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What should be the priorities for the new EUEuropean Union Security Strategy?

The EUEuropean Union is writing a new security strategy, and Federica Mogherini, the external affairs lead, has instituted a consultative process. Good for her. In this piece I lay out some general principles, suggest some practical options – and also introduce a participatory tool that everyone can use.

The general principles: pyramids, peaks and pirouettes

I introduced the idea of pyramids, peaks and pirouettes when I spoke to all the EU’s Delegates (= ambassadors) back in September. This was the day that Mrs Mogherini’s appointment was announced. I shared a platform with the excellent Kristalina Georgieva, now Budget Commissioner, who spoke with great passion about the EU’s humanitarian work – an issue not to be forgotten in the security strategy.


The point about pyramids is that foreign and security policy is often discussed in terms of places, usually highly visible places where crises have erupted. There is a long roll-call: Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Central African Republic, Southern Sudan, many others spring to mind. But we need some archaeology to dig down below the visible and find the inner layers – the hidden chambers at the heart of the pyramid. These, often, are failures of global or regional governance, or challenges to collective action.  What are the failures of regional understanding and cooperation that permit cross-border conflicts to erupt? What failures in global institutions make it hard to deal with issues like climate change or migration? What are the incentives to change? Foreign policy, I argued, needs to be about places, but it also needs to be about the deeper issues.

We tried to adopt this approach as the European Think Tanks Group in our recent report, ‘Our Collective Interest: Why Europe’s problems need global solutions and global problems need European action’.  Many ‘places’ featured in our analysis, but we tried to focus on the bigger global challenges, and opportunities. As the ETTG Directors said in their Introduction:

‘We identify five global challenges which will shape the future of the EUEuropean Union and the world, and in relation to which the EU’s performance as a global actor can be judged. These are:

  • The world economy. Is the world economy becoming more equitable, resilient and democratic? Is the EUEuropean Union contributing to better and more inclusive trade and finance regimes, which allow for full participation by all?
  • Environmental sustainability. Is the world set on a more sustainable path, in which the EUEuropean Union is playing its part internally and externally, especially with regard to climate change and the necessity of a green economy?
  • Peace and security. Is the world becoming more peaceful and secure? And is the EUEuropean Union contributing to the prevention of violent conflict and to peaceful societies?
  • Democracy and human rights. Is the world better governed and more democratic? Is there greater respect for human rights around the world? And is the EUEuropean Union acting effectively to understand and support democratic political change?
  • Poverty and inequality. Have poverty and inequality declined? And is the EUEuropean Union acting effectively to understand and tackle the drivers of poverty and inequality?’

It is worth emphasising the point that this framing is about opportunities as well as threats, and also about economic and social dimensions as well as those military dimensions traditionally associated with security. In development thinking, ‘human security’ has been a useful way to link these various concerns. The post-2015 sustainable development framework provides current opportunities for integration.


A global vision focused on institutions and incentives requires a broad canvas. But this is where peaks come in. In our work at ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) on European development cooperation , we have often tried to make the point that collective action through the EUEuropean Union may or may not be the right answer to particular problems. Some people look metaphorically to George Mallory, the mountaineer who died on Everest during his third attempt in 1924. Mallory famously replied to the question of why he kept trying to reach the peak by saying ‘Because it’s there’. The role of the EUEuropean Union in global policy can be approached with the same philosophy, to work through Brussels ‘because it’s there’.

An alternative view is to be more transactional, to ask hard questions and issue by issue about the comparative advantage of the EU. Perhaps a common EUEuropean Union approach is the right one because it has exclusive competence, as for example it does on trade. Or perhaps a common approach has attractions because of the negotiating weight of the 28 members acting together, as may be the case with climate change. But, equally, perhaps, it might be more effective to work through other channels, perhaps because the Member States are not aligned.

In practice, all countries have choices about how to allocate political and material capital, some more than others. The UK, to take one example, is a member of the EU, but also of the UN Security Council, of all the main UN agencies, of the G8, the G20, NATO, the Commonwealth, the Council of Europe, and many other international organisations. Others may have fewer options; all have some. At the margin, leaders make choices. The EUEuropean Union may or may not be the choice they make.

