British historian Edward Hallett Carr is generally known by international relations students as a theoretician who advocated realism in foreign policy. What Carr meant by realism was that there should be no moral dimension to foreign policy, and that statesmen must treat reality as it is and not as they wish it were. Yet the way Carr looked at reality was so delusional that it bordered on insanity: he supported Hitler’s claims and Chamberlain’s appeasement policy in the 1930s; he claimed that Britain could not win the war against Germany; and he praised Soviet communism as a highly successful system which the rest of the world would eventually emulate. While Carr’s writing was mostly nonsensical, he did get one thing right: states are motivated by interests and only evoke morality to justify their foreign policy.
European diplomacy is a case in point. The French and British bombed Gaddafi and spared Assad because Libya is an oil state while Syria is not – and yet Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron claimed that the 2011 NATO operation in Libya was motivated by humanitarian concerns. European leaders and diplomats would have us believe that their foreign policy is based on principles such as human rights and self-determination, yet they dare not criticize occupiers and human rights violators whose business they need. Saudi Arabia can torture bloggers because its oil is indispensable. China can occupy Tibet because it is a world power. Russia can occupy Georgia because no one is going to risk a nuclear war for the independence of this former Soviet republic. Turkey can occupy Cyprus and deny the Kurds their independence because Turkey is a valuable trade partner with temperamental leaders.
European diplomats typically retort that Israel gets different treatment because, as a democracy, it is rightfully judged by higher standards. According to this argument, Turkey is democratic enough to be a NATO member and a potential EU one, but not democratic enough to be asked to end its occupation of Cyprus and to give the Kurds a state.
The gap between theory and practice in European diplomacy was recently confirmed by Sweden’s Middle East policy. In October 2014, Sweden became the first European country to recognize the virtual “State of Palestine.” As a reward, Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, was invited to the March 2015 meeting of the Arab League. Wallstrom prepared a speech in which she said that human rights should be respected in the Arab world too, and she sent a draft to her hosts for review. The speech was vetoed and canceled by Saudi Arabia. The Arab League explained in a statement that Wallstrom’s speech would have been an offense to Islam.
The fury didn’t end there. Saudi Arabia announced that it would not issue new business visas to Swedes, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recalled its ambassador to Sweden. Swedish businessmen started getting nervous and asked their government to apologize to the Saudis. Not that the Swedish government needed to be convinced: it is running for the 2017 UN Security Council bid, and the 22 votes of the Arab League at the General Assembly are critical. So Wallstrom decided to apologize for mentioning human rights. On March 20 she said that she had never meant to criticize Islam and that Sweden wants to preserve good relations with Saudi Arabia.
In a way, the Palestinians have been the victims of their success: they have been so good at marketing their jihad as a struggle for human rights that the Europeans ended up believing them. So when Sweden recognized Palestine in the name of human rights, its leaders couldn’t understand why talking about human rights should offend Islam. The explanation, of course, is that you cannot duly play the role of the useful idiot and then be surprised to be treated like one.
If Europe is on Israel’s case, it is not because of human rights or because of democracy. It is because of the geopolitical value of the Arab world and of the electoral weight of European Muslims. Simply put, getting on Israel’s case pays. Precisely because Sweden and its European partners stick to their guns only when doing so does not affect their economic interests, it is hard to take their sermons seriously. The unmistakable conclusion from Europe’s behavior is that once Israel becomes a natural gas exporter, it will be treated differently. Even E.H. Carr could have understood that.