Turning into the Fishtail – Sticking with Failed Policies Remains a Perennial Political and Bureaucratic Reflex

For those of us old enough to experience and remember the long shadow the Vietnam War and Watergate cast over American foreign policy and democracy overall, watching Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” can be a bittersweet experience. Sweet because of the triumph of personal courage, journalistic integrity, and the willingness of the American judiciary to allow the executive power of the presidency – including Richard Nixon’s “Imperial Presidency” – to be held to account. But also bitter, forcing the viewer to consider the ongoing debasement of the American presidency and the wanton, deliberate destruction of decades of hard-won bipartisan progress in public accountability. The film also stands as a reminder that for those responsible for devising policy on both sides of the Atlantic, the impulse to avoid being seen to fail usually trumps (pun intended) the recognition that the policies not only have failed, but that they cannot succeed.

To recap the plot: the Pentagon Papers, the multi-volume secret history of the Vietnam War commissioned by Kennedy and Johnson administration Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, became shorthand for the document that was copied and smuggled out of the RAND Corporation offices by analyst Daniel Ellsberg. The history demonstrated that successive administrations from President Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) forward were aware that the war in Vietnam – first supporting France’s efforts to reassert colonial control, then in support of the Republic of Vietnam, were failing. Yet rather than engage in a strategic rethink, the US government repeatedly doubled down on policy failure. By the time Richard Nixon became president in 1969, half a million Americans were engaged in the fight in Vietnam. The leak of the Pentagon Papers first to the New York Times, then to the Washington Post and a host of other American dailies, exposed the public to the knowledge that not only was the war failing (that view had become mainstream by 1968), but that the US government was fully aware of the war’s doomed nature and still sent Americans to die. The reason? No president wanted to be the first to lose a war. Avoiding being seen to fail now was paramount; after leaving office, it was someone else’s problem.

On February 6, the European Commission announced its long-promised new “strategy for the Western Balkans.” The very failure of the policy to date, which has created a vacuum into which illiberal adversaries of Western democracy have stepped (Russia, Turkey, China, the Gulf states), is what precipitated the need for a new strategy in the first place. But the “strategy” is anything but a strategy, and it is hardly new.

For many years, DPC and a host of others have highlighted the fundamental failings of the EU’s approach toward the region in detail. The essence of the failure lies in the institutional philosophy rather than capability per se. The presumption that leaders of the Western Balkans countries are genuinely representative and accountable is, against all evidence, apparently hardwired into the EU operating systems despite ample evidence to the contrary, as is the idea that the enlargement process is a vehicle for driving genuine political reform and economic harmonization with the rest of Europe. The fact that Serbia is the frontrunner from the region for membership, given the illiberal consolidation of political, economic, and media power around the government of President Aleksandar Vučić, only underscores the disconnection between the EU’s alleged “transformative power” and the ground reality. The same goes for the other frontrunner, Montenegro, which has never seen a proper transfer of power from the government to the opposition since the old Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991.

Worse yet, the EC’s Directorate General for the Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) has increasingly come under the grip of a self-justifying and even more restrictive philosophical malady – that the EU collectively should only ask would-be members for what is explicitly articulated in the acquis, rather than make reasonable demands that might otherwise be considered implied as foundational for a liberal democratic community of states (and which members have an obligation to demand). The Trump presidency – but not just his – has demonstrated in the past year that democratic practice rests on far more than explicit laws and rules; the norms and values held by the political class and expected by the citizens are perhaps even more critical. As a panicked driver caught in a spin, DG NEAR is not trying to steer out of the fishtail. It is turning into it.

The reason for adhering to this policy is not evidence-based; it is bureaucratic and political. No policy designers, -makers, or implementers in Brussels ever advanced in their careers by admitting failure, especially after years of consistent and emollient proclamations of “credible progress” and the braindead talking point of the decade: that the EU is “the only game in town” in the Western Balkans. DG NEAR desperately needs a short-term “win” to justify its continued existence; astoundingly, Commission President Juncker has adopted this approach. And since the EU is a collective gatekeeper to its own club, it can lower the bar. This has been the path so far, as demonstrated by Croatia’s membership in 2013, which brought with it not only unsolved territorial disputes, but an already demonstrated growing appetite to directly interfere in the domestic politics of neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Commission – and a host of misguided fellow travelers – seem to think this demonstrated failure of EU “transformative power” can be finessed through spin, PR, and cheerleading. It cannot. This approach will ultimately hit the wall with member state parliaments (and citizens directly in France, The Netherlands, and Austria), which must approve new member states and whose skepticism of enlargement in general is already pronounced. But that is far down the road for the current Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn, the DG NEAR staff, President Juncker, and foreign policy head Federica Mogherini. That will be someone else’s problem. And anyway, that won’t be a failure of the Commission. It will be those narrow-minded provincials in member state parliaments, right? In the meantime, DG NEAR and aspirant member governments are locked in an embrace to continue the intellectual dishonesty and spin for their own self-serving political purposes.

The time is long overdue for a cross-party member state-driven process to reassess the EC’s performance in enlargement – including the veracity of its reporting. Given German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s unfortunate likely departure from his post, in which he developed an ever-more honest and direct approach toward regional policy, a genuinely new strategic initiative, led by him and involving Bundestag members and other member state MPs in advance of the “Berlin Process” meeting in London this summer, would offer a welcome demonstration of honest reflection. At present, aside from external analysis from DPC and others, there has been no accountability mechanism for the Commission’s obvious decade of failure. Nor have there been any European Ellsbergs coming forward with “Berlaymont Papers” demonstrating the internal machinations to evade the consequences of an untethered policy which continues to fail.

The truth is out there – in plain sight.