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A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Much of the Western alliance’s global clout will depend on the economic strength and inner social peace of participating countries.
Emerging markets now produce more than half of the world’s output. But they do so with four-fifths of the world’s population. China’s economy is sputtering, while Russia and Brazil are in deep recession. The ascent of the BRICS—these three nations plus India and South Africa—is far from linear. In any case, these countries have not formed a body that can act. The only non-Western club that could, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, is now also defunct.
Innovation, not population, will be the basis of power. The idea that stagnating or shrinking workforces would doom the West must be rethought now that more and more jobs are being replaced by robots and algorithms. In the Global Innovation Index 2015, which ranked the innovation performance of 141 economies around the world, the West and its allies took 29 of the 30 top spots. Of the world’s 30 most competitive economies, 23 are in Europe and North America or closely allied to them.
However, the West will have to work harder to maintain the economic basis of its power. Productivity growth is stagnating, which bodes ill for future growth. Widening inequalities are fueling populist movements, which makes it harder for governments to reform at home and act abroad. Attempts to set the standards for tomorrow’s global economy, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), risk being stymied by domestic pressures, too.
Yes, but only if U.S. and European leaders reverse their current course.
First, Washington must recognize there is a problem. The rhetoric used by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama sounds very much like its predecessor’s. The importance of transatlantic ties is reflexively checked off in each foreign policy speech, but there is little evidence that the president sees an urgent need to narrow U.S.-European differences over how best to respond to China’s rise, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unpredictability, or the Middle East’s instability. Nor does Obama have any plan to share with Europe the burden of resettling significant numbers of Syrian refugees.
In addition, though U.S. and European leaders must accept that China and other emerging countries now have more than enough political and economic self-confidence to shrug off Western pressure, an inability to return to a G7 world should not discourage efforts to revitalize as much Western influence as possible.
U.S. and European leaders must find a new value in the Western alliance that acknowledges the world’s changes. It will help if Britain, a useful bridge between the United States and EU, votes to protect its international relevance by remaining a member of the EU in the in-or-out referendum likely to be held later in 2016.
The Western liberal global order is under heavy fire. In the East, the regime of President Vladimir Putin explicitly positions Russia as an anti-Western power that regards the West as a degenerate crowd. In the South, Islamist zealots of all kinds not only reject Western values but even discard the basics of human civilization. In the Asia-Pacific, a rapidly growing China challenges the Pax Americana in the region. They all subscribe to the slogan Putin adopted in his 2014 speech to the Valdai Club in Sochi: “New Rules or No Rules.” So, can the West avoid an end of history in reverse?
Yes it can, by not subscribing to the thesis of the decline of the West. Those who challenge the West do not have much to offer. Putin is punching far above his weight in his attempts to establish Russia as a leading global power. The country suffers not only from low oil prices but also from decades of missed modernization. In the South, the self-proclaimed Islamic State and its clones work by brute suppression and violence. Yet the idea of a caliphate is certainly not a business model for communities in the globalized world.
China might not favor some of the institutions established by the West after the end of World War II. However, to grow further, China depends heavily on an international rules-based system. The freedom of the Strait of Malacca is as important for Beijing as it is for the rest of the world.
This is why the West as a political idea based on freedom, fully fledged democracy, the rule of law, and market economies is not out of fashion and is much less under threat than it seems. The West might not win on a global scale, but it will not wane either.
The West can and should regain its influence. In a multipolar world, the West has to do this by joining forces while accommodating the legitimate interests of others. The transatlantic response to the Ukraine crisis showed that there is still a community united by values that can and will work together—in the face of a serious threat to peace and security as well as to international law.
The July 2015 deal on Iran’s nuclear program is an example of how Western resolve can achieve solutions while recognizing the concerns of other players such as Russia and Iran. In Syria, by contrast, U.S. absenteeism, a lack of diplomatic imagination on the part of Europe, and Russian brinkmanship have coincided to create a strategic challenge for Europe and, by extension, the West. It is imperative to avoid the completion of Europe’s encirclement that would occur if Libya turned into a fully failed state.
