“A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.” So Confucius tells us. Two superior – judged solely by the offices they hold at present, of course – men met at the White House in Washington on Monday. Was their speech modest, did it promise an excess of, or indeed any, action?
Not exactly. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, said that the EU and the USA must speak with one voice and demonstrate unity since “when we are united, we will be able to put a stop to the aggressive policy of Russia against her neighbours.” President Obama said that “we are all committed to making sure that we uphold the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that have been threatened by Russian aggression”, adding for good measure that “’we have been able to maintain strong unity with respect to sanctions.”
Except we haven’t. As Donald Tusk had said before the meeting earlier, it was “impossible” for European leaders to be unanimous on maintaining the current pressure on Russia largely because some politicians in Europe are ready to believe that there is a chance of good will from brother Putin. Tusk remains more sceptical, seeing that what is needed is “a permanent effort” to counter Russia’s attempts to sow discord among EU leaders. However, some of those leaders may have a point, but more on that in a moment.
Back with Obama, Tusk said that besides Ukraine, unity was also key in face of jihadist threats and negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. These different challenges have in common a need for the unity of Europe and the United States at a time when even our fundamental values, such as “freedom, freedom of democracy, prosperity and, for sure, the political order” are being called into question. Tusk warned that our enemies are trying to divide us, both inside Europe, and Europe from America. Tusk said that the past had shown that when we were united we were able to fight successfully against terrorism and that we have to stop violent extremism spreading in Africa. Referring specifically to Libya, he argued that ”we must help because we cannot have a failed state run by warlords and anarchy — sitting in anarchy just 100 miles off the southern coast of Europe.”
Quite. And this is where the reluctance to impose further sanctions against Russia becomes relevant. Italy, for one, has enjoyed close commercial and political ties with Russia as well as having significant energy interests in Libya that are being threatened by the civil war. Add to this the increasing waves of migrants seeking to reach Italy by boat and it is hardly surprising that ltaly’s prime minister Matteo Renzi should be in Moscow last week to urge President Putin to help resolve the growing security crisis. Russia, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates is one of the main international supporters of the internationally recognised government in the eastern city of Tubruq and thus keenly involved in the diplomatic manoeuvres to deal with the Libyan crisis.
There is growing anxiety in Italy about the emergence of the so-called Islamic State and the threat Isis potentially poses to Europe. Indeed, some go so far as to predict a large invasion of Isis into Europe with Libya as the launching point, and Italy the point of entry because of its dangerously close proximity. However unlikely this might appear today, were it to happen, given the lack of military spending all round, the consequent dangerously reduced combined military capabilities of countries within the EU, and Junker’s sinister call for an EU army, the Italians might be forgiven for having one eye on the potentially helpful military support of Russia – which has recently agreed with Cyprus that Russian warships may use its ports – against Isis when thinking about whether to support further sanctions against Russia.
Be that as it may, we conclude with Donald Tusk who himself concluded his White House remarks with the truism that ”who we are tomorrow depends on what we do today,” saying he was convinced of the veracity of the American expression “United we stand, divided we fall.” Which is all very well but, as Demosthenes reminds us: “All speech is vain and empty unless is be accompanied by action.”