Benjamin Tallis on “neo-idealist” Lipavský – and how Ukraine can save EU

Benjamin Tallis

The Ukraine crisis has provided an opportunity to revive a European Union that had lost its way. That is one of the assertions of Benjamin Tallis in his essay collection To Ukraine With Love, which got its Czech launch last month. The Berlin-based foreign policy expert also identifies a new approach to foreign affairs – seen in, among others, Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský – which he has dubbed “neo-idealism”. I spoke to Tallis, who previously lived in Prague, at our studios in Vinohrady.  

If I could start with one of the first lines in your book, you say that “Russia’s war and Ukraine’s heroic resistance have had a clarifying effect”. Could you elaborate on that?

To Ukraine With Love: Essays on Russia's War and Europe's Future | Photo: Independently published by Benjamin Tallis

“I think the war and Ukraine’s resistance have had a clarifying effect in the following ways: They’ve shown us what it is we need to stand up for, and how. That if we don’t defend democracy, it can die; and that’s what Ukrainians have been willing to die for.

“I think that’s given us the wake-up call – to say this is something we can’t rely on being there forever, that we have to actively fight to defend our freedom.

“And that’s made a lot of other things simpler, in a lot of ways: What it is we prioritise, and what we don’t. What kind of actions that we take, and what we don’t.

“But on an individual level for many of us I think it’s been a prompt to make our own work, and our own words, clearer. And whether that’s through our activity social media – or in my case my professional work – I think that’s the clarifying effect that it has had.”

You have put forward a new idea in foreign affairs, which is “neo-idealism”. What actually is that?

“Neo-idealism is a morally grounded approach to geopolitics that puts values first and actually claims that our values are our interests.”

“What it is is a morally based approach to foreign policy, a morally grounded approach to geopolitics that puts values first and actually claims that our values are our interests.

“There’s often this definition that’s made in international affairs between values and interests, and new idealists I think don’t see that distinction. They say our values such as democracy, freedom, fundamental freedoms, human rights, collective self-determination for democratic societies – and crucially also the hope of progress – are our interests and actually the way to better ourselves.

“That is, I think, what has underpinned the response, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe, to Russia’s full-scale invasion. You can see it in the actions that have been taken, the material support. For example, the Czech Republic being the first to deliver main battle tanks to Ukraine, Estonia committing a staggering proportion of its GDP to Ukraine, other countries such as Latvia and Lithuania really stepping up and punching above their weight in terms of economy or population size, because this so clearly matters to them.

“We’ve seen this material support being accompanied by the rhetoric of moral values. Kaja Kallas has been very clear about this. Jan Lipavský has been very clear about this, and so too has Petr Fiala.

“It’s that combination of morality and materiel that underpins neo-idealism.”

What is it about Jan Lipavský in particular that would make him a neo-idealist, as you would put it?

President Zelensky and Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský | Photo: X of Jan Lipavský

“He’s been very clear from the outset of the full-scale invasion that Ukraine’s fight is our fight too, and that’s something he shares with the other neo-idealists.

“He’s been very clear that this is about defending our values and it’s about, in a way, living in truth, to use the Havelian term. And Lipavský takes inspiration from Havel. Specifically when he was talking to, I think, Voice of America last year, he spoke about inhabiting that legacy, and understanding that the recovery of that Havelian type of politics is something that underpins the Czech response, and his response, to Russia’s full-scale invasion.

“I think that’s something that the neo-idealists have in common. It’s the recovery of that politics of the 1990s, which was not only morally driven and coming off the back of the dissident movements, who opposed the communist regimes and struggled for independence, again in the Baltic States, and struggled to be free from occupation here in the Czech lands.

“But it’s also about recovering the hope of that time too; this was a hopeful time when there was a limitless sense of possibility – there was a future to aim for.

“I think that’s also something that makes Lipavský one of the neo-idealists: someone who’s very comfortable attending the Prague Pride parade, supporting increased inward migration in a legal way, supporting liberal rights across society – a thorough-going liberal vision.”

Is 1968 also a factor in all of this? It’s slightly unrelated perhaps, but after the full-scale invasion began last year I heard of several people here in Czechia who were essentially packing emergency bags that they could run with, if it came to that. Is that kind of dormant fear of Russia a factor in this?

“I think what’s been very clear across Central and Eastern Europe is that still within living memory there is experience of being invaded, being occupied, by Russia or Russia-backed forces.”

