ROME — Henry Kissinger, the quintessential realist, once provocatively asked “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Last week, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, reassured the world that Europe’s number — hers — is up and running. Then, she threw the question back across the Atlantic: “Who do I call if I want to talk to the U.S.?”
Mogherini posed the question with a touch of irony, but it acquired a sober taste on Tuesday, as U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired and replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo in what is starting look like an incessant game of musical chairs in the chaotic Trump administration.
The unpredictability, inconsistency and sheer turnover of top-level figures in Donald Trump’s White House are making calls for a reliable telephone number louder by the day. Who should we speak to in the U.S. about the Iran nuclear deal, trade, NATO, Russia or the Middle East — given the cacophony coming from Washington on each of these vital foreign policy questions?
Tillerson’s ouster may signal the demise of the “axis of adults” in the administration. But the uncomfortable cohabitation of “America Firsters” and old school Republican interventionists is likely to persist, leaving the rest of the world baffled and begging for the proverbial telephone number.
But maybe — in a messy, multipolar world — that’s too much to ask of a democracy.
Power flows between multitudes of players at national, regional and international levels, straddling the public and the private, governmental and nongovernmental actors.
Let’s look at Europe. To claim that there is a single EU foreign policy — or a single telephone number to dial in order to discuss it — would be naïve. No one knows this better than Mogherini, whose daily job is precisely that of herding European cats.
The EU has never had a single foreign policy due to the different — and yes, at times divergent — views of its members. And the 21st century’s fundamental transformation of foreign policy, not just in Europe but worldwide, makes calls for one all the more anachronistic.
In a democratic country is “the” telephone number located in chancelleries, in ministries of foreign affairs, in ministries of defense? Or must we also dial up ministries of interior, of finance, of trade, of economic development? Should we also ring up Google and Microsoft, the international media, a wide variety of NGOs?
Power, particularly when it comes to the international realm, no longer resides in a single actor. It flows between multitudes of players at national, regional and international levels, straddling the public and the private, governmental and nongovernmental actors. Definitive answers cannot come from one number alone.
Each EU member contributes its own melody, sound and tone, but all ideally play in harmony with one another.
That does not mean we should no longer talk about EU foreign policy. Quite the opposite. There is more than a semantic difference between the quest for “a single” as opposed to “a common” EU foreign policy. The ambition has always been for the latter, not the former, and with good reason.
To use a metaphor in the EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy presented by Mogherini in 2016, the goal is not an EU solo performance; it’s an EU orchestra playing from the same score. Each EU member contributes its own melody, sound and tone, but all ideally play in harmony with one another.
To be sure, there will be the occasional false note. Recent intra-EU divisions at the U.N. over Jerusalem or migration are evidence that the road toward a common foreign policy remains fraught with hurdles. But compared to the paralyzing intra-EU divisions during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s or the Iraq war in 2003, it’s fair to say that huge strides forward have been made.
What has helped is the growing realization amongst the EU’s members — big and small alike — that in our complex and often conflictual world, size matters, and that on their own even the largest EU countries are just small fish in a big pond inhabited by whales like the United States, China and India.
A single number for European foreign policy has never existed — and it never will.
Only together can EU members protect and promote their interests and values on the world stage. And this togetherness — a common foreign policy — does not require the annihilation of distinct voices by an all-powerful commander in chief. What it requires is an orchestra director — the high representative — who sets the agenda, harnesses trust and consensus and coordinates the initiatives, demands and concerns of the bloc’s members.
Mogherini’s telephone number is the one to use, not for definitive black-and-white answers to complex problems, but as the locus of new initiatives, information and coordination.
A single number for European foreign policy has never existed — and it never will. And, as the U.S. is so clearly demonstrating, other democracies across the globe aren’t going to have one either. But the EU does have a different kind of phone number, one that will prove increasingly relevant in a networked union navigating an interconnected, multipolar world.
Nathalie Tocci is director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, honorary professor at the University of Tübingen, and special adviser to European High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini.