RealClearWorld Newsletters: Europe Memo

As Pundits Ponder the 'End of the West'

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Let's take a moment to survey the Transatlantic zeitgeist. As any RealClearWorld reader knows, it's not an attractive scene. "Existential" quickly became the most common modifier to describe the European Union's crises after September 2015. Indeed, predictions of the European Union's demise, and descriptions of its stifling irrelevance, are no longer the exception -- they shape the conventional wisdom. The attendant fragmentation of national politics may be a coincidence, or may well vindicate the long-held notion that the European institutions have had some hand in keeping peace on the Continent.

But we're well past that now. To cast mud on long-established alliances has become a trivial habit: Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump singles out Mexico and Japan, while U.S. President Barack Obama uses a major editorial intervention to rail against bandwagoning allies and, shortly following the 70-year anniversary of its addition to the Transatlantic lexicon, to bring into question the usefulness of the so-called Special Relationship between Britain and the United States. RAND finds that Russia, if it so chose, could overwhelm NATO during an incursion into the Baltics. Countries from the United Kingdom to France and Germany are revisiting foreign policy leitmotifs. Elections, across the board, have become frightening affairs, often resulting in an inability to form governments.

And so the commentariat begins to ponder the End of the West. Not in a whisper, but a highly-credentialed roar. Anne Applebaum writes that "we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union, and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it." Der Spiegel heralds Trump as the most dangerous man in the world, while Nicholas Vinocur envisions, in resigned tones, a Europe left on its own by an election of Trump. Charles Moore says the European Union would be the logical body to step up for an America that has left the West dangerously exposed under Obama's guidance. Too bad, though, says Moore. None of Europe's leaders can lead.

This isn't the space for a deeper philosophical discussion about what "The West" is. For pragmatic purposes, let's look at it from three angles, and peer in at the moment we're living. One angle is as an amalgam of nation-states bound together by some degree of ideological and functional overlap and, at least loosely, by geography. Another angle is the cooperative institutions that bind these states together. Another still is definition via a common adversary, logically one to the east, Russia.

Moscow's bellicosity -- perhaps best illustrated by its swift takeover of Crimea in 2014 -- has stunned the world in recent years. Far more insidious has been the way in which the Kremlin has managed its interest in undermining European unity.

That bellicosity did not come out of nowhere. Flip the map, and it's easy to see why Western lamentations of a revival of Russian power make little sense. Sure, Russia gained Crimea; but it lost Ukraine. Looking back, Moscow has a point when it says that the West ignored its opposition to NATO encroachment in what it considers its sphere of influence. There is a long patchwork of Kremlin protestations on the issue quilting the years between Soviet collapse and Putin's rise. Andrew T. Wolff documents the process well in an article for Chatham House, "The Future of NATO Enlargement."

Intimations of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, pushed for by President George W. Bush in 2008, could not possibly be seen in any kind of friendly light by any responsible Kremlin strategist. In looking back, we can see in NATO the same kind of stuck-in-the-moment thinking that has characterized the European institutions since history famously ended -- the kind of thinking that fosters a system ill-prepared for crises. In the EU, a borderless region with no common means for securing exterior borders, and a currency zone with multiple economic policies; in NATO, the enlargement of a military alliance to a historically sensitive region, with questionable ability to militarily defend that very region, done under the political presumption that its advance would be seen peacefully by an adversary, or that said adversary would remain too weak to push back. The West priced a victory over history into its calculations and erred. It was not viewed as a peaceful expansion, and Russia -- which began a military modernization program in the latter part of the last decade -- now looms across an eastern NATO edge comprising a number of countries of scant population or negligible, for now, military means.

