These last few years have been tough for the Western Alliance and a dispiriting time for those like me who feel the well-being of the world is best served by Western primacy. It isn’t the rise of the emerging powers that has been dispiriting, but rather the self-pity their rise has engendered in the West. Our public discourse has a melancholic tone, combined with morbid humour, such as the gag that Chinese leaders only visit the United States to check up on their investments. One British Conservative commentator tweeted today that the Eurozone crisis is not only a crisis of globalisation but also one of Western identity. Given the alarm with which many in Europe reacted to the possibility of Beijing coming to their financial rescue, he may be onto something.
I believe talk of an identity crisis is overblown, that Western decline is exaggerated, and I think those who feel sorry about themselves should go to the kitchen and drink a glass of man up!
We need to take a step back from the day-to-day crises of the West and look at the bigger picture. Professor Julian Lindley-French does this in the passage below, displaying his typical common sense:
Whilst it is certainly the case that the emergence of China, India and others on the world stage is leading to a new balance of power, neither the West nor Britain are in terminal decline. However, unless the despond of defeatism that seems to affect and afflict much of Europe is overcome decline could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy…[T]he zero sum game and with it the idea that if power rises on one part of the planet it must by definition decline elsewhere, is a compelling and neat academic treatise. Unfortunately, it is wrong. There is no automatic reason why an increase in the power of China, India et al should automatically lead to a loss of Western power. Power and its wielding are subject to many factors.
Furthermore, we should take comfort in the fact that there is no alternative to the postwar order and that the institutions which were created to sustain that order are simply in need of reform, not abolition. Instead of succumbing to malaise, and dismissing the Western world order as finished, we should embrace the theme of Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: if things are to stay the same, some things have to change.
There are challenges to the Western Alliance, obviously, but there are things it can do to overcome them:
- There has to be a fundamental change in the way the United States leads the Alliance. American hegemony is a Good Thing, but it has also had two harmful effects on Western cohesion. The almost universal power of the U.S. military is a disincentive for the British and Europeans to spend enough money on defence, as their security is guaranteed. Dan Trombly explained this point in more depth some months ago. Because of its hegemony, Washington also excludes NATO governments from its policy-making; the U.S. decides on a policy –after bitter bureaucratic struggles – and then informs its allies of the decision. This process wastes NATO governments’ expertise, leads to un-coordination and prevents British and European “ownership” of American policies. President Obama has begun to remedy the first problem with his decision to “lead from behind” in Libya, but Afghanistan and the New START negotiations are perfect examples of the second one. A more inclusive policy making process will help the Western Alliance overcome the challenges of this century.
- There needs to be clearly defined national interests which are separated from Allied ones. Allied malaise is partly caused by an acute sense of overstretch, which was partly caused by what I call the “internationalisation of the national interest”. It is the belief that the world is so globalised and interconnected that every crisis is a threat to our security and it is vital we are involved in sorting out the problem. Try having a coherent foreign policy with this belief as your framework! If the Alliance is to be strong and united on the issues that matter to all its members then one also has to appreciate that there are issues where Allied interests are not at stake and cooperation must be more ad hoc. Germany’s position on Libya, and, to a lesser extent, America’s, is a perfect example of this much needed change in action.
- Give up on utopian dreams. This is a dream itself, unfortunately, but I thought I would pitch it anyway…
It is said that self-pity destroys everything except itself. The self-pity of many in the West about our supposed decline is certainly destroying its chances of being relevant in the 21st Century.
We need to cure the malaise in our societies, regain our confidence and do what needs to be done to ensure Western power and Western values are as dominant as possible in the multipolar world.
We need to go to the kitchen and drink a glass of man up!
 This process also happens in the foreign policy blogosphere. If writing about Afghanistan, bloggers in the U.S. will conceive both the problem and the solution as a purely American one. Few, if any try to articulate an allied strategy. Those in allied countries, like, say, me in the United Kingdom, have to consider both the British interests in Afghanistan and the policy of the Alliance – i.e. the policy of the United States.