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Beyond the Duality of Normativity and Pragmatism

A Practice-Based Reading of European and Chinese Foreign Policy

In: European Review of International Studies
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Abstract

One of the EU’s key foreign policy objectives is to promote the values enshrined in its treaties, such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights. The EU’s self-conception of being a “rule maker” rather than a “rule taker” in international relations, however, is increasingly contested both by internal (e.g., democratic backsliding or a general tendency towards nationalist politics) as well as external challenges (e.g., the return of bilateralism or the rise of new actors). China’s Belt and Road Initiative (bri) is often understood as the most serious opposition on the external side to the EU’s model of international cooperation and global governance, in that it promotes a pragmatic instead of a norm-based approach, at least at first glance. The Chinese foreign policy model that the bri reflects, explicitly favours open membership, flexibility and economic gains over multilateral institutions and norm-based action. By drawing on original interviews and analysing central policy documents, this article shows how the juxtaposition of normativity and pragmatism has shaped the political and academic discourse on the EU’s foreign policy and idea of global governance. It argues that this duality of normativity versus pragmatism is misleading because it overlooks the fact that the EU and China both (a) constitute the framework for a certain practice and (b) are rooted in practice. Drawing on Kagan’s cultural thesis of foreign policy, it questions the real meaning of this juxtaposition and applies a practice-based reading to the EU’s and China’s modes of foreign policy making. The article further shows that scrutinising foreign policy through the prism of practice can provide a more context-sensitive and encompassing understanding of how the EU and China construct their foreign policies as well as of possible conflicts that arise from them.

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