In June, the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings hosted the 17th annual Raymond Aron Lecture. The session featured Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris, and Brookings Senior Fellow Fiona Hill, who served as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019.
Raymond Aron was a free thinker, as Mr. Gomart described him. Aron, who engaged in philosophical debates addressing the most pressing political and social issues of today’s societies, represents an extremely important thinker and point of reference for people dealing with and studying international relations. The thinker served as a bridge between France and the United States, and the lecture series being named after him is just another way of building bridges across the Atlantic. The following paragraphs contain the essence of the ideas and reflections shared by each of the speakers.
France’s confirmation and disillusion
Mr. Gomart started his intervention by saying that Putin’s Russian diplomatic and strategic leadership has been partially responsible for the current global disorder. Putin’s Russia represents a disruptive power whose current goal is not to reform the existing international system, but to overthrow it.
The war in Ukraine is forcing France into a new and necessary position-taking. In Mr. Gomart’s view, it is now indispensable for Europe to be much more serious about military affairs compared to the last two decades when European countries were not sufficiently firm on this matter. There is now a need to elevate the level of strategic ambition in Europe, a position that Paris defends. The military affairs and discussions around them are of the utmost importance, especially with the comeback of “high-intensity war” on European soil.
Now on the disillusion: for France, an avid advocate of multilateralism, there is no possible stable and in-depth strategy for Europe without taking Russia into account. But the reality is that the continent faces a neighbor determined to destabilize such international and regional norms. In Mr. Gomart’s view, and as a consequence of the war, the European continent has lost one of its most competitive advantages since the beginning of European integration, which was life in peace. Later on, the speaker focused his speech on giving brief interpretations focusing on key state relations relevant to understanding current times in Europe.
The relationship between China and the US
From the French perspective, it is clear that this relationship is absolutely crucial for global stability – not only on the political, but also on the economical and environmental levels, as this relationship is responsible for roughly 40% of the global GDP and a big portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. As stated by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, China is the only country with the intent to reshape the international order that also has the ability to do so economically, diplomatically, militarily, and technologically.
The current war in Ukraine is provoking significant changes in both states’ strategies. On one level, US support is of the utmost importance since it provides crucial military material and training to Ukraine. For China, the war – in Mr. Gomart’s opinion – is a way to learn lessons on the situation in Taiwan, as well as significant diplomatic lessons on the countries that didn’t sanction Russia politically – on the UN resolution demanding the end of the Russian offensive in Ukraine – and economically. The key issue in Mr. Gomart’s opinion is the nature of support given by China to Russia in the coming months.
The relationship between Russia and the European Union
Gomart says that the international community is experiencing a dramatic transformation in its energy supplies, and that European countries will be facing a deep energetic crisis in the coming months and coming years. Europe has a history of importing gas from the East – previously from the former USSR – with a significant change underway with the importations from the US and South/ South-East – Africa and the Middle East. This change in the energy supply of the EU has dramatic consequences, especially for Germany. The international community is facing an inversion in the current model with some very significant consequences and challenges for European countries: it will be costly, it will have some environmental implications, and Europeans have to deal with it very quickly.
The Sino-Russian relationship
A few days before the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, President Putin and President Xi issued a joint declaration emphasizing the friendship between the two states, claiming it was “a bond with no limits”. Both sides openly criticized the further enlargement of NATO after the outbreak of the war, calling on the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organization to abandon its idealized cold war approach. According to Mr. Gomart, the war in Ukraine has highlighted both the resilience and the limitations on Sino-Russian relations, as China indirectly supports Russia while remaining dependent on the open international system and therefore needs to maintain a flexible approach. Besides, Russia now, and in the future, will be much more reliant on China, geopolitically and economically.
The alliance between the EU and the US
From one perspective, the cohesion seen in the support for Ukraine is remarkable, stated Gomart, but in another way, the crucial military support by the US is also shedding light on Europe’s limitations in their own military capabilities. For Europe, the war in Ukraine represents a real challenge in the coming years with two challenging questions at the forefront. Firstly, what would Europeans’ attitude be towards Ukraine without the massive US military support seen since the very beginning of the Russian invasion? Secondly – and regarding the American allies – what would their policy be, and how will US policy change with Donald Trump running for office again, especially if he wins the 2024 presidential elections?