“I think what’s been very clear across Central and Eastern Europe is that historical resonance of what has happened, that still within living memory there is experience of being invaded, being occupied, by Russia or Russia-backed forces, by the Soviet Union.

“That certainly has, I think, driven that response – that knowledge of what it means to live in unfreedom, what it means to live in oppression, and the very direct connection people make to that through their families.

“But I think on the other side there’s also the realisation of the need to defend and the need to fight for that. And when Czechs have saved their own money, contributed to donating their own tank, have been willing in some cases to heat fewer rooms in the winter, to stand up and be counted really, I think that’s part of that historical legacy. But it’s also about reclaiming the future, and reclaiming hope of a better future.

“And that’s what Zelensky said to the US Congress last year when he spoke to them. He said this is about the future we want for our grandchildren. So it’s not only about grandparents and the ’68 generation, it’s about grandchildren and looking forward.”

Ukrainian President Zelensky and Czech Prime Minister Fiala | Photo: Office of Czech Government

How much is President Zelensky himself the embodiment of your idea of neo-idealism? You say he’s convinced us all that Russia’s war in Ukraine is actually a war on all of us.

“He’s a huge figurehead for neo-idealism. Certainly he’s spearheaded this, in the most trying of circumstances, and shown what it means, when you’ve got your back to the wall, to be able to look your opponent in the eye and let that know that you’re willing to fight, and that you’re not going to go down without a fight.

“That famous statement on the second night of the war, ‘I need ammo, not a ride’, really speaks to this and says that we are here, we’re going to defend freedom and democracy. I think what he’s been able to do, which he wouldn’t have been able to do without the support of his population, is to show that it would have been easier in some ways surrender – but it’s not worth doing that, it’s worth standing up and worth defending these values, it’s worth dying for them.

“Zelensky has shown that Ukraine’s fight is only one front in the wider struggle for democracy against tyranny.”

“So he certainly is an embodiment of neo-idealism. And as you rightly say, I think he’s shown that Ukraine’s fight is only one front in the wider struggle for democracy against tyranny, for freedom and for our future.

“But again he hasn’t been able to do that alone. It’s the Ukraine people who have stood with him doing that. He has channelled that, and very effectively. As David Frum said: Zelensky has recalled us to ourselves, recalled us to the best we can be.

“And I think that’s the effect he’s had on people around the world, not only members of the public but politicians too. Certainly when I saw him speak live recently in Vilnius – and it was a privilege to see him in person; I mean, you don’t get to see Churchill in person every day [laughs] – you could see it was from the highest level of officials and politicians down the everyday people watching this, it was an electrifying effect that he had on him.

“So I think that shows you the possibility that we have to actually take this as a political movement further.”

For me perhaps the most interesting thing you say in the book is how the Ukraine crisis could be a spark to revive the European Union. How could possibly happen?

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has asked questions of the EU that it had wanted to avoid having to answer for a long time.”

“Yes. The Ukraine crisis has asked questions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has asked questions of the European Union that it had wanted to avoid having to answer for a long time.

“In my understanding of this, which I explain in the book, I think the Europe Union succeeded because it had a unique mode of geopolitics. It was never not a geopolitical organisation, as some people say, but rather it had a very creative mode of geopolitics that saw that mutual entanglement between the countries of the EU, through integration, would help people meet, would help businesses to work together, would help governments to work together.

“By doing that, you take the danger out of difference. You take the fear and the animosity that had ruled for European continent for years and transformed it into the mutual pursuit of common interest, underpinned by common values.

“And that was where I think the European Union really succeeded, through this progressive, deepening integration, but also through its enlargement of that geopolitics to more countries, including famously in 2004 eight post-socialist states, including the Czech Republic.

“Now it was about at that time that I think that the EU started to lose its way. Instead of what I describe as a progressive mode of security – seeing opportunities to be taken, exactly by expanding to countries who wanted to be included and by seeing you could, from what were really terrible times after the second world war, salvage the hope of a better future if you worked for it together…

Tribute to the victims of 9/11 | Photo: DesignOil,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

“I think then the EU got scared. And it also got selfish and a little bit lazy. And this prompted a different kind of logic, a protective security logical that came particularly after 9/11 but was also speaking to trends that had been going on within the EU for a while: seeking to protect what we had, rather than further grow and further develop.

