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Greening Our Foreign Policy – of Visions, Principles and Contradictions

While the spectrum of ideas defining a Green foreign policy remains wide, several overarching tenets have emerged over the past decades: the normative framework is built on a strong commitment to support for popular movements and “agents of change” fighting for human rights, democracy and gender equality worldwide.

2014 was not exactly a year of good news. Fifteen years into the new millennium, the world seems to be out of joint. Bloody, intractable wars are being waged in the heart of Africa and the Middle East – some in the media spotlight, others forgotten by the world. Democracy and human rights are challenged all over the world by old and new forms of authoritarian rule and repression. Climate change advances, unhindered by the international community’s cumbersome and ineffectual efforts to stop its progress. Income and wealth inequalities are on the rise in many countries. And a virus is killing thousands of people in West Africa, exposing the hidden risks posed by weak and failing state institutions.

Within this mayhem, Europe is no longer an island of peace and stability. While the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 should have been a warning sign, Europe has reacted with stubborn disbelief to the return of war to its soil by Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine. With the European Union surrounded by a ring of fire or simmering tensions that can easily be ignited, immediate crisis management tends to overshadow a thorough reflection on a holistic foreign policy critical to addressing the causes of instability. What, then, are the overarching tenets of a Green foreign policy? What are the international norms, political actors and concrete initiatives breathing life into a Green vision for peace, social justice and environmental stability?

The Greens have, of course, never been a political movement of quick and easy consensus (which, given the incomplete, albeit daunting, list of the challenges listed above, seems reasonable). While the spectrum of ideas defining a Green foreign policy remains wide, several overarching tenets have emerged over the past decades: The normative framework is built on a strong commitment to support for popular movements and “agents of change” fighting for human rights, democracy and gender equality worldwide. Green politics support the practice of multilateralism, increasing the relevance, democratisation and transparency of international and regional organisations, particularly the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU); strengthening international law and its institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC); supporting ambitious disarmament and non-proliferation regimes as well as restrictive weapons export policies; developing the concept of civil conflict prevention and resolution; striving for an ambitious, fair and internationally coordinated climate policy; a trade policy geared towards social justice beyond national boundaries; an increase in humanitarian and development assistance; and a humane refugee policy within and beyond Europe’s borders. The protection of persecuted and vulnerable minorities from mass atrocities and genocide, if necessary against the primacy of state sovereignty, strikes a chord with Green values as well. Military interventions on humanitarian grounds, however, remain deeply disputed. The position closest to a common denominator within the Greens sanctions only UN-mandated military intervention embedded in a wider political strategy to address the conflict.

Human Rights and Democracy

Even among EU member states, which rightly take pride in their commitment to human rights and democracy, actionable support for those ideals beyond their borders has often taken the backseat to economic interests and concerns for “stability”. Four years after the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the lesson of the false dichotomy between stability vs. democracy are now at risk of being unlearned. This is frankly absurd as the only deep and stable relations we have are those with other democracies. Repression and state brutality foment popular uprisings and violent infighting, while inclusive governance, the rule of law and democratic transfers of power increase the prospect for stability and economic prosperity.

Whether it is legitimate to send weapons to crisis and war zones under particular conditions remains hotly debated within the Green foreign policy circles.

Granted, no panacea has yet been found for supporting nascent democracy movements and human rights defenders abroad. While recognising the limitations of external influence on democratisation, a Green foreign policy is fully committed to using the whole political toolbox to extend a hand to those striving for their inalienable rights to liberty, protection under the law, and human dignity. Vis-à-vis foreign governments, such tools include meaningful incentives in the form of trade, market access, foreign aid and political legitimisation to support reforms for more political and social inclusiveness and a more balanced civil-military relationship. At the same time, much more rigor should be applied when dealing with governments responsible for massive repression and major violations of human rights. At least of equal importance, however, is direct support for political activists and civil society groups outside of the elite through knowledge transfer, capacity building and exposure to democratic values. Lastly, meaningful support for democracy demands patience and endurance even when the media has long moved on to cover the next “fairy tale revolution”.

