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If they haven’t already received it, participants at this year’s Munich Security Conference will be given the Munich Security Report. Called “Boundless Crises, Reckless Spoilers, Helpless Guardians,” it sets out a very pessimistic state of the world.
But what this report does not address is the inexorable decline of the West and what the West can do to regain its influence. That influence and Western support for other countries that aspire to democracy will not reemerge until Europe and the United States accept that they have to build a new transatlantic relationship. The old one is over—not that either side will admit it.
The old alliance was taken for granted during the Cold War, when Europe became completely dependent on the U.S. security guarantee. The relationship’s permanence was assumed and never challenged because of the ideological divide between West and East. Also unchallenged, for that matter, were the West’s system of values and its use of hard or soft power.
But it wasn’t just the end of the Cold War, as is so often argued, that changed the dynamics of the transatlantic relationship, the alliance’s shallowness, or Europe’s weakness. It was 9/11.
Europeans failed to grasp how the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, changed Americans’ view of the world and of themselves. They had been attacked. The Western alliance as well as North Africa, the Middle East, and the Sahel have since been picking up the pieces of former U.S. president George W. Bush’s war on terror pursued after 9/11.
That war on terror did untold damage to the transatlantic alliance. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 almost destroyed NATO and deepened divisions in the EU over a use of force that did not have an exit strategy, let alone a UN mandate.
Furthermore, the shared values that U.S. and European leaders extolled were seriously undermined, from the use of torture and the Guantánamo Bay detention center to closed trials and renditions with cooperation from several EU countries.
NATO’s missions in Afghanistan and Libya created further conflicts in the transatlantic relationship that prevented any strategy for how to deal with the war in Syria. What was the aim of hard power there? Regime change? To end the appalling suffering of Syrians? And then what?
In the case of Syria, for the West to allow the country to slide into civil war has seriously damaged the West’s credibility in the region. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has had no truck for hard power, meaning putting boots on the ground, nor have European governments. European governments couldn’t contemplate going it alone without the United States to intervene or exert diplomatic pressure. So far, the West’s hard- and soft-power tools have proved toothless.
As for Europe, it is in the throes of a refugee crisis that it could easily deal with if there were a united political will to stand up to populists and accept the moral, humanitarian, and legal responsibility for accommodating those seeking refuge. It has been left to Germany, which took in more than 1.1 million refugees in 2015, to try to make sense of what the influx means for the future of European unity, solidarity, values, and influence.
In the meantime, the refugee crisis has shown Europe for what it really is: a collection of nation-states that are ebbing away from the idea of an integrated and strong Europe.
And unless there is a fundamental change among European governments, Europe is also ebbing away from the transatlantic relationship. Europeans are still (selfishly) interested in the United States continuing to provide them with its security guarantee. But it is high time that European governments took responsibility for Europe’s security and defense. That would put the transatlantic relationship on a new footing.
There are too few advocates for such a Europe. The West is suffering from a crisis of confidence, abetted by weak economies, weak leaders, and policies that are too inflexible to embrace globalization and too timid to defend openness. The more confident a country—and this means having a confidence anchored on a strong economy, a strong democracy, and a belief in values—the greater that country’s ability to project itself.
Europe, alas, is a long way from regaining such a confidence, which could reinvigorate the transatlantic relationship and give the West an influence that is sorely needed.