The European Council on Foreign Relations: a Think Tank Like No Other

Bearing a name which could easily be confused by unsuspecting readers with the world-renowned Council on Foreign Relations based in New York and Washington, the ECFR has been issuing some attention grabbing studies on foreign policy challenges facing the Old Continent. In this essay we examine one of its latest opuses…

The European Council on Foreign Relations: a Think Tank Like No Other


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.




On October 15, just 3 days before the German-French-Russian summit in Deauville called to discuss the architecture of European security, the London headquarters of the European Council on Foreign Relations issued a press release announcing the availability for download at its website of an 80 page report entitled The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe. In the communiqué, ECFR Director and co-author Mark Leonard said:


“The Merkel-Medvedev-Sarkozy summit has the right agenda but the wrong participants. We need an informal European security trialogue that brings together the three key pillars of European security – Turkey, Russia and the EU.”


An uninitiated reader might be struck by the notion that the three named parties are key pillars of European security. Indeed its piquancy attracted substantial media attention to the report in both Europe and America, so that the launch of this latest conceptual initiative for a common European foreign policy in the post-Lisbon Treaty age may be considered a qualified success.


Inspection of the report itself indicates that the authors made every effort to ‘think outside the box.’ They provide a wealth of observations on the present state of international relations in and around Europe, some of them quite novel and challenging. They also set out the results of their own survey of 250 members of foreign policy elites across Europe regarding perceived security threats which they melded with a study of national security documents of the member states. And they offer some clearly defined recommendations on the way forward for Europe.


In what follows I will comment on the strengths and weaknesses of these several aspects of the report and then address the question of who stands behind this report and why.


Home Alone


The overriding observation in the report is that because the United States is distracted by its worldwide commitments, including managing relations with China and bringing its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to successful conclusion, it has ceased to be a European power, it has downgraded its role to that of off-shore balancer, and Europe is left to deal with its geopolitical environment pretty much on its own. For this purpose, existing European security institutions, which are holdovers of the Cold War period that have been downgraded by all parties over the past several years, are inadequate to cope with ongoing challenges of frozen conflicts on the periphery of the Continent. They also do not put to use the opportunities for exercising a common European foreign policy created by the Lisbon Treaty. And they do not provide mechanisms for reining in the two major players whose neighborhoods intersect with what Europe considers to be its own – Russia and Turkey – who are behaving like bad boys and obstructing rather than facilitating the resolution of regional problems according to Europe’s preferences. The authors argue that a more creative approach to both Russia and Turkey could bring their forces and policies in line with Europe’s and also ‘bulk up’ Europe in the world arena, offsetting its diminishing role in international affairs now that the U.S. is seeking to accommodate the aspirations of emerging nations in international institutions at Europe’s expense.


En passant, the authors let drop some assumptions which do not always show freshness of vision or consistency with their policy recommendations. For example, there is the statement that Russia is not democratic, as well as separate remarks sprinkled through the text telling us that the Kremlin leadership is interested in preserving its ‘regime’ intact rather than serving Russian national interests, and that Russia seeks to dominate the economies of its Near Abroad in support of its noncompetitive industry. If these points are true, they do not readily support the idea of much closer and cooperative relations.


However, they are not true. Not to tax the reader’s patience, I challenge here only the most damaging among them, the notion of an authoritarian or autocratic Russia. Say what you will, the Russian Federation has contested elections and some semblance of parliamentary democracy even if deeply flawed. It also has a resilient civil society and domestic watchdogs of human rights. Moreover, many of the abuses noted by critics writing in the Western press are also freely acknowledged by Russian government leaders who are publicly committed to overturning them. A case in point was the recent admonition of President Medvedev to the Kremlin party United Russia insisting that violations such as occurred last year will not be tolerated in the 2011 parliamentary elections and that it is healthy and beneficial for all if the competing parties periodically replace one another in office. It is appropriate and more sincere to apply the qualification ‘young democracy’ to today’s Russia. Reduced international tensions will foster its quicker passage along the route to full-blooded democratic politics and rule of law; Cold War rhetoric and divisions can only serve the purposes of Russia’s retrograde forces.


Another problem is that in urging the triangular relationship and step-by-step implementation of a common approach to frozen conflicts and other security issues, the authors of the report consider only what benefit Europe can extract from this tepid alignment, not what will motivate Turkey and Russia to tame their national ambitions and behave like the post-modern, inter-dependant states of the European Community.


In the case of Turkey, disappointed hopes for accession to the EU in the foreseeable future, which the authors stress, are certainly not the only driver of the country’s recent moves to act as an autonomous regional power in the Middle E
ast and the Trans-Caucasus as well as to stake out a new, especially close strategic relationship with Russia in energy and much else. The move away from Kemalist secularism within Turkey merely parallels the heightened religious driver of policies throughout its neighborhood. Moreover, the country’s refusal to play its traditional role of docile follower of U.S. policy was prompted by the encouragement to the greatest threat to Turkish security, Kurdish separatism, following U.S. intervention in Iraq. It seems improbable that a mere ‘come hither’ glance from the EU will cause a reversal in Turkey’s newfound discovery of its national interests in relationships in the region which it promotes on its own and without a helping hand from major world powers from outside the region.


In the case of Russia, the authors’ suggestion of a gradual rapprochement within a trilateral relationship in pace with confidence-building joint problem-solving is hardly an answer to the clear-cut demands of the Medvedev administration: Russia is seeking a new formal architecture today to end the ongoing division of the Continent into countries which cannot make war on one another (members of the NATO alliance) and those which can be attacked (those outside this alliance). The flat refusal of Merkel and Sarkozy at Deauville to agree on early elimination of visas and thereby satisfy the Russians’ other major foreign policy demand has in no way diminished the Kremlin’s determination to get what it sees as merely mutual respect, so why should the still greater issue of a new security treaty for Europe just go away?