Multilateralism and International Organisations

The vast majority of today’s pressing social and security challenges do not stop at national borders. The global nature of these challenges demands an internationally coordinated response. The Green movement supports multilateralism designed to harmonise political action and increase the political weight of small nations. In order to overcome the democratic deficit and lack of political capital prevalent in many international organisations, a Green foreign policy supports a range of reform initiatives aimed at adjusting the structure and procedures of international organisations to reflect greater civil society participation and a changing global balance of power.

The UN Security Council (UNSC), for example, which has remained basically unreformed since its first session in 1946, does not do justice to the economic and political rise of nations such as Brazil, South Africa and India. Some European Greens, such as the Swedish Green Party Miljöpartiet de Gröna, go as far as striving for the eventual abolition of the veto power of single most powerful nations altogether. Others, such as the French Greens, are in favor of introducing more gradual reforms, e.g. by introducing unified regional seats instead of those of individual states (in Europe’s case, the EU would eventually take over the seats of France and Britain).

With regard to increasing European integration, the Greens have come a long way in the past decades. A general preference for decentralised decision-making on the one hand, and the need for supranational solutions to address our most pressing challenges on the other, remains an unresolved tension for some European Greens. Miljöpartiet de Gröna, for example, openly declares its ambivalence towards further integration and increasing transfer of political powers to the EU in its platform. The majority of European Greens, however, have moved beyond their scepticism towards further integration and since shifted their focus to making the EU more democratic and transparent instead.

Thanks to an abundance of research, early warning signs of mass atrocities are fairly well known by now.

Global Engagement for Social Justice

Mirroring the range of opinions on domestic economic and financial policy, there is no widespread consensus within the Greens with regard to trade policies. Most Greens would, however, agree that trade agreements should be designed to achieve equitable and mutually beneficial outcomes rather than one-sided profits at the expense of social, environmental and economic exploitation of the weakest link. The Greens encourage trade between nations on the basis of high environmental and social standards.

With regard to the regulation of international trade and finance, the Greens strive for a reform of the Bretton Woods Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in order to increase their transparency and enable fair access and participation of states from the Global South. In the negotiation process for bilateral trade agreements, such as the much-cited Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a Green foreign policy strives for the inclusion of civil society as well as affected nations not part of the agreement. Further, the Greens strongly oppose any arrangements that put the sovereignty of democratically elected bodies of political representation at risk in favour of multinational companies (cue: Investor State Dispute Settlement).

International Law and Its Institutions

A Green foreign policy aims at developing and strengthening human rights law as well as humanitarian law, partly through its support for judiciary institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICC was established in 2002 to try individuals suspected of crimes against humanity, genocide, war crimes and crimes of aggression. While the Greens view the ICC as a milestone in the fight against impunity for perpetrators of the gravest human rights violations, its territorial jurisdiction remains far from universal. Well over a decade since the ICC was established, its constituting Rome Statute is still awaiting signature by 41 states (among them China and India), and ratification by 31 (among them the U.S. and Israel). The refusal to become a member of the Rome Statue effectively prevents a country’s national to be tried by the ICC. In addition to devoting more resources to strengthen the ICC, the Greens therefore demand much more serious diplomatic efforts to convince China, Russia, the U.S. and others to ratify the treaty.

As with any system that is a result of international bargaining, international law is not without flaws: Above all, there is a serious lack of global enforcement mechanisms. The ICJ was founded as the UN’s primary judiciary branch in 1945 to settle disputes between states. But while it can refer a case of non-compliance to the UNSC, any resolution on enforcement against one of the P5 or its allies would be vetoed. Further, allegations of the use of international law for political motives or according to political power dynamics are at times difficult to refute. Nonetheless, in a world in which national jurisdiction is often biased, incapable or highly corrupt, an imperfect international system of rule of law is certainly better than none.

