Policy Review Banner

The West Runs Out of Power

Friday, March 30, 2012

On a bleak February day in 2002, I found myself standing in a derelict Christian cemetery in Kabul, a bemused onlooker at a memorial service for the British soldiers who had died in two 19th-century Afghan wars. Western coalition forces had just arrived in the Afghan capital after having ousted the Taliban in retaliation for the attacks of 9-11. Their British commander, General John McColl, had himself decreed the ceremony, and the ancient walled enclosure had been spruced up with whitewash and vivid poppy wreaths. As the British Empire had lost both wars, with terrible losses, the service seemed a quixotic thing to do then; with hindsight, it appears almost prophetic.

My reverie, induced by biting cold and a series of Scottish burrs reciting the deeds of long-gone Highland regiments, was interrupted by the Anglican priest’s homily. His praise of the soldiers for persevering in the thankless task of protecting their country struck an oddly familiar, if not quite biblical note. The Reverend David Steele, a cheerful New Zealander wearing his surplice over combat fatigues and boots, was delighted to reveal his source after the service. He had adapted it, he said, from a key scene in a favorite book, in which the warrior hero recounts how he and his kind have been guarding the fat, short, and feckless inhabitants of a tiny realm, unbeknownst to them, against the forces of an evil kingdom called Mordor.

This scene came back to mind on re-reading Robert Kagan’s famous Venus vs. Mars analogy for the transatlantic relationship: Europe, that land of carefree hobbits, intent on garden parties and fireworks, blithely relying on being shielded from harm by the ever-vigilant American Dúnedain. Kagan’s comparison was a caricature, as he was quick to note himself, but like any really good caricature, it hit home. Its strongest and most durable point was the insight that Europeans’ aversion to war, and preference for diplomacy and multilateralism, might be based on denial rather than principle — a psychological coping strategy, to avoid recognition of Europe’s vulnerability and dependence. Ouch.

A decade later, a humbled and battered nato is preparing to leave a brittle Afghanistan. American-led forces have already withdrawn from Iraq, after a war that brought transatlantic relations to a postwar nadir. They recovered, nonetheless, and managed to achieve a coolly pragmatic cooperation. Then, in 2008, the economic crisis hit. Now, with still no end to the financial turmoil in sight, it is time to stop pretending — to borrow a line from Kagan — that things are as they were before. The global strategic landscape has undergone profound changes. They bear on the nature of state power, as well as on governments’ ability to deploy it; and they affect the very definition of security.

As for transatlantic relations, ten years ago, the ideological battle line ran between the guns of hard power (America) and the butter of soft power (Europe). But it was never fundamentally in doubt that either side had quasi-unlimited stocks to wield of its weapon of choice, given productive economies and sophisticated governmental structures. Nor, despite repeated fallings-out over which kind of power trumps the other, was it ever questioned that both sides of the Atlantic formed a community of values and interests. Today, however, the problem of both America and Europe is the diffusion and erosion of their own power, as well as the dwindling of their own sense of legitimacy — one might even call it a crisis of conviction. The challenge of the 21st century is not the weakness of others, but the weakness of the West.

A new strategic landscape

Not everything is different, obviously. Traditional security threats remain very present; some have a government postal address (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan) while others operate in the shadows (al-Qaeda and its franchises, pirates, cybercriminals). Some of our most important and vulnerable assets are physical, as well as fixed (critical infrastructure). Sea lanes, transport routes, pipelines, and cables guarantee the persistence of geopolitics. Deterrence, containment, intervention, and hard power remain necessary. And, yessir, America continues to possess absolutely and relatively more of the latter than any other country. So far, so familiar; and so enduring. Yet, at the same time, the overall framework of power and security has been transformed by the combined impact of three new developments: economic integration, the globalization of communication, and the erosion of state power.

It would have been hard to believe in 2002 just how deeply the globe’s economies would be integrated within a decade.

It would have been hard to believe in 2002 just how deeply the globe’s economies would become integrated within a decade. Globalization meant connection; integration was the step into interdependence. Not only are we all “on the grid” of global movements of people, goods, data, and ideas, but it has become impossible to unplug ourselves, and we would suffer if we tried. Nowhere has this shift become more startlingly apparent than in the financial crisis. America’s and Europe’s economies and financial markets are so integrated that a plunge on one side of the Atlantic risks immediate contagion on the other. In financial and economic terms, at least, the transatlantic space has thus become something very close to what Mark Mykleby and Wayne Porter have called a “strategic ecosystem.” China, meanwhile, may still reject the idea that its burgeoning power makes it a key stakeholder in a peaceful global order. But it would be futile for America’s single biggest creditor to deny that it has a vital stake in the health of the U.S. economy (and, vice versa, for America not to acknowledge that it has a first-order interest in responsible behavior by Beijing).

For the transatlantic alliance, economic integration raises a host of questions. Not least because, paradoxically, the U.S. and Europe are drawing together in economic terms at the same time that they appear to be drifting away from each other politically. Can — or must — the risk of contagion be contained and managed by regulatory or monetary policy cooperation, or even through joint institutions, such as a transatlantic banking committee? And what are the implications of economic integration for transatlantic security, and nato? Could economic integration prove to be the hitherto elusive new alliance-superglue in an era of diverging security interests and threat assessments? Conversely, does such integration not create new vulnerabilities that must be taken into account in security provision? What does that mean for cooperation between governments and businesses in the security domain?