The definition of the war in Ukraine
In the speaker’s opinion, the current war is a colonial war under a nuclear cover. It is extremely important to take President Putin seriously as the nuclear dimension is, in his view, inevitable. War is at the core of Putin’s regime, given the examples of Kursk, the second war in Chechnya, the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the destabilization of the region of Donbas, the intervention in Syria and the use of proxy in countries such as Mali. For more than a decade, Russia has been doing well in terms of efficiency, limited war, and hybrid warfare, determined to transform the international system. Russia has been acting on several fronts such as in the Middle East by supporting Assad’s Regime, in the Arctic, progressively in the African continent by supporting the securitization of several regimes and also engaging in cyberwar and other initiatives.
The Russian – French relationship
According to Gomart, a new era has come in the relationship between Russia and France. This special relationship has deep historical connections and ties – but what does France represent for Russi and vice versa? Gomart remarks that France is indeed a nuclear power, but not an independent one, and that the countries have deep historical, cultural, and intellectual links. On the other hand, Russia represents a nuclear nation with the capacity to influence the French establishment, while the opposite is not true. Nowadays, both nations compete for a key position in regions of such as the Middle East, Africa, and the Indian peninsula.
Gomart also addressed the EU’s viability from a Russian perspective. In 2005 France had a referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. This referendum was held to decide whether France should ratify the proposed Constitution of the European Union. The result of this national vote was a “no” – 55% of voters rejected the Treaty, with a turnout of 69% of French voters. This result prompted Putin’s regime to imply that the EU is a non-viable political and social project, which has been their narrative ever since. So what kind of actions can and will work in the long term in terms of Moscow’s vision for European integration?
History is tragic, said Gomart. Evoking a Raymond Aron interview in the 1980s, the speaker argued that the thinker openly blamed French presidencies during the Soviet period for being too rational when dealing with Moscow and for thinking that the trade relationship between the French and the Soviets would be able to influence the USSR’s behavior and actions. Gomart addressed the question of whether Europe should trade with Russia or not, in order to transform it.
According to Gomart, we could not come to an agreement with the Soviet Union back then, given the nature of its regime – which remains an open question today. More than 40 decades later, because of its aggression toward Ukraine, Russia has been forcibly disconnected from the Western side of civilization, with the idea that this will change Putin’s mindset. Gomart does not believe that this strategy will influence Putin’s determination: when asked about the necessity of the West in dealing with Russia, the speaker quoted Raymond Aron: “In politics, the choice is not between good and evil, but between what is preferable or stable”.
Fiona Hill’s first impressions
Fiona Hill, a senior fellow on foreign policy in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, an expert on Russia. She also served as an intelligence officer and as a top advisor for 3 US Presidents. Hill started her speech by addressing Gomart’s early remarks: in her understanding, Gomart voiced key topics when looking at the current war in Europe and has the fellow perceived the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine and the global disorder, potentially seen differently between Europe and the United States. Gomart’s thoughts were profound when talking about how relevant Raymond Aron’s work is today, especially related to military and strategic affairs. Europe has lost its biggest competitive advantage globally: living in peace – reiterated Hill. Europe used to be seen as the bastion of peace in a disturbed world, but this aspect has now dematerialized.
The United States and Europe as belligerent actors in the post-cold-war system
Hill addressed the United States’ actions throughout time after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. All of us – the international community – have been part of a kind of peace dividend that emerged back then and endured over the 30 years since the end of the cold war and the defeat of the Soviet Union. The United States has not been at peace: all drives of America’s strategic position have been war, such as the violent actions taken at the pivotal moment of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that led directly to war in Afghanistan and then – through some dubious pathway – to the war in Iraq. European powers have tried to stay out of most of these conflicts as much as they could, but Europe itself has been driven into regional and local conflicts in its larger neighborhood — the Balkan wars of succession due to the collapse of Yugoslavia, the wars in the Middle East under the umbrella of NATO operations in Iraq, and also in Afghanistan in support of the United States in the activation of Article 5 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on US soil. Europe has also found itself participating in conflicts in Lybia, Sahel, Mali, and other regions in North Africa.
Hill stated that although we’ve thought of Europe as living in peace, the environment around Europe has been anything but peaceful. Europeans now face the largest military action in Europe since WWII, not happening on the outskirts of the continent but affecting the continent directly as millions of Ukrainian refugees fled their country and enter the European Union.