Disarmament and Weapons Exports

Undoubtedly, it takes some wild imagination to conceive a million people coming together to demonstrate against nuclear weapons in New York’s Central Park today as they did in 1982. Meanwhile, the centre stage for disarmament and non-proliferation debates has shifted from the streets of the US and Europe to international conference rooms and executive offices. Despite decreasing public engagement, several ambitious proposals are currently on the international agenda, including the Humanitarian Initiative and Global Zero striving for a global ban on nuclear weapons. And while efforts for further bilateral disarmament between the US and Russia are now stalled, we have come a long way since the first generation of Greens were ridiculed for demanding a world free of nuclear weapons. Who would have thought after all that less than three decades later, this vision would have formally been embraced by the world’s most powerful president?

With regard to weapons exports, the Greens stand for a policy guided by maximal scrutiny and transparency, particularly with regard to exports to repressive governments and conflict zones. Whether it is legitimate to send weapons to crisis and war zones under particular conditions remains hotly debated within the Green foreign policy circles.

There are, of course, no easy answers. Concerns regarding the ability to track and control the flow of weapons in conflict zones are well-founded, and most war zones obviously suffer from an excess rather than a lack of weapons. At the same time, these arguments miss that it is not the overall sum but the distribution of weapons that determines whether a particular group will be able to defend itself or not. Particularly given the decreased appetite in the West to send its own troops abroad for combat missions, others within the Greens therefore argue that arming those groups defending themselves against external aggression or mass atrocities is a legitimate measure in exceptional circumstances.

Military Intervention on Humanitarian Grounds

One of the most contested issues in Green foreign policy debates is, of course, the question of military interventions on humanitarian grounds. Many Greens have come to the conclusion that the damage inflicted by external military intervention is mostly greater than the overall good, with recent experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya serving as daunting examples (though each of those cases have of course very distinct features). A vast majority of Greens, however, differentiates between UN-backed peacekeeping missions and interventions by single states or “coalitions of the willing” without an international mandate.

No panacea has yet been found for supporting nascent democracy movements and human rights defenders abroad.

Insisting on a UN mandate as a precondition for military intervention is not only a question of the sanctity of international law. It is, as history has shown, also an indicator for the likelihood of achieving sustainable positive outcomes. How to reconcile this principle with a reality in which the UNSC is increasingly paralyzed and great power politics override any concerns for human suffering remains an open question.

Development Assistance and Conflict Prevention

Undoubtedly, wars between and within nations will remain an ugly feature of human existence for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, in order to break the cycle of hasty reactions to a conflict already in motion, the Greens aim at increasing the awareness, understanding and implementation of conflict and mass atrocity prevention. Thanks to an abundance of research, early warning signs of mass atrocities are fairly well known by now. Against this background, the Greens fully support the strengthening of Pillar II of the Responsibilities to Protect (R2P): to engage with states and civil society through preventative diplomacy, capacity building, and concrete assistance to protect a population at risk before mass atrocities are committed.

In the 21st century, the scramble for natural resources, often exacerbated by more extreme weather, mixed with social and political exclusion and weak institutions drastically increase the potential for instability. A holistic Green foreign policy puts the interface of different policy areas at the heart of its development agenda. A call for a quantitative increase in funding to meet the promise of dedicating at least 0.7 percent of GDP to Official Development Assistance (ODS) is therefore not enough. As part of a much more ambitious vision, development cooperation must emphasise cross-cutting priorities like environmental sustainability, civil society engagement and social inclusion.

Appreciating Interconnectedness

Many of the individual components outlined above are not exclusively “green”. In fact, most of them have found their way into mainstream political discourse over the past decades. Taken in sum rather than in their individual parts, however, they merge into a holistic foreign policy approach with clear green features. One of the outstanding characteristics is the appreciation for the interplay of political, social, economic and environmental factors forming a mosaic of social justice and human security. In a world of increasing interconnectedness, indifference and disengagement from world affairs are not an option. The process of greening our economy is already under way throughout Europe and beyond. Let’s green our foreign policy, too.

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