“I think the EU is a little bit like a tuna – if it stops swimming, it’s going to die. And I think it was in the process of a slow, painful route to death, because it wasn’t expanding, because it wasn’t deepening and because it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do for people any more.

“It was that narrow-minded and threat-based mentality that, ironically enough, the huge threat from Russia kicked it out of. You see that change in one thing very particularly, I’d say – it’s attitude towards membership for Ukraine.

“When Ursula von der Leyen said on February 27 last year ‘They’re one of us and they belong with us’ that really upturned two decades of EU policy in two short sentences.

“And it’s that possibility again of expanding, the possibility of including Ukraine and therefore making the EU something better for us all, that I think really gets the EU back to what it’s good at.”

Looking to the future, or the potential future I guess, I’ve heard you say that Ukraine would need to join NATO before joining the EU. Why do you think that?

“I think that’s the order that makes sense, because Ukraine’s recovery and reform process needs to be underpinned by security, and the only real security guarantee in town is NATO membership, and I think that’s what’s going to be required for the investment that will be needed for Ukraine to recover.

“Now that’s not going to happen overnight, and so an interim solution needs to be found. I have proposed extending the Joint Expeditionary Force to countries of the willing, including Ukraine and Poland, which I think would provide a pathway into NATO.

“But it’s absolutely essential that Ukraine has a secure future, and the secure part comes from NATO, the future part comes from the EU.”

Illustrative photo: Wilfried Pohnke,  Pixabay,  Pixabay License

If we look let’s say 10, 15, 20 years into the future, how likely is it that Ukraine will actually be a member of these organisations, do you believe?

“It will. I’m confident it will, otherwise those organisations probably won’t exist. Because I think this is the acid test for both of them, to a significant degree.

“As I said, Ukraine gives the EU the chance to recover its raison d’etre, and it’s the spirit that animates it that actually makes it good at what it’s doing.

“Without Ukraine inside NATO, I don’t think it’s possible to have a lasting security settlement in Europe in particular.”

“Similarly, NATO exists to secure Europe and secure the transatlantic area. Without Ukraine inside NATO, I don’t think it’s possible to have a lasting security settlement in Europe in particular.

“And given the other security challenges that the US faces, for example in the Indo-Pacific, and that all democracies face around the world, without a secure Europe then I don’t think NATO serves its purpose.

“So for both organisations Ukraine’s entry into them is existential.”

If I could ask you a more personal question. You’re a strong and vocal supporter of Ukraine, the Ukrainians have suffered so much and the solution does not seem in sight. Do you ever despair?

“When I worked in Ukraine, nearly 20 years ago, there was a Ukrainian artist who I knew who at some point said to me, when I was expressing my doubts about the EU mission in Ukraine, You don’t have the right to lose hope – we Ukrainians might lose hope, because we have to live this every day, but you, with your conditions that you have, with your advantages that you have, you do not have the right to lose hope, you do not have the right to despair.

“That’s been something that’s stuck with me ever since. It’s a kind of ‘check your privilege’ moment, in a way.

Photo: Martin Dorazín,  Czech Radio

“And I think that’s what a lot of people have felt as we go through the ups and downs, following it so closely with Ukrainians, being in touch with Ukrainians, following the progress at the front.

“There are days of course which are better than others, but at the same time we have to keep going. And it’s that rekindling of the fires of hope, if you like, that I think underpins neo-idealism, from the level of me, personally, to the level of governments that want to do something about the geopolitics.”

My final question: How likely is it, do you think, that some solution can be found that would be acceptable to Ukraine?

“The only real acceptable solution is for Russia to get out of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have been clear about that. That includes Crimea, it means restoring the 1991 borders.

To Ukraine With Love: Essays on Russia's War and Europe's Future | Photo: Independently published by Benjamin Tallis

“But at the moment the West isn’t giving Ukraine the weapons to do that quickly. Ukraine will be able to do it, but it will take a long time and be at a high cost, and I think that’s absolutely why we have to step up our support. In order to have a solution that’s acceptable for democrats around the world, for democracies, for free societies around the world we need Ukraine to win.

“This is in our interest, as well as keeping with our values. This is why we have to arm Ukraine to win as soon as possible, and at the lowest human cost possible.

“If we really understand that, and understand that it’s our fight too, that’s exactly what we’ll do. And I’m confident that there are enough of us who’ll continue fighting for that, to get Ukraine what it needs to win, that it will eventually happen.”

Crimea | Photo: NASA,  public domain
Author: Ian Willoughby
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