The energy supply in Europe – the great dilemma
Until February, right before the war, Europe had not only been living in peace inside of its borders, but also in “energy security”, thanks to its more or less stable energy supplies. Those trade ties, previously addressed by Gomart — and closer relations between Europe and Russia — now have significant consequences on the self-sufficiency of the EU and the continent, due to high dependence on Russian energy. According to Hill, the US warned Europe that gas dependency on Russia could easily become a source of weakness and leverage – and Europe now faces a great dilemma, while consequences are still unfolding.
The views on China and several other considerations
The war in Ukraine, given its magnitude, will also act as a driver of China’s position itself and how the Asian superpower perceives international order. Hill addressed the February 4th agreement between Russia and China and their talks about their partnership without limits and expressed her views on the Beijing remarks about NATO. China expressed clear antipathy against the military organization and its new expansion to Finland and Sweden, coming at a time when NATO tries to clarify what kind of approach to take when it comes to China. Hill concluded that the war in Ukraine is not just a regional or local conflict, but a conflict with global implications.
The European Union is a non-viable project for the continent – Hill acknowledged that this position from Russia represents a real challenge for European integration and the stability of the continent. Is there now the belief in Moscow that the EU is not viable as an institution? Or that it is not viable to the European continent itself? Or is it that the very concept of the West has lost its viability? The latter also refers to China’s vision of the international system and Western societies. In one thing, both speakers agree: the current war in Ukraine might possibly be able to reveal what other weaknesses Western societies face and which mechanisms they should use to overcome them. The mechanisms are seen as necessary for maintaining our relations and the very premises of the Post-World War II European system and its economy.
When questioned if she believes that our world has changed and if we live in a new era of competition, with declared “predation” from foreign states with enough power to do so while the EU loses competitive advantage, Hill started her answer by stating that one of the most obvious characteristics of Putin’s regime is war. War has been the power of Putin’s regime: Putin’s presidency began with the war in Chechnya, and looking at the pattern, we can see the use of war and targeted violence to push the Russian agenda or to change other states’ calculations on the trajectory, targeted assassination with the use of poisoning by polonium and novichok or other nerve agents, the participation in the chemical war in Syria, the use of “proxy forces” firing on American special forces in Syria, etc. The use of violence has been a pattern since Putin came to power. In Hill’s understanding, we could be back to a period where the use of war or warfare determines the future.
For example, the Finnish are not joining NATO to participate in the war but to try to identify mechanisms to restore or maintain the country’s security. The international community wants to live in peace and the main objective must be to avoid engaging in a warfare scenario where the exercise and use of violence determine the future of states. Ukraine will be a determining factor in this possible scenario for international relations, just like the war in Georgia in 2008 was already a warning sign.
In the Q&A segment, Gomart was asked about his labeling of this war as a “colonial war” and what he meant when he mentioned the “objective to subjugate” Ukraine. Is it about territory, fundamentally, or is this about rebuilding the Russian empire? Gomart replied that he thinks Putin is trying to go after a new kind of regional integration, going back to the early 1980s, with the integration of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Towards the end of the session, both speakers agreed that the US and Europe have assumed that the world would stand by the condemnation of Russia for its aggression due to the high emotions and tje shock that we all felt. Yet a number of countries abstained or voted against the UN resolution to condemn Russia — 141 of the 193 member states voted for the resolution, while 35 abstained, five voted against and 12 didn’t vote at all. Altogether, these countries amount to more than half of the world population. This is a warning, the experts agreed, and it’s a diffcult scenario. Putting this in context, the UN resolution condemning the annexation of Crimea in 2014 had a lot of countries absent from voting — the vote in the 193-member Assembly was 63-19 in favor of the measure, with 66 nations abstaining and 45 not voting. In their view, this represents some sort of denial of independent nations on the matter. Putin is going back into history and intends to restore a sort of new-imperialism. Countries voting against the UN’s condemnation of the invasion and destruction of Ukraine means the overt acceptance of the Russian narrative that not only does Crimea belong to Russia, but so does Kyiv, an integral part of the much-desired Russian empire.
Many lessons will be learned from the return of war to the European continent. One thing is certain: the international order will probably no longer be the same, with much at stake – and the real medium- and long-term consequences of this invasion for the continent, the European Union, and international relations are still unknown.