Fri. Jul 12th, 2024

Munich, 20 February 2022

On the power of language: what to do when Russia and China try to re-define terms

I am sure we are going to discuss all sorts of urgencies and what Europe can do: on Ukraine, the Sahel, Bosnia, or the Iran nuclear talks. Sharing this panel with Ministers of Defence, I am sure we will also discuss the, the Strategic Compass, EU-NATO relations etc..

But let me, before we start talking about such concrete issues, zoom out. And share my perspective on a major ideological challenge that we are facing. – Thirty years after the end of the cold war we are facing a determined effort to re-define core tenets of the multilateral order. The outcome of this war will decide whether the post-war multilateral ‘acquis’ survives, centred on the UN, international law and universal rights.

Or, whether this will be replaced with a power-based, multi-polar order, with zones of influence and a relativist approach to human rights.

These days everybody talks about the battle of narratives. Two years ago, I got criticised when I used the term right at the start of the pandemic – and not only by Beijing. What started as a battle over which model was best at combating the pandemic has since turned into a battle over the very nature of the international order.

The Russia-China joint statement of 4 February is the culmination of a long-standing campaign. It is an act of defiance. It is clear: revisionist manifesto. A manifesto to review the world order.

It is worth reading carefully. One striking passage states that “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.”

The UN charter starts with ‘We the peoples’ and Article 1 defines ‘the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’. But for Russia and China, states are sovereign, not people. So they pledge to ‘counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries and oppose colour revolutions.’

Re-defining democracy is a major plank in their revisionist drive. They talk about ‘genuine democracy’. Adding qualifying adjectives reminds us of Soviet times when communist regimes were talking of ‘people’s democracy’ or “organic democracies” in Franco’s Spain.

Democracy, they say, should be implemented ‘to suit national conditions’. And we are told that ‘China and Russia, as major countries with long-standing history and culture, have profound traditions of democracy rooted in thousands of years of experience of development.’ Russia claims to have thousand of years of experience of developing democracy.

When President Biden organised his Summit for democracy last December, China released a white paper with a telling title: “China: democracy that works”. It argued that the ultimate criterion for judging a democracy was ‘whether it produces results’. So not whether it is based on the consent of the people expressed in free elections but by the result they deliver.

I think this is not a semantic discussion but a political one. We can see every day how in multilateral organisations there is a battle about the universality of human rights. Authoritarian powers – and not just Russia and China – seek to relativise the notion of individual rights, making them subject to local and culturally determined limitations.

Another frontline is the battle for standards, set in UN and other fora, on new technologies such as data or surveillance software. It’s of vital importance that these standards continue to reflect universal values. It is no exaggeration to say that who sets the rules, will rule the world.

And to Europeans who love to talk about ‘the Brussels effect’, I say that we will not be a leader on setting technology standards tomorrow if we are not a leader on developing technology today. And we have to be aware of not losing this leadership.

The much-discussed Russian attempt to re-define the European security order is another front in this battle. This is a serious frontline that we are facing.

The real question is what to do in front of them? I see three tracks:

1. We have to prepare for the long haul and be ready to see that ‘the technical and the legal is the political’. So when we say that we want to defend the UN system, the OSCE acquis and the universality of human rights, we must understand that all this begins with defining the terms and upholding their meaning.

2. We must realise that the main targets are not Western governments or publics, but those in ‘swing states’: i.e. governments and publics in Africa, South East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

This is not about ‘defending the West’ but upholding shared principles that underpin common security and promote collective goals. And the big issue is what kind of model will follow these ‘swing states’, that today are hesitating between following the democratic system, our system, or a more authoritarian one. Because they are being promised that they will get better results.

The message of democracy is a message that resonates globally. Look at the the Afrobarometer shows large majorities (70%) want multi-party democracy, also – no, especially – in authoritarian-run countries. We need to tap into that broad reservoir of support to Democracy and to work with them.

3. We need to avoid looking defensive or backward looking.

In fact, Russia and China are the ones who want to go back, to the 19th century, the fight of empires. And Russia and China becoming more and more assertive, willing to restore the old empires that they have been in the past. We move forward with the 21st century – with the lessons we learned in the 20th century. This is the real perspective of our fight on security and defense.

In conclusion, the UN and the wider multilateral system has two legs: the fundamental equality of states plus recognition of their sovereignty and the pursuit of common goals with the recognition of the rights of all human beings.

If you take that second leg away, and you only have a look at the first one, you are only left with state sovereignty. And that would mean taking away the progress we made in the last 75 years. That’s is why we must resist this Russian-Chinese revisionist drive to re-define the terms.

In short, yes we must speak the language of power as you have heard me say before, but also be mindful of the power of language.

Source – EU Council

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