This line of argument (I said in my talk) has profound implications for the EU. The EUEuropean Union needs to be clear-eyed about its competitive advantage in multilateral space, and ruthless in setting priorities. It also needs to be ‘hungry’, making the case for the EU, setting out every day and on every topic what exactly it can bring to the table, and how it can help. There is no divine law which mandates an EUEuropean Union response to every problem.


Of course, the issue of comparative advantage will reflect the legislative environment and also the capacity of the EUEuropean Union institutions. This brings us to pirouettes: the point that the case for the EUEuropean Union often fails when it comes face-to-face with the weakness of political structures and the under-funding or poor quality of the administrative machinery. It is time, I argued in Brussels, to stop the regular five-year pirouettes, in which high hopes are raised only to be dashed, and grasp the need for reform.

The encouraging news is that progressive steps have been taken. The Lisbon Treaty provided new opportunities to the EUEuropean Union institutions, and Jean-Claude Juncker, in establishing his new team, has given Mrs Mogherini the authority her post requires, especially to preside more actively over all Commission activities with an external dimension. She appears eager to take on this challenge.The Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, Neven Mimica, will be a pivotal figure.

Put all this together, and some principles begin to emerge for the re-shaping of the EU’s security strategy.

First, pitch the strategy at the right level – not, or not just, about places, but about underlying issues of governance and collective action.

Second, ensure the strategy is about opportunities as well as threats.

Third, be integrative, linking military and non-military aspects of security, and combining economic, social and environmental concerns.

Fourth, be ruthless in defining comparative or competitive advantage, focused on helping Member State leaders make appropriate choices in allocating resources between institutions.

And, finally, fifth, take care to make sure the institutional changes required to deliver change are elaborated in the strategy.

This does not sound very difficult, but it is amazing how often agencies get it wrong. Too many agency strategies amount to PhD theses on global problems, with only a few pages at the end on what the agency might do. My advice, in a lifetime of working on this kind of task, has been to reverse the page allocation: a few pages at the beginning to paint a picture of the problem, then a careful analysis of comparative advantage, a proposition about priorities, and a structured action plan.

I hope Mrs Mogherini will follow this route.

Some practical suggestions

In thinking about the practical suggestions Mrs Mogherini might like to consider, an easy starting point is with the high priority issues currently on the world agenda. From the European Think Tanks perspective, we had five: globalisation, climate change, peace, human rights, and poverty and inequality. The EUEuropean Union itself has similar priorities, including a focus on the post-2015 development framework. Adopting these would add significantly to the scope of the last EU Security Strategy, from 2003 (reviewed 2008), which focused on five threats, viz: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, state failure, and organised crime.  It would also bring the EUEuropean Union strategy closer to that of e.g. the US, whose latest National Security Strategy (2015) covers military threats, but also such issues as: global health crises; climate change; energy security; trade; and the strengthening of international institutions, including the UN. A fact sheet on the US Strategy is pasted in at the end for ease of reference.

All these lists need, however, to be disaggregated. If Ukraine is a regional conflict, for example, the EUEuropean Union would probably be wise to leave any possible military posture to NATO, and concentrate on other measures. In fact, in our think-tanks report (Ch 3), we suggested that the EUEuropean Union might have a valuable niche as ‘best supporting actor’, staying clear of major military actions, except in very specific circumstances, but concentrating instead on police missions and similar.

Careful, though. This is not a Phd on global problems, it is an action plan for the EU. Remember the earlier points about comparative or competitive advantage, priority-setting and capacity.

A two stage procedure seems appropriate. The first is to identify a long list of possible priorities, disaggregated as suggested, and with some kind of timeline. The second is to turn this into a short list.

For the long list, everyone will have suggestions, and see below for the opportunity to participate. Our think-tanks report provides a good starting point:

  1. Contribute to a 21st century growth model that emphasises responsible trade and financial policy coordination, via: responsible trade, including work on Economic Partnership Agreements, development friendly global agreements (including TTIP), more resources for trade facilitation, and stronger sustainability impact assessments; as well as better financial policy coordination, including better governance of global financial markets, updated economic shock facilities, and an ambitious programme of work on illicit financial flows.
  2. Work to achieve an ambitious global climate agreement and support the transition to a green economy, including by: improving the EU’s own domestic environmental performance by setting more ambitious and sustainable climate, growth and energy targets, and by carrying out the necessary policy reforms that will allow it to deliver on those targets; as a matter of urgency, use its considerable foreign relations and international development reputation to push for progressive environmental policies globally and, in particular, to secure a global climate change agreement in 2015.; and continuing and strengthening efforts for joint knowledge creation between Europe, emerging economies and developing countries on the transition towards sustainable development, as exemplified by the Horizon 2020 programme.
  3. Tackle conflict and fragility with clear collective decision-making and a better division of labour, including: developing and implementing a more effective ‘division of labour’ on conflict and fragility globally and in each geographic context, among the EUEuropean Union institutions and between the EUEuropean Union institutions and member states, leading to a more effective unity of action; renewing the focus on the lost art of conflict prevention, putting multidimensional conflict prevention back at the top of the EUEuropean Union political agenda
  4. Invest in and deliver support to democracy and human rights, including: a genuinely political engagement on democracy and human rights that is based on an understanding of local context and avoiding using simplified human rights and democracy conditionality;  harmonising of all EUEuropean Union external action with democracy, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment goals; linking policies and support mechanisms for civil society in a more coherent manner; engaging strategically with local authorities and step up efforts to allow the use of innovative funding modalities that facilitate flexible, transparent and cost-effective access to resources at the local level; and strengthening engagement with political parties, recognising their importance as well as the risks inherent in supporting them.
  5. Tackle the drivers of poverty and inequality, including by: adopting a poverty dynamics approach in identifying suitable sectors and programmes in partner countries; extending joint-programming with EUEuropean Union member states; and developing new graduation and cooperation strategies with emerging countries.

For the short list, it is important to reduce the number of issues. Figure 1 below suggest distinguishing ‘must do’, ‘might do’ and ‘could do’ topics, in descending order of priority.

Figure 1

What determines which issues should go in which circle? The following might be possible criteria:

  1. The issue is important;
  2. The HR/VP has a licence to operate from the Member States;
  3. The Member States are aligned or alignable on the issue;
  4. The Commission/EEAS have or can acquire the resources, instruments and capabilities to act;
  5. There is reasonable likelihood of success; and
  6. There is external demand.

I don’t think I am quite ready to make a definitive proposal about which issues should fall into which circle. Climate change would certainly be right at the heart of the inner circle. More generally, 2015 offers a raft of urgent and inter-connected issues, including the SDG framework, financing for development, climate change and trade talks. I have written separately about the choreography linking all these processes, and the need for single leadership and a single negotiating strategy: the EUEuropean Union has a climate diplomacy strategy, but it is not enough. Finance, technology, trade and migration all need to come together. All the criteria for inclusion in the inner circle are met. Probably, the new security strategy will not be available until these processes are mostly completed, in which case the year can provide a test-bed for a new way of working.

Beyond the global negotiations in 2015, migration is an obvious candidate for the inner circle, along with finding the right EUEuropean Union role in a string of complex political emergencies, including most urgently Iraq and Syria. Are these places where Jean-Claude Juncker thinks an EUEuropean Union army might be able to help? The external impact of the continuing problems in the Eurozone ought to be on the list. Iran. Strategic partnerships with emerging powers.

But, look. I’m falling into the trap of listing places or problems rather than focusing on the underlying issues. That may be putting the cart before the horse. In the think-tanks report, we recommended writing short papers on the five big themes, and seeing what comes out. The EUEuropean Union might find itself prioritising ways to strengthen the UN or the International Criminal Court, focusing on the G8Group of Eight tax agenda, or putting more effort into reform of the governance of the Bretton Woods Institutions. Mrs Mogherini’s job, in the end is to write and deliver a strategy, not a Monday morning to-do list.

So what are your priorities?

I am going to keep working on my contribution to the three circles model. Perhaps you would like to have a go? If you would, I have posted, here, a powerpoint slide which contains the three circles and a series of boxes which can be completed and then located in one of the circles. It looks like this:

All you have to do is write in the topic that you think should be on Mrs Mogherini’s ‘Must do’, ‘Might do’ or ‘Could do’ list, then move the box into the right circle. Maybe you have too many items in the ‘Must do’ list? That’s fine, then move one out a level to the ‘Could do’ list. Don’t forget to check your entries against the six criteria. (P.S. Sorry, it turns out I can't load a PP to the website, so you will have to recreate. I'll try to work it out!)

Perhaps you work in an agency or an EUEuropean Union Delegation or a Commission office. This exercise would be fun for a staff meeting or a Friday afternoon workshop.