The Arab rebellions of 2011 prove we exclude the possibility of transformative eruptions at our peril.

China presents a rather different kind of problem for America. Business relations operating across governmental, political, and ideological divides are a familiar phenomenon (Iran is a case in point). But for the U.S., as it “pivots” towards the Pacific and attempts to balance or contain China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region, economic dependence on a — actually, the — rising strategic competitor is a radically new constraint. Surely, it has consequences for the calculus of containment. Then again, dependence holds opportunities of its own. Take Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies. It is significant in quantitative terms; but, for a variety of reasons, it does not translate into an equivalent political leverage for Moscow over Europe. In fact, it also works the other way around, since Russia cannot simply sell to other customers. The U.S.-China relationship may not be similarly physically anchored by pipelines; but the mutual risk of failure is such as to, in the words of Gregory Treverton, “approach what was called mutually assured destruction in the Cold War.” As we know from that era, this kind of dependence can be translated into cooperative, or at least reliable, behavior.

Another strategic surprise of the past decade is the empowerment of individuals through the globalization of communication, even in authoritarian countries — visible in the Chinese blogosphere and the social awakenings in Northern Africa, as well as, more recently, in Russia. Classical power politics are not about to disappear: The Chinese leadership has proved its shrewdness at managing transition, the Egyptian generals are cutting deals with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Russia’s securocrats can always field an oligarch or two to play at opposition. (Even the Saudi princes are now allowing their increasingly well-educated and cosmopolitan women to work — in lingerie shops.) Real social or even political change may yet be a long way off, creeping at the glacial pace of tectonic plates, as autocratic elites continue to maintain a viselike grip on power resources. Even so, the Arab rebellions of 2011 prove that we exclude the possibility of transformative eruptions at our peril.

Moreover, the flood-like spread of privately owned social networks and personal communications technology means that leaders can no longer turn off their citizens’ access to information, or stop them from connecting with each other. These societies may be a long way from being liberally constituted; they will certainly remain vulnerable to manipulation and capture by better-organized special interest groups for a long time to come. But they are now open and cannot ever be sealed off again. This also means that the autocrats, even those with bottomless barrels of weapons and wealth, are now essentially on the defensive against their own people.

And those people have a fairly precise idea of what they want. Not Western-style democracy, perhaps, and certainly not just its most reductionist form: elections. The demands articulated by the protesters are elementary, and universal: freedom from oppression, corruption, and fear, as well as the right to speak their minds, to educate their children, to make a living, to participate in public life, and to live in dignity. Recognize anything? Of course. Those were the demands of the liberal constitutionalist movements in 19th-century Europe. As we know, things didn’t always go smoothly from there. On the other hand, that was the beginning of the most humane and decent form of government in existence.

For policymakers in America and Europe, all this entails a supremely difficult balancing act. Often, they will have to continue to work with the autocrats, for legitimate realist reasons. At the same time, they must now make certain to speak to their citizens as well, and thereby make it clear that they support their aspirations, and will — at the very least — do nothing that undermines them. In some cases, indeed, overt Western support might be counterproductive and even harmful, because it could play into the hands of authoritarian rulers and help them to disparage their opposition as corrupt and fed by outside forces (again, see Iran).

Governments of the West will find that, more and more, they are compelled to take the side of the oppressed.

More and more, however, Western governments will find themselves compelled to take the side of the oppressed — as they did with intervention in Libya, or when President Obama, in a speech on the Arab rebellions in May 2011, compared the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to the American civil rights icon Rosa Parks. Germany, for example, will need to ask itself whether it can responsibly sell tanks to Saudi Arabia — a weapons system whose chief modern use is crowd control, as seen in Tiananmen Square and more recently in Bahrain. Robert Cooper’s recommendation of double standards in dealing with what he called the “pre-modern world” — “Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws . . . but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle.” — is no longer tenable in a world where the West’s legitimacy has become one of its key strategic assets. Remember those West Germans who sniped that their Eastern brothers and sisters who were fleeing over Hungary’s “green border” in the summer of 1989 were seeking bananas rather than freedom? Apart from being intellectually somewhat less than complex, that critique was remarkably callous. To insinuate today — as is regularly done by self-styled “pessimists” or “realists” — that Egypt’s protesters are merely angry about the lack of jobs rather than about the lack of democracy is to fall into the same trap.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly to those who bear the responsibility of government, the last decade has seen an unprecedented erosion of the power of the state. Not just in failed or failing states like Somalia, Pakistan, or Nigeria, but in those regions where we took effectiveness and legitimacy for granted: in the heartlands of the West. Well before the onset of the economic crisis, globalization, integration, and the communications revolution had led to a diffusion of power both vertical and horizontal — and above all, away from the state. Externally, the rise of non-Western powers had already significantly reduced the ability of the West, and even of the United States, to set international policy agendas (e.g., in climate change negotiations, or condemnation of the Syrian regime in the un Security Council for its persecution of the opposition), much less to influence their outcome.

But now, with the crisis biting ever deeper, diