Resilience and EU Foreign Policy: The Promise of Justice?

The appearance of ‘resilience’ as a core leitmotif within the EU Global Strategy (EUGS) has been a significant focus of analytical interest in recent months (Wagner and Anholt 2016; Juncos 2016). Featuring several dozen times within the Union’s strategy statement and frequently linked to the broader concept of ‘principled pragmatism’, the concept has come in for some criticism that it represents a retreat in European ambition. Meanwhile, it is understood that the European institutions are anxious to put flesh on the ‘resilience’ bones of the EUGS and to look at ways in which the concept may be operationalised and how it can serve the goal of a credible, coherent and consistent foreign, security and defence policy. The aim of this post, is to suggest that far from representing a collapse of European ambition, resilience just may be an opportunity to take an enormous step forward in EU foreign policy, and one which may serve the cause of an overarching concept of global justice.

We are by this time familiar with the critique of resilience (Wagner and Anholt 2016; Juncos 2016). Imported from the natural sciences and engineering, it 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 pro-active 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.

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 state to societal actors – in the memorable words of Wagner (2016) creating ‘micro-vigilantes’ of us all. 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 prepare for and 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.

The first step is to assert that resilience is not the mid-point of a pendulum swing between liberal universalism and statist realpolitik. If it is successfully defined as ‘realpolitik with European characteristics’ (Biscop 2016) it will have manifestly failed as an effective and dynamic organising concept. 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. It could then be defined as ‘very much a liberal rather than a post-liberal strategy’ (Juncos 2016: 12). 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.

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 (Erikson 2016). The latter perspective 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.

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 prescription for, any particular crisis?

Resilience is also grounded in local ownership – with further enormous implications for EU foreign policy engagement. It implies an EU foreign policy which is ‘open to learning’ (Juncos 2016:6) and which is predicated upon such listening and learning being a two-way street in which EU foreign policy actors speak ‘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 (Schmidt 2015: 416).

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 justice as mutual recognition model) 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 – 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.

Ben Tonra
UCD School of Politics and International Relations

Biscop, Sven. “The EU global strategy: realpolitik with European characteristics.” Security policy brief 75 (2016).
Eriksen, Erik O. “Three Conceptions of Global Political Justice” GLOBUS Research Paper 1/2016, accessed 14 February 2017.
Juncos, Ana E. “Resilience as the new EU foreign policy paradigm: a pragmatist turn?.” European Security (2016): 1-18.
Schmidt, Jessica. “Intuitively neoliberal? Towards a critical understanding of resilience governance.” European journal of international relations 21, no. 2 (2015): 402-426.
Wagner, Wolfgang, and Rosanne Anholt. “Resilience as the EU Global Strategy’s new leitmotif: pragmatic, problematic or promising?.” Contemporary security policy 37, no. 3 (2016): 414-430.

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