For the West to reclaim its leading position in the world, there needs to be a larger sense of shared purpose. The devolution of Western consensus over the past fifteen years on what constitutes mutual security—notwithstanding ringing declarations at NATO summits—is at the root of the West’s declining influence worldwide. Despite expressions of solidarity after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, polarization in the alliance has deepened after the wars in Iraq, Libya, and, of late, Syria. On top of this, unequal burden sharing on defense spending, with European defense budgets imploding at an alarming rate while Russia presses on NATO’s flank, has aggravated the sense of transatlantic drift.
It is unlikely that the transatlantic partners can restore the clarity that existed in the face of the overarching Soviet threat in the Cold War era. But the West cannot continue to diverge as it has in recent years on what threats it faces and what capabilities need to be brought to the table. The first step the West should take to reclaim influence commensurate with its economic and military power is to reinvest in NATO—not as a toolbox, but as the West’s core alliance.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.
This is not what observers expected the end of history to look like: an unpredictable and revisionist Russia, a conflict-torn Middle East sending hundreds of thousands of refugees to Europe and inspiring terrorism on Europe’s front door, and a rising China challenging the concept of liberal democracy and open society. History has returned with a vengeance, and the West has often acted too late, too hesitantly, or not at all. But does this mean that Western influence is gone for good?
Although the beginning of the twenty-first century will be remembered as the end of Western dominance, the West has no reason to bury its head in the sand. The West is still a normative project with an unwavering attraction felt in Kiev, in Hong Kong, and on the shattered streets of Aleppo.
But relying on soft power is not enough: Western actors must rise up to the challenges that confront them. It is imperative that Europe rescue the European project. The United States, for its part, has yet to strike the right balance between leading from behind and taking the lead. Consequently, it is vital that Europe and the United States view the current great unraveling as a wake-up call to start rebuilding the transatlantic relationship.
While it is true that Western influence is under threat, not all is lost. Influence is not stolen by third parties: it is up to the West to generate unity on the world stage.
Even though today’s circumstances are fundamentally different from those during the Cold War era, U.S. leadership to forge Western unity remains indispensable. The results of a hesitant U.S. foreign policy are currently visible in Syria and the wider Middle Eastern and North African region. The past two years have shown, however, that Europe can no longer shirk its responsibility in world affairs. The conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria directly endanger the stability of the European continent. Western influence is therefore dependent on Europeans’ willingness to provide for their own security.
These challenges come at a time when the EU is facing a series of serious internal crises. A lack of solidarity, growing dissent among member states, and a renationalization of the continent leave the EU incapable of responding swiftly and decisively to challenges like the European refugee crisis.
To assert Western influence, Europeans have three tasks ahead. First, they must resolve internal crises by finding compromises. Second, they need to make far more resources available—politically, diplomatically, and militarily. And third, they must achieve a truly common European foreign policy.
An old saying has it that society is only ten lost meals away from revolution. Yet if power can be lost quickly, it can also be regained quickly. The ingredients of power have to be there; they have to be deployed in the most effective way, and with the requisite political will.
By these standards, the West is still the dominant force in the world. The United States and the EU economies are performing well, if not spectacularly. Meanwhile, the supposed rivals of a few years back, like China, India, or Russia, are all experiencing problems, and in the case of Russia, the current low oil price may inflict permanent damage.
When it comes to ideology, there is no rival set of values to challenge democratic liberalism. The self-styled Islamic State makes a lot of noise, but its ideology appeals almost exclusively to Muslims and to less than 1 percent of the global Muslim community.
But if the West is to regain the influence to shape events globally, three things are necessary. First, the West must make itself less vulnerable to its enemies by increasing military spending, deploying more forces in failed states racked by terrorism, and reducing societal vulnerabilities to threats like cyberattacks, propaganda, and hybrid warfare.
Second, Western nations must stop destroying themselves from within by a failure of political leadership to deal with issues such as populism, migration, or the refusal to share burdens in the European Union.
Finally, the West has to reduce growing income inequality, which is undermining the West’s major pole of attraction, namely economic fairness and opportunity.
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