Ambiguity as a policy in Foreign Affairs

We are leaning, in practice, towards a Western-aligned defence policy, so why keep up the false pretences?

Last year, Ireland conducted a four-day public consultation to review the country’s neutral stance in the context of Europe’s reshuffled security architecture as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine.  The step was taken subsequent to Ireland’s neutral and non-aligned Nordic neighbours Finland and Sweden deciding to join NATO, seeking international security guarantees.

“Ireland’s commitment to a rules-based international order with the UN Charter at its heart, and our traditional policy of military neutrality, do not inure us from the need to respond to this new reality,” Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin said when announcing the consultation.

Ireland faces new threats that were not considered at the time of its neutrality and prompted debate on modernising its long-held neutrality policy.  The country, however, does have its own army, for which the government last year voted the ‘largest-ever’ budget to spend €1.5 billion by 2028.

Ireland’s neutrality means it only provides non-lethal military aid to Ukraine – in the form of medical supplies, for instance – and only participates in UN-sanctioned operations while not being involved in any military alliances such as NATO. Under NATO’s current framework ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme, Dublin has improved its armed forces by working to meet NATO’s standards and participated in operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Over the past years, Ireland has increasingly been targeted by malign activity, including a large cyber attack paralysing its health service, making Dublin start looking at how better to defend itself against all sorts of hybrid threats.

Elsewhere, a group of 90 security and foreign policy experts have demanded a rethink of Austria’s neutrality, since 1955 based on three pillars: no membership in a military alliance, no permanent deployment of foreign troops, and no participation in foreign wars. Austria’s “engaged neutrality” means active participation in international security policy in general, and international peace operations in particular. Austria participates in the EU’s foreign and security policy and crisis management. It is also part of robust deployments such as those within the Nato Partnership for Peace programme.

Malta’s deafening silence

Meanwhile, in Malta, which has been neutral since 1987 and an EU member state since 2004 …  deafening silence.  This is typical of our indifference to discussion of serious existential issues, which we tend to believe can be sorted out on the hop and just a few days into any crisis.  The only formal attempt to revisit the matter was in November 2018, when President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca launched an initial public consultation on Malta’s Constitution, which was then deepened by President George Vella, until the Government  ̶  with the unexpected complicity, if I may add, of the Opposition  ̶  torpedoed the effort.

Around two-thirds of the population believes that Malta’s neutrality is very important, especially when it comes to avoiding conflicts and maintaining trade lines, according to a survey commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Ministry two years ago.  There is no reason to believe that this support has waned, especially since the survey established that a mere six percent would have us ditch neutrality.  This is also confirmed by the response to President Vella’s public consultation, where the absolute majority wanted the neutrality clause to remain in the Constitution, albeit some suggested it might be revised.   

Some might argue that a discussion is useless, anyway.  Though I normally hesitate to quote unnamed authors, a blog published in academic Simon Mercieca’s FreePress might explain one reason why.  The blogger claimed that time and history have shown that Malta’s neutral status is “nothing but a joke”, referencing decisions taken by successive prime ministers  ̶  Mintoff, Fenech Adami, Gonzi, Muscat, and Abela, but not Sant  ̶  which, according to him, belie our neutrality.

Does this mean, then, that we don’t need to do anything?  Absolutely not.  On the contrary, we need to have a serious and honest conversation about the international security policy options available and the implications of each of these, as well as examining ways in which we can work with and learn from other European and international partners.

Save for a brief interruption between 1996 and 1998, Malta has had formal relations with NATO since 1995.  It has joined the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), a multilateral defence forum, and NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Since re-joining, Malta has been building ever-closer relations with NATO and getting involved in wider projects, including the PfP Planning and Review Process and the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme.

Quite ambiguous

But one could reasonably argue that Malta’s policy is quite ambiguous.  On the one hand we participate in a number of NATO programmes and have publicly stated that we are committed to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and support efforts aimed at securing the borders and stabilising the EU’s neighbourhood.  On the other hand, Malta is the only member state not participating in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which is the part of the EU’s security and defence policy.  Interestingly, other neutral states like Austria, Ireland, Finland, and Sweden, had joined.  