When you have a proposal, send it to me, and, with your permission, I will post it on the website. Either just send the Powerpoint, or, better, save it as a JPEG and send the picture.

It will be interesting to see whether a consensus emerges.


Fact Sheet: The 2015 US National Security Strategy

Fact Sheet:  The 2015 National Security Strategy

Today, the United States is stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still new century and safeguard our interests against the risks of an insecure world.  The President’s new National Security Strategyprovides a vision and strategy for advancing the nation’s interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership.  The strategy sets out the principles andpriorities that describe how America will lead the world toward greater peace and a new prosperity.

  • We will lead with purpose, guided by our enduring national interests and values and committed to advancing a balanced portfolio of priorities worthy of a great power.
  • We will lead with strength, harnessing a resurgent economy, increased energy security, an unrivaled military, and the talent and diversity of the American people.
  • We will lead by example, upholding our values at home and our obligations abroad. 
  • We will lead with capable partners, mobilizing collective action and building partner capacity to address global challenges.
  • We will lead with all instruments of U.S. power, leveraging our strategic advantages in diplomacy, development, defense, intelligence, science and technology, and more.
  • We will lead with a long-term perspective, influencing the trajectory of major shifts in the security landscape today in order to secure our national interests in the future.

We will advance the security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners by:

  • Maintaining a national defense that is the best trained, equipped, and led force in the world while honoring our promises to service members, veterans, and their families.
  • Working with Congress to end the draconian cuts imposed by sequestration that threaten the effectiveness of our military and other instruments of power.
  • Reinforcing our homeland security to keep the American people safe from terrorist attacks and natural hazards while strengthening our national resilience.
  • Transitioning to a sustainable global security posture that combines our decisive capabilities with local partners and keeps pressure on al-Qa’ida, ISIL, and their affiliates.
  • Striving for a world without nuclear weapons and ensuring nuclear materials do not fall into the hands of irresponsible states and violent non-state actors.
  • Developing a global capacity to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to biological threats like Ebola through the Global Health Security Agenda.
  • Confronting the urgent crisis of climate change, including through national emissions reductions, international diplomacy, and our commitment to the Green Climate Fund.

We will advance a strong, innovative, and growing U.S. economy in an open international economic system that promotes opportunity and prosperity by:

  • Strengthening American energy security and increasing global access to reliable and affordable energy to bolster economic growth and development worldwide.
  • Opening markets for U.S. goods, services, and investment and leveling the playing field for American workers and businesses to boost our economic competitiveness.
  • Advancing a trade agenda – including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – that creates good American jobs and shared prosperity.  
  • Leading efforts to reduce extreme poverty, food insecurity, and preventable deaths with initiatives such as Feed the Future and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
  • Proving new sustainable development models like the President’s Power Africa Initiative.

We will advance respect for universal values at home and around the world by:

  • Holding ourselves to the highest possible standard by living our values at home even as we do what is necessary to keep our people safe and our allies secure.
  • Promoting and defending democracy, human rights, and equality while supporting countries such as Tunisia and Burma that are transitioning from authoritarianism.
  • Empowering future leaders of government, business, and civil society around the world, including through the President’s young leaders initiatives.
  • Leading the way in confronting the corruption by promoting adherence to standards of accountable and transparent governance.
  • Leading the international community to prevent and respond to human rights abuses and mass atrocities as well as gender-based violence and discrimination against LGBT persons.

We will advance an international order that promotes peace, security, and oppor­tunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges by:

  • Working with partners to reinforce and update the rules of the road, norms, and institutions that are foundational to peace, prosperity, and human dignity in the 21st century. 
  • Strengthening and growing our global alliances and partnerships, forging diverse coalitions, and leading at the United Nations and other multilateral organizations.
  • Rebalancing to Asia and the Pacific through increased diplomacy, stronger alliances and partnerships, expanded trade and investment, and a diverse security posture.
  • Strengthening our enduring commitment to a free and peaceful Europe by countering aggression and modernizing the NATO alliance to meet emerging threats.
  • Pursuing a stable Middle East and North Africa by countering terrorism, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and reducing the underlying sources of conflict.
  • Building upon the success of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit by investing in Africa’s economic, agricultural, health, governance, and security capacity.
  • Promoting a prosperous, secure, and democratic Western Hemisphere by expanding integration and leveraging a new opening to Cuba to expand our engagement.



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