The Grave Political Consequences of “Pragmatic” Energy Interests

March 2022

The urgent necessity to counter the hard power policies of autocrats is the result of the West’s long-term inability to acknowledge shared responsibility for the outcome of its interest-based policies.

By Leila Alieva

Gas Pipeline Energy Leila Alieva

Art can be first to reflect the nature of global trends. A recently performed play in Berlin by Karen Power might be a metaphoric illustration of the challenges and opportunities of the current stage of world affairs.

The music was played by a Mosaic band in different halls but as a whole piece. The musicians – contrary to tradition – did neither share the same space and nor see most of the co-players of the ensemble but were moving from one hall to the other. Similarly, the audience was free to move from one hall to another to listen and watch performers.

The music played in divided space while being one piece hinted at the error of one old attitude in global politics: focusing on oneself only, without thinking of cross-border consequences of national or local decision making. These consequences can return like a boomerang to national borders.

Taking foreign policy dilemma to the non-binary level

The current war in Ukraine – with Russian army shelling and bombing Ukrainian cities accompanied by civilian casualties and destruction – is the illustration of miscalculations in the assessment of the potential security threats and faults of relations between the West and Russia.

International relations today are characterized by intense debate between “value-based” versus “interest-based” foreign policies of the West towards the rest of the world. While there is trend of a stronger public pressure towards value-based policies, in practice the dilemma seems unresolvable.

In terms of EU trade policies, experts argue that some ramifications of the EU’s economic and trade policies hinder the bloc’s ability to defend the values it puts forward. Take, for example, (trade) relations with dictators of oil-rich states, despite the nature of their regimes.

It appears that interests-based or geopolitical decisions take place at increasingly high costs, in contrast to those based on values. Indeed, they are beginning to undermine the very substance and resilience of democratic states.

The urgent necessity to counter the hard power policies of autocrats is the result of the West’s long-term inability to acknowledge shared responsibility for the outcome of the interest-based relations. These relations have an impact on the politics in these states. They also contribute to these countries’ national economies, thus giving autocrats additional resources for the monopolization of power and repressive policies.  And there are no policy measures undertaken by the West to mitigate this damage.

Moreover, dictators and autocrats view this pragmatism as the weakness of the West and often try to manipulate and use it – among others things to divide the common foreign policy decisions of the EU or Euro-Atlantic allies.

These states themselves increasingly feel the consequences of their own foreign policy decisions in distant regions, like an inflow of refugees and migrants. They are not only fleeing conflicts and economic hardships, but also the dictators strengthened by international trade.

This dilemma might be resolved by transferring the often-irreconcilable binary concepts of values vs. interests (economic, geopolitical, etc.) to the non-binary level. This way they can be put in the context of interconnected and interdependent realities and shared responsibility for the political decisions and their consequences. Recognizing the not-always-benign political consequences of economic relations is an important first step towards their mitigation.

But it seems that the well-researched influence of the EU’s oil interests on the democracy development in Azerbaijan has hardly ever guided the EU policies towards Baku. Indeed, EU officials lower their democracy standards under the influence of the energy agenda. The increased number of asylum seekers from Azerbaijan to Europe is one consequence. And then there are the corruption scandals with involvement of Western politicians as revealed in Panama Papers, White Papers, and Pandora Papers, which reveal a toxic influence of the autocrats on Western democracies.

Overcoming the Eurocentric notion of democratic values

Under the current conditions of exceedingly active Russia and China in promotion and support of “sharp power” (Chris Walker: the use of censorship and manipulation to undermine the integrity of independent institutions)  and the unfolding dynamic of the international soft power competition, democracies should – in order to preserve resilience of institutions at home – pro-actively support soft power abroad too, or how it sometimes is called “projecting European values across borders.”

While the expression “European values” has been used for some time already, it undermines the universality of democratic values and offers an excuse for “pragmatic” trade relations. In the context of shared responsibility for the consequences of relations and policy decisions, non-Euro-centric objective of such relations would be to make them conducive for realization of the best reform potential of the societies in the states-partners. It is obvious that in oil and gas-rich states, like Russia or Azerbaijan, this pragmatism does not motivate the Western states to calculate, anticipate, and consistently address the political consequences of energy interests.

In fact, by ignoring them, the European states play into the hands of authoritarian regimes promoting their sharp power -- and make themselves more vulnerable to their toxic influence. Pragmatic trade with oil- and gas-rich and autocratic regimes often finds its justification in “cultural relativist” approaches, suggesting that the political status quo is supported more by culture than economic relations. While in Germany experts urge the federal government to take over more responsibility in hard security policies, the major problem in the Eastern neighbourhood and its conflicts is the lack of the West’s presence as a normative power.

Thus far, Germany has managed to combine resilience of the liberal institutions at home and “interest-based” policies abroad. Significant part of the German leadership is based on this capacity to sustain resilience and power of liberal institutions demonstrated during Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. To consolidate this role, which would allow addressing security threats early enough for prevention, rather than mobilizing at the dangerous stage of military catastrophe like in Ukraine, one step further will be required: to build relations with the other subjects of international relations not only to benefit materially, but to be conducive for realization of their societies’ best reform and creative potential. The most recent decision of the new coalition government which broke the long-term tradition of the German policy might signal growing awareness that the future - whether bright or gloomy - might be even closer than expected.

Leila Alieva rund grau


Leila Alieva is an affiliate of Russian and East European Studies at University of Oxford’s School of Global and Area Studies and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

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