A poll of European foreign policy elites


Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the report’s authors is their summary of their findings about the security concerns of the EU’s foreign policy elites. It is very interesting to see that across all its 27 Member States Europe today is at peace with itself and does not perceive external military threats. This explains Europe’s reluctance to join military crusades far from home. Happily, what is at issue is not some Venus-like military weakness or insidious pacifism such as the foreign policy theoretician of American Neoconservatives Robert Kagan famously decried in his best-selling work Of Paradise and Power.


The authors tell us that over the past several years the differences in level of concern over Russia’s intentions and threat held in Old Europe and New Europe (the new members coming from the former Soviet Bloc) have diminished greatly, with Poland leading the way to a more measured approach. Europe as a whole now stands ready to enter into a constructive relationship with the major power to the East.


Instead of strong states outside their orbit, what Europeans fear are weak and unstable states at their periphery which can lead to a spill-over of illegal immigration and violence. More generally, they fear disruptions to their standard of living arising from financial, environmental and similar dangers, what might be described in terms of insurance risk rather than traditional geopolitical risk.


All of this is exciting and encouraging news for partisans of further EU foreign policy integration. But there are problems here which have been highlighted by recent dislosures of US diplomatic cables courtesy of Wikileaks.  It now appears that while European foreign policy elites polled by the ECFR were saying there are no threats on the Eastern front, the elites of the Baltic States, with U.S. assistance, were successfully persuading Germany and other heavyweights in NATO that a Russian assault on their territory deserved contingency planning, which was duly put in place at NATO’s November gathering in Lisbon.


Perhaps this massive contradiction with the ECFR report’s guiding thesis may be traced back to its methodology.  We cannot know for sure because of the report’s opacity in places. The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe gives us incomplete information about the 250 respondents in the poll. Ninety-five individuals are named in the Acknowledgements at the start of the report. We are not told on what criteria they or the people left unnamed were chosen, or how the polling was conducted. Nor do we know how their responses were weighted with the authors’ analytic findings on reading national security documents to arrive at the text presented.


This is not the only methodological problem with the report. While fertile in ideas and novel observations,  The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe has conceptual drawbacks which arise from the way and by whom it was written. These failings it shares with several other key reports issued by the ECFR. To be specific, in these instances authorship is shared between ECFR Director Mark Leonard, who is a professional writer but not a credentialed international affairs expert, and one or more area specialists. The result is a text which is highly readable but top-heavy, with abrupt changes in policy orientation possible over time and discontinuities.


The notion of ‘bulking up’ Europe by close cooperative relationships with other powers is something which Mark Leonard promoted in his own 2005 book Why Europe Will Run the Twenty-First Century. A review by Johann Hari published in the Times Literary Supplement called out the inconsistency of Leonard’s stressing the democratic and moral values of the EU as the key to understanding its magnetic attraction and soft power leadership in this new century, then arguing for a match with the patently undemocratic People’s Republic of China with its amoral foreign policy, to enhance Europe’s hard power footprint.


And now a word from our sponsors



Up to this point, I have followed the academic code of dealing with the document on its own merits, examining the reasoning, the methodology of its authors in the abstract. However, it would be disingenuous to keep silent about who issued the report, and, in general, who pays for the ECFR. The head and the body are, in the end, inseparable.


The ECFR was founded in 2007 and differentiates itself from other policy think tanks on the Continent in two ways. First, there is its pan-European presence. While the home office is in London, there are branch offices in Berlin, Madrid, Paris, Rome and Sofia. There are plans to open additional offices in Brussels and Warsaw.


The second distinguishing feature of the ECFR is the Council which figures in its name. The list of 128 Council members reads like a who’s who of European politics, the arts, business and philanthropy with names like Joschka Fischer, Carl Bildt, Javier Solana, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Etienne Davignon, Vaclav Havel, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Pascal Lamy and….George Soros.


Twenty-three of the Council members are listed in the Acknowledgements as having contributed comments and otherwise assisted the preparation of the report. There is a formal disclaimer that some of these members did not agree with the opinions set out in the report, but this is not quantified. And so we are left with the impression that this work has been produced under the auspices of the great and the good of the Old World, which lends enormous weight to the policy recommendations being advanced.


The home page of the ECFR website lists the Soros Foundation Network among the think tank’s several sponsors. The Wikipedia page of Mark Leonard is more helpful, informing us that Soros has paid for the ECFR’s offices. And investigation of authors and listed contributors to this and other ECFR reports show that many have received grants from George Soros over the years. It appears in the given case that first co-author Ivan Krastev falls into that category of Soros-sponsored political commentators and activists.


I assume that the authors of The Spectre of a Multipolar Europe have freely come to their analysis of the present situation in and around Europe. However, it is an interesting coincidence that many positions set out in the report correspond to the views George Soros has expounded in the past couple of years.


This begins with his turning to Europe to provide moral and political leadership in the world following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Soros’s disappointment with his inability to persuade U.S. political elites to back away from unilateralism. It continues with his insistent message that Europe must unite to face an authoritarian Russia and not proceed in disarray, thereby allowing Moscow to pick and choose its friends, ultimately having its way.


For these reasons, quite apart from the intrinsic merits of each new ECFR report, they may be viewed collectively as an instrument of the Soros organization to attract media, and through media the attention of European foreign policy elites who perhaps no longer take an interest in the work of his now passé Open Society Institutes.



© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011

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G. Doctorow is a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University and author of the newly published Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. ISBN-13 9781453764473. Now available from in paperback and downloadable e-book edition, as well as via Amazon sites in Europe and Japan. At Barnes & Noble and select book stores.