Resilience and EU Foreign Policy: A promise of justice as mutual recognition?

Featuring several dozen times within the Union’s global strategy statement and frequently linked to the broader concept of ‘principled pragmatism’, the concept of resilience has been criticised for representing a retreat in European ambition. Far from it, resilience may be an opportunity to take an enormous step forward in EU foreign policy, argues GLOBUS researcher Ben Tonra

Resilience in Ethiopia
Pupils at Duguna Samot Shinka primary school wash hands after visiting the toilet. From a European Union resilience project in Southern Ethiopia, 2014. (Photo: ©EU/ECHO/Martin Karimi)

This post is the third entry in a series of commentaries on the EU Global Strategy on the Global Justice Blog.

Resilience and its critics

Imported from the natural sciences and engineering, the concept of resilience is designed to encompass the capacity of materials and systems to recover from crisis: either to return to their pre-existing state or successfully to adapt and stabilise within a new environment. This has obvious attractions in the realm of foreign policy, allowing for a proactive strategy designed to maximise the capacity of states and their societies successfully to respond to crisis and to strengthen them in the face of adversity.

To critics, resilience is simply the latest in a long list of concepts designed to substitute for actual foreign policy development.

As with all importations, however, there is criticism of the translation of the concept. Some have already decried the propensity of foreign policy elites to latch onto empty catch phrases and ambiguous concepts so as to disguise a paucity of truly innovative or original thinking. Resilience for them is simply the latest in a long list of concepts designed to substitute for actual foreign policy development. For others, the reverse applies and they have identified a subterranean universe of adverse implications.

First, resilience can be seen as potentially depoliticising foreign policy by generating the expectation that foreign policy crises should be seen more as acts of God than the result of human agency. Resilience here has the effect of ignoring the structural or historical injustices which rest at the heart of international crises and instilling a sense of doomed inevitability rather than galvanised activism. Resilience is also condemned as shifting responsibility from the state to societal actors. If the focus is on how local actors and networks can be resourced and encouraged to respond to crisis, this will have the effect of at least partially absolving state actors of their responsibility to prevent, prepare for and/or to overcome such crises. Third, the suspicion also exists that resilience comes cheap: that by offsetting responsibility onto the backs of neighbours and partners for their own security and stability, the EU can pare-back resources on direct foreign aid and security assistance. Finally, there is the fear that resilience becomes the goal, rather than the means. In other words, that it quickly conflates to the objective of ‘stability’ and the capacity to return to a steady state existence following crisis. The potential for resilience, however, is much greater than this.

Justice as mutual recognition

The first step is to assert that resilience is not the mid-point of a pendulum swing between liberal universalism and statist realpolitik. Instead, resilience can credibly be presented as being transformative of how the Union might conduct its foreign policy as well as enhancing its efficacy and credibility. This is certainly the case if resilience is understood as a process, not a goal; a means to greater ends, and also if it is centred upon responsiveness, adaptability, flexibility and hybridity – very much as a proactive strategy rather than a defensive approach.

Resilience can credibly be presented as being transformative of how the Union might conduct its foreign policy as well as enhancing its efficacy and credibility.

It is here that we can begin to glimpse the potential of resilience as an approach within global justice. The GLOBUS project is looking at global justice through three distinctive lenses: justice as non-domination, justice as impartiality and justice as mutual recognition. The latter perspective, of justice as mutual recognition, is arguably the most intriguing – and certainly the most challenging – in a security/foreign policy context. Its focus on cooperative arrangements and active dialogues with affected parties is predicated at arriving at mutually agreed solutions which identify the right or best thing to do in any given circumstance. It is founded in reciprocal and accountable relationships in search of 'fair terms of social cooperation' which assumes that the reasoning of both parties is accommodated and that each partner must be both responsive to, and respectful of, the claims of the other. It also implies the creation of institutional decision-making and adjudicating fora which are profoundly deliberative in their orientation and to which all parties are willing to submit.

Resilience folder in Indonesia
Resilience implies EU foreign policy engagement at all levels of state and society, writes Ben Tonra. (Photo: EU/ECHO)

Here, resilience has real potential. It is predicated first and foremost on partnership and on the heterogeneity of partners. Whether these are states, cities, local authorities, or even private entities (companies, foundations etc.), resilience implies EU foreign policy engagement at all levels of state and society since each level is assumed to have its own role and potential in contributing to strengthened capacities for resilience. Significantly too, resilience implies that in its dealings with these partners, the Union, its member states and their agents are always willing to engage from where each of these partners are, as opposed to where they might wish them to be. This is certainly not an unproblematic starting point, implying as it does the absence of preconditions to open engagement. It is also challenging with respect to the distinction which the Global Strategy makes between state and society. How might EU policy actors have to respond where state and society partners differ profoundly on the diagnosis of, and the prescription for, any particular crisis?

Local ownership

Resilience is also grounded in local ownership – with further enormous implications for EU foreign policy engagement. It is predicated upon actors speaking ‘with’ rather than ‘to’ their interlocutors. This would require a virtual volte face in the Union’s approach to diplomacy, with a massive investment in personnel, their training and language skills and the development of the highest quality diplomatic reporting skills. This would be fine-grained diplomacy at its zenith.

Local ownership also suggests that foreign policy is tailored to local conditions and needs – a significant challenge to a foreign policy actor with a traditionally ‘universalist’ approach. Again, if pursued seriously, this suggests a major shift in the Union’s still-nascent diplomatic model. Tailoring suggests not only the aforementioned openness to listening and learning, but the capacity to then adapt overarching policy goals to these local needs and to craft foreign policy practice at the micro-level. This obviously generates the risk of policy divergence and inconsistency as between specific cases but also holds out the prospect of genuine empowerment of local actors and forging substantive and long-lasting partnerships

Local ownership also suggests that foreign policy is tailored to local conditions and needs – a significant challenge to a foreign policy actor with a traditionally ‘universalist’ approach.

As has only been briefly touched on above, resilience has the potential to be a transformative concept in the design and pursuit of EU foreign policy. It also has significant challenges, not least (as within the conception of justice as mutual recognition) where there is profound disagreement or stark choices to be made over foundational principles. Compromise is the root of both diplomacy and politics but can dialogue and learning entertain violence being done to cherished values and norms? Resilience opens pathways to perhaps a very different kind of EU foreign policy, it certainly does not imply the absence – perhaps even heightens the risk – of very difficult choices having to be made. With that caveat, however, the concept has tremendous potential and may yet itself prove to be more resilient than the many empty/ambiguous foreign policy concepts deployed in the past.

This text was first published by www.europedebate.ie, a blog by UCD Dublin European Institute.

About the author

Ben Tonra

Ben Tonra (Head of GLOBUS research group on Cooperation, conflict and global justice)

Professor, University College Dublin

 

By Ben Tonra
Published Mar. 1, 2017 10:49 AM - Last modified Feb. 5, 2019 10:45 AM
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