PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Europe's democracies are a strange lot.
As the European Union, they are experts at economic soft power. Politically, they spend too much time bickering among themselves. Militarily, they almost completely lack political will.
Thankfully, some are trying to bring it all together.
Twenty individuals representing fifteen countries, many of whom have, and have had, the ears of presidents and prime-ministers -- MILSEC types, three ambassadors, journalists and specialists -- sat for 24 hours at Radio-Free Europe pondering how to unite diverging modus vivendi. They were brought together by the United Kingdom's Henry Jackson Society, the Legatum Institute, the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Initiative, the Prague Society and Berlin-based Global Panel Foundation. Few complained about Europe's skill, but there was near unanimity on critiquing Europe's failure at bringing it all together.
This was a group of trans-Atlanticists. All have strong ties to, and interest in, the relationship with the United States and to each other. All have served in distinguished capacities.
The tenor was constructive. The brain-storming was heated with diverging points-of-view. Under the banner, European Convention on Liberal Democracy (ECLD), the goal is to create a group that can prod, think, unite and focus European democracies to more effectively conduct their common mission.
Said a U.K. participant, "let us bring together democratic groups under the ECLD -- to share best practice campaigning ideas and policy initiatives -- run by Europeans, for Europeans and in partnership with Americans." Said a Spanish former ministerial adviser, "We have universal values, we just can't agree on where to draw the red line." Said a former National Security Council staffer, "Europe allowed the Bush administration to split it along the former Iron Curtain -- new Europe versus old. How could you allow yourselves to be played like such fools? You are better than that."
There was critique of "how" President Obama canceled the missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. "Waking Czech Prime-Minister Fisher at midnight European time, and calling President Lech Kaczynski and Prime-Minister Tusk -- who refused to take the call -- 70 years to the day that Russia invaded Poland – is politically inept and very offensive," said a Polish delegate. "OK. Maybe Obama didn't know, but what were the president's advisers thinking?" said another. "I am afraid," said another, "this simply confirms how unimportant Europe is to the U.S., despite President Obama's words to the contrary."
It was also the day President Obama was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. There was some astonishment. "I thought the Nobel Prize was for what you have done, not for what you plan to do," said one participant." Said another delegate, "the closing for nominations was just a week after President Obama took office in January. Can someone explain this to me?" "I think this sends a very strange message," said another. "He should have rejected it. There was a remarkable Afghani woman who should have been the recipient. Imagine, if he had said 'I am honored but demur in favor of Dr. Sima Samar.' WOW, now that would have been the moment of all moments," said yet another.
Many showed concern with Europe's approach to Russia. (see my column Lost Lessons of the Cold War, Aug. 19, 2008).
Russia continues to be aggressive with misusing her power in energy-security. Putin has very smartly used the mantle of the Russian Orthodox Church to gain legitimacy with the Russian people. It is unclear who will win the battle between Medvedev and Putin -- though most in this group think it will be Putin. There is concern about the neo-Finlandization of Europe vis-a-vis Russia, and the harmonization of the U.S. and European approaches to Russia.
Russia has yet to fulfill her commitment to the six-point plan agreed to with French President Nicolas Sarkozy regarding the Republic of Georgia. Many see Russia as an unreliable partner.
There was absolutely unanimity on the need to be vigilant with Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seen as a complete obstruction to the West having meaningful relations with Iran. The idea of Iran having nuclear weapons was received with great angst -- and that it must be stopped at all costs. In principal, engaging Iran was viewed positively, but not at the expense of being seen as weak by the Iranians and rogue states.
The discussion of public diplomacy brought intense and lively discussion. One participant wondered if the promotion of democracy is dead. Another wondered if it might not be better to promote the rule of law and the politics of small steps first. Yet another wondered if the West really knows what it means when it promotes democracy: "Whose democracy are we promoting, Germany's, Australia's, the United States'?"
If a group of confident, prominent and well-placed individuals can put aside national interests to promote European commonalities -- then maybe one can be hopeful that governments can do the same.
On this day, at this small gathering, a seed was planted.
(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. He has advised political personalities and is a founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)