Anyone who wishes to make a realistic judgment of the chances for a successful, European-led initiative to resolve worldwide geopolitical tensions must begin by reviewing the results of recent initiatives for peace.
Such a stock-taking has to be twofold. It needs to survey, firstly, European mediation efforts on the global stage and, secondly, the results of Europe’s efforts to provide for security on its own continent.
Let us begin with the first aspect. If we only look at the past decade, the overall balance is appalling. At no time has the European community of states shown itself capable of settling conflicts or of developing viable strategies. It has failed to do so in the geopolitical conflicts of the Middle East, in the Arab Spring and its disastrous aftermath, and in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
If at all, European mediation and peace initiatives were usually launched only when the fighting was already spreading. This was the case, for example, with the Minsk process designed to settle the conflict in Ukraine, and with the Geneva negotiations on Syria. These initiatives, fragmentary and unfinished, failed to have lasting effects. Aimed solely at containing military violence, they have succeeded at most in bringing about a fragile ceasefire. The Minsk agreements have moreover shown themselves to be unrealisable in the long run for both parties, and as a potentially explosive stepping stone leading to further escalation. There seem to be no signs of progress, and the change of government in the United States does not alter this.
Secondly, as far as the situation on the European continent is concerned, we have to state that tensions between its various actors are increasing, fuelled in part by different perceptions and treatments of international conflicts. Europe – for now, standing side by side with the United States, although no one can predict how the transatlantic alliance will develop under the new American president – and Russia are facing each other with increasing hostility. There is no détente in sight.
Furthermore, West and East are moving ever further apart as they cultivate their own sets of values, complete with particular interpretations of both human rights and international law. Publicly, these opposing narratives are articulated in the form of reproaches and recriminations. Both worldviews exist side by side, hermetically sealed from mutual exchange and cooperation. A large part of the so-called dialogue between the West and Russia has degenerated into verbal shadow boxing and communication has often become like a monologue. The deployment and movement of troops in Europe are a visible expression of the speechlessness currently existing between the West and Russia.
According to Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference, the danger that “escalatory steps” could turn into “military combat operations” between NATO and Russia is today “greater than ever”; certainly greater than in the late phase of the Cold War and greater than at any time in the past 25 years (2016).
Why then do we not succeed in changing course, just like in the past, when politicians in East and West managed to agree on the Helsinki Accords, and thus achieved a lasting relaxation in the Cold War between different political and social systems? Is there a lack of goodwill or of diplomatic competence among politicians? Are we suffering from a scarcity of personalities who can credibly embody the hopes for reconciliation? Do incompatible geopolitical or economic interests hinder a rapprochement? All of these factors may certainly play an important role. But the reasons for our insufficient openness for dialogue have deeper roots.
Governments and the political establishment in the western hemisphere have lost a good deal of their capacity to act. Unlike more authoritarian states, their authority to implement political agendas has been noticeably impaired. The relative weakness of governments is due to the growing power of an omnipresent mass media culture. In today’s media society, the Fourth Estate exceeds the function of a guardian that it is supposed to fulfil in a democratic society. It is becoming an actor in its own right, influencing and shaping political life.
The dangers that are connected with the development of a multi-party democracy into a media democracy have been clearly visible with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Trump saw the loss of authority from which political elites suffer and exploited it for his own purposes. He promotes the power of government and permanently attacks the media. He sets the agenda, he decides, and implements. The new American president has declared war on the so-called mainstream media and, using Twitter and alternative facts he opposes them with his own system of communication.
On the European continent, too, the crisis of Western democracy is obvious. Across Europe, right-wing populist and nationalist parties and movements are on the rise. They have gained additional momentum from the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election.
This development in Western democracies plays a decisive role for the question of whether or not they are capable of developing an initiative for global dialogue. In my opinion, today’s West lacks the prerequisites necessary for coherent foreign policy, not to mention the actors who could convincingly argue for and carry out such a policy. Western society today is absorbed by its own problems to such an extent that its governments are unable to initiate and pursue a far-reaching diplomacy of peace. This applies at the global level as much as to the East-West dispute. America is deeply divided and will for the time being be preoccupied with its own affairs. The political energies of Europe, crumbling and disrupted, are entirely tied up with domestic questions.
Charity begins at home. Europe needs to put its own house in order first, focusing on what is achievable, and thus on a policy of small but shared steps. A basic prerequisite for cooperation is a change in our culture of discussion. We must focus on what unites us: on goals, interests, and values that we share with Russia. In concrete terms, this means aiming for objectives in negotiations that are sought and accepted by all involved parties. This is a fundamentally constructive approach; ideological skirmishes have to be left on the sidelines. That is the only way for mutual trust to re-emerge.
There can be no doubt that there are numerous fields for cooperation in which the interests of the European Union, Russia, and the United States coincide: the fight against terrorism; the stabilisation of the Middle East; extensive economic cooperation between the European Union and the Eurasian Economic Union; the vision of the often-invoked common area stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok; as well as ecological issues.
On a smaller scale, there are plenty of such constructive relationships. European and Russian citizens in countless cities and communities are cooperating fairly and profitably, both in economic and social respects. Through concrete projects, they create the intimacy and the essential trust that has been lost in the political realm. We need more of such shared successes. Of course, they cannot work wonders or change views overnight. But they can bring about a positive dynamic, including in official relations with Russia.
In the sense of a cooperative space for shared projects in all walks of life, the idea of “Lisbon to Vladivostok” possesses immense potential for reconciliation. Successful cooperation can ease the way to a political rapprochement, preparing the ground for a new pan-European process of understanding that takes up the lessons of Helsinki and of Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr’s “new Eastern policy”. For however much our societies may have changed in decades past, one thing remains true: governments and politicians are responsible for the greatest common good – a life in peace and security.
 For the text of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, signed 1 August 1975, see the Helsinki Final Act document on the OSCE website (1975).
 For a regularly updated overview of the Trump Administration’s attacks on the media, see “The Trump Administration’s War On The Press,” Media Matters (2017).
 “Lisbon to Vladivostok” is generally seen as referring to a project for a free trade zone uniting the European Union and the states of the former Soviet Union. For a recent argument in favour of such a zone, see the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Focus Paper by Christian Bluth, “Free Trade from Lisbon to Vladivostok. A Tool for Peace and Prosperity: The Effects of a Free Trade Area between the EU and the Eurasian Region” (2016).
This paper was originally published as Restarting the Dialogue for European Peace? Chances and Limitations of Western Politics, in P. Schulze (Ed.). Core Europe and Greater Eurasia. Frankfurt/New York: Campus.