This is no apology for Putin, but rather an attempt to point out a paucity of planning. Consistency matters. Russia is engaged in the fight now, and it is a question to what extent NATO, and the West as a whole, are ready or able to push back against Russian interference. Moscow wants to weaken Europe from the inside. The Kremlin gives money to populist parties such as the strengthening Front National in France. In a survey this week published in the Dutch daily Volkskrant, 58 percent of voters in the ‘yes' camp of a looming referendum on an EU trade agreement with Ukraine saw Russian hands in the effort to organize and bring forward the referendum. (In that same poll, 57 percent of respondents said they plan to reject the accord with Ukraine.) Ben Judah for The Independent this week contemplated Russia's considerable interest in a British exit from the European Union. And the pipelines that are the material veins of Russian power into European politics are undermining the key Continental player, Germany, as it revisits its traditional Ostpolitik, a diplomatic approach from Berlin toward Moscow that has been placed under severe strain. Germany is willing to lead on Russian sanctions; but in the meantime, it may be paving the road for the Nord Stream II pipeline, the geopolitical implications of which merit a column of their own.

Russia's hybrid war seizes on many messages and means, and historically it's hard to find anyone who is better at finding the means and messages needed to bind adherents to a shared struggle. The Russians have been doing it for ages in their search for state coherence. Take this anecdote from Milovan Djilas' "Conversations with Stalin," wherein the one-time top Tito aide is surprised at an expedient Stalinist ideological adaptability:

"I had previously learned from Soviet officials that as soon as the war broke out, the Russian patriarch began, without asking the government, to distribute mimeographed encyclicals against the German invaders, and that they enjoyed a response which went far beyond his subordinate clergy. These appeals were also attractive in form, in the monotony of Soviet propaganda they radiated with the freshness of the ancient and religious patriotism. The Soviet government quickly adapted itself and began to look to the church, too, for support, despite the fact that they continued to regard it as a remnant of the old order. In the misfortunes of war, religion was revived and made headway, and the chief of the Soviet mission in Yugoslavia, General Korneev, told how many people -- and very responsible people at that -- considered turning to orthodoxy, in a moment of mortal danger from the Germans, as a more permanent ideological mobilizer. ‘We would have saved Russia even through Orthodoxy if that were unavoidable!' he explained."

Meanwhile, the manifold pressures on the European Union daily create new strains on the institutions and arrangements that bind the West. The United Kingdom is headed for a historic vote on June 23. British voters will decide whether they want their country to be the first to ever withdraw from the supranational bloc. It is hard to fully measure the possible consequences. David Francis of Foreign Policy points out that in the aftermath of a Leave vote, a trade war between Germany and Great Britain could follow.

Here is where events on both sides of the Atlantic converge. Brexiteers should heed the warning of Michael Froman, the top U.S. trade representative, who recently said the United States would have little urgency to arrange a new trade deal with the United Kingdom. What kind of a deal, one has to ask, would the United Kingdom hope to make with an America under the thrall of Trump- or Bernie Sanders-style protectionism? Zooming out, what might the future hold for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a Euro-American attempt to set the tone for trade in the global commons, as populist sentiments rise on both sides of the Atlantic?

Zooming back in, we arrive at the third angle of view: the health of the Western nation-state. Secessionist movements have flowered into prominence in Catalonia, in Scotland, in Corsica. Traditionally strong political parties have been disrupted: from the inside, in the case of Britain's Labour Party and the Republicans in the United States, in the guise, respectively, of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. But more broadly, the firewalls erected country-by-country across Europe to maintain a centrist consensus are breaking down. Elections from Spain and Portugal, to Slovakia and Croatia, are seeing the arrival of extremist parties and the breakdown of a long-stable centrist consensus. Now we all wait for the British and Americans to cast their crucial votes this year, with France and Germany to follow in 2017.

Supranational pretensions aside, the nation-state is still the essential building block: The European institutions must answer to their nation-states' needs, and the nation-states must answer the needs of their citizens. Where the political center fails, where the elites no longer respond to the needs of the population, voters quite naturally move to the fringes. And the problem with fringes is that they don't like each other very much -- their first instinct is to fight, and when our societies are fighting each other, they skew the pursuit of the national interest, which is the common interest we all share.

Indeed there is much for the pundit class to ponder. Surely the West has seen its share of uncertain moments in the past. But as this relatively easily assembled laundry list of symptoms makes clear, the malaise is real. As the editor of RealClearWorld, I don't expect the "End of the West" headlines to stop coming my way anytime soon.

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