This ambiguity, however, was not reproduced in our position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where we have vociferously condemned the invasion and supported Ukraine in every which way, except in providing arms and military equipment (which we don’t have even for our own defence).  We have done this within the EU and internationally, currently in the rotating membership of the United Nations Security Council and when we chaired the same Council.  In March 2021, we joined the EU ammunition procurement initiative that will help replenish Ukrainian stocks, though Malta itself will not provide any arms to Ukraine.  The decision came out of the blue, the only voice objecting to it being the left-wing think-tank Żminijietna. 

Malta’s Foreign Policy Strategy is set out in a document published in early 2022.  One of its tenets is that “Malta’s policy of neutrality safeguards its effectiveness and credibility, which in turn enables it to play a significant role in the maintenance of peace and security in the region and beyond.”  Obviously, it makes no mention of the ambiguity I mentioned.

Now, ambiguity does play a role in the affairs of a state.  Thus, strategic ambiguity is a key feature of the foreign policy of the five permanent members of the Security Council that are recognised as possessing nuclear weapons by the Non-Proliferation Treaty.   The other unrecognised four   ̶   Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea   ̶   follow them.  Seven of the eleven never answer the question as to whether and how they will deploy nuclear weapons; Israel doesn’t even admit it has them, while belligerent North Korea has openly threatened their use oftentimes.

Malta is not, of course, a nuclear state.  Yet, as I have said here, ambiguity seems to be an important element of our foreign policy.  As far as I am concerned, the only reason why we indulge in it is that governments from both sides of the political divide like the flexibility that enables them to ride a coach-and-horses through the neutrality policy when realpolitik dictates.  I am not saying that this isn’t helpful in certain circumstances, but it is more like the governments having the almighty feeling that they are free of the shackles of formal strictures and public opinion.

“No neutrality on values”

Successive prime ministers and foreign ministers of both PL and PN governments have explained that there is no neutrality on values. In what some would call an  “engaged neutrality”, Malta is involved in international affairs.  Malta cannot be silent when it comes to war, genocide or massive human rights violations.  So we have often spoken out about such issues in Libya, Ukraine, and Gaza, among others. 

The latter is, of course, a departure from Joseph Muscat’s eminent silence when he practically ditched Maltese support of the Palestinian cause in pursuit of a lucrative endorsement of Israel.  That was a demonstration of Muscat’s inclination to ditch principles if he thought that pecuniary gains   ̶   in this case, Israeli investments in high-tech industry in Malta   ̶   would follow.   Nothing came out of it, but it didn’t matter that principles were sacrificed on the altar of Mammon.

Peace operations are fully compatible with neutrality.  As an example, Maltese Armed Forces personnel have been deployed to contribute to upholding peace and security.  We also played a role during the 2011 civil war in Libya. But, in general, Malta prefers to act through EU-led initiatives (e.g. CSDP missions) rather than through UN-led ones, as exemplified by its participation in UNIFIL (Lebanon),  a Monitoring Mission (EUMM) in Georgia, and participation in a Dutch mission to deter and prevent acts of piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast.  We also give a lot of importance to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), of which our Foreign Minister Ian Borg is now chairman.

Naturally, the fundamental priority of a neutral security policy during security deployments and deployments abroad does not consist of alliance obligations under the commitments of NATO’s Article 5.  Neutral states are well suited (in many ways better than other states) to make important contributions to these challenges.  This is amply demonstrated by Russia voting in favour of Malta’s OSCE chairmanship in spite of our public support for Ukraine.

There is no doubt, however, that Maltese neutrality policies are in need of reform. We are leaning, in practice, towards a Western-aligned defence policy, so why keep up the false pretences?  I will not go as far as saying that we should become members of NATO, but one can conceivably envisage circumstances where we could be faced with a dilemma in choosing between abandoning neutrality to remain in the European Union or staying neutral and being forced to leave the EU.

A sorely needed debate

So, please let us have the discussion that is sorely needed.  If it takes place, it should cover a large range of issues related to security policy, ideas on the steps Malta should take to safeguard its security and resilience, any need to revise the country’s policy of military neutrality.  The context would be Malta’s needs and capabilities in the current geopolitical context.  This would be done with different panels of defence experts, academia, politicians, and civil society representatives reflecting on the country’s future role.  It should be preceded by the commissioning of professional papers from experts.

Talks are also expected to include its involvement with NATO, the EU’s common security and defence policy (CSDP), and Dublin’s participation in peacekeeping missions and crisis management, disarmament, conflict prevention, and peace-building.

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