Moral hazards of leadership

Moral hazards of leadership

High ideals about European leadership inevitably mix with low cunning



Globsec, an annual security conference in Bratislava, is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. It has big meaty dishes (the future of NATO) and recherché ones (a full-day break-out session on Moldova). You can talk about everything from cyber-security to Syria. Just do not expect to sleep much. And give your liver a rest afterwards.

Two big bits of news broke during the conference. One was that the Boston bombers were ethnic Chechens. That produced grim faces among those trying to curb Kremlin influence in Europe and the US: it will be hard to deal with a global Chechen terrorist threat without co-operation with the thugs of Russia’s FSB.

Another big development was the deal between Serbia and Kosovo (see pages 8 and 9) – a rare bit of good news in the otherwise deadlocked western Balkans. It would be nice to think that the thorny Macedonian ‘name’ question might inch forward too. Matthew Nimetz, the UN mediator, has just tabled a (so far unpublished) compromise under which Greece’s ex-Yugoslav northern neighbour could get going with its application to the EU under the temporary name of, it seems, the ‘Upper Republic of Macedonia’. Now would be a good time for a big push on that.

Poland’s renewed commitment to Visegrád (which was formed to lobby for Czech, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish membership of the EU and NATO) was notable. It was only a few years ago that almost no Poles turned up to Globsec, and one who did called Visegrád “decorative”. Strong rhetorical support from Poland is not a sufficient condition to make the ‘V4’ work, but it is a necessary one. I think the future must involve bringing Austria in too, creating a real central European group and ending the anachronistic communist-era divide.

Less pleasantly, it turned out to be true that the US can indeed send only a token force (a company plus two headquarters units) to NATO’s Steadfast Jazz exercise in Poland and the Baltic states in the autumn. European Atlanticists are aghast, as are those who worry about territorial defence (Russia is boosting its military in the region). As the Afghan mission winds down, NATO looks increasingly redundant. American forces are largely leaving Europe – the last tanks left this month – but the plan was to fill the gap with exercises. That was an easy promise. But it now is too costly.

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Nobody senior from the US administration turned up. But Zbigniew Brzezinski did. His speech was the highlight of the conference (see right). The EU-US free-trade agreement, said the 85-year-old titan of Cold War diplomacy, had “enormous promise” and could potentially halt the West’s decline. He spoke with authority, insight and commitment: unusual qualities, these days. I wonder if modern Atlanticists are up to the challenge.

High ideals inevitably mix with low cunning. The division between ‘new’ and ‘old’ member states is out-of-date – but it is still the case that almost all the top jobs in the EU and NATO go to candidates from what used to be the ‘West’ of Europe. That is intolerable, especially when these countries have become habitual rule-breakers. I like the 25% rule, under which candidates are ineligible for a top job (such as president of the European Commission or secretary-general of NATO) if their country breaks guidelines by a margin of more than a quarter. So defence spending should be no lower than 1.5% of gross domestic product (the NATO target is 2%); budget deficits no higher than 3.75% (the EU’s rule is 3%).

Such a rule would doom, among others, the ambitious Franco Frattini’s chances of leading NATO: Italy spends only 0.84% on defence – and is cutting further. It would help Poles and Estonians. Do not hold your breath.

Edward Lucas edits the international section of The Economist.