 in Bangladesh and for much of the 1980s and 1990s in Sri Lanka. But where its core interests are not at stake, it adopts a very different stance.
While largely hypothetical, India's main concerns, should the EU decide to play the role of a security actor would be: where and how does the EU want to operate? Does it merely look at its periphery? Or does it seek to project out? If it operates for longer periods of time in Asia, will it be in a continental or a maritime role? Given that the naval dimension and the security dynamics of the Indian Ocean have largely driven much of India’s strategic realignment post 1990, India would almost certainly welcome EU as an offshore balancer. This is evident from the fact that India welcomed the EU-led operation Atalanta aimed at controlling piracy off the coast of East Africa. Similarly, India voiced no concerns at the build up of a formidable projection force off the proximate Myanmar coast following cyclone Nargis, and actively cooperated with US and European navies in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.
View from Asia 2: Geography and Sovereignty Matter
Multiple path dependencies, along with the overarching economic prosperity objective mean that the EU's cost-benefit analysis of engaging in Asia, for example, is very different from India's. The EU would have more to lose economically in any prolonged military engagement in Asia and therefore prefers economic tools such as sanctions. Of course geography matters not just to the EU. This is evident in how India perceived Bangladesh in 1971 and how it perceives the situation in Syria today. In the case of the former, the instability in India's neighbourhood had a direct impact on India's demography and security and the cost-benefit analysis of action was very different to the likely costs of EU's action in the region. Syria, on the other hand, was more of a normative issue for India on how it balanced humanitarian intervention against a breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC); whereas Syria had a more proximate impact on Europe and subsequently on its cost-benefit analysis of action.
Lastly, in a continent like Asia that has a history of being colonised, sovereignty is an important consideration. From this perspective, the EU's rather relaxed interpretation of sovereignty, partly used in its explanations for humanitarian interventions, can be seen as unsettling. Moreover, the selective use of sovereignty can erode the credibility of the EU as a whole. For example, defence sales such as those of the Rafale, Gripen or Eurofighter are carried out under sovereign flags and these in turn guarantee certain sovereignties to recipient countries. However, when uncomfortable decisions are taken such as the arms embargo on China, the EU is used as the shield, effectively a policy of safety in numbers.
Conclusion: Going Forward
Going forward, there are four central cleavages between the Indian and European worldviews.
The first has to necessarily be language and the principle source of information that shapes Indian understanding of Europe and EU. Not having a core of experts trained in European languages, a disproportionately small foreign service and a structural incapability to collect primary data
The second is that the EU (for reasons already discussed) is not viewed in India as a credible security actor. In fact, Europe's recent humanitarian interventions are seen as creating dangerous precedents in Asia, changing the security dynamics in the region and creating fresh security challenges which the EU does not have the capability to deal with. This is where India and the EU are on a collision course. India wants Europe to be more cognisant of its hard security role. In addition, India wants the EU to be responsive to emerging security issues, which will be shaped by new specificities and geographies of conflict. Local understanding and localised responses would be in order and Europe must begin to engage from within and not from outside.
The third is with regard to global governance. European institutes tend to securitise the global commons and global public goods discourse.
Finally, the central division between the EU and India is the tyranny of grammar. Europe and the EU pursue their interests under the grammar of values, which is sought to be achieved through ideological underpinnings. India has sometimes also couched many of its strategic interests in its own grammar of ethics. Till a new language is discovered where the two can negotiate their individual interests (doing away with ideological sermonising), common ground (based on core interests of prosperity, growth and liberal market framework) will be lost to a rather unnecessary battle of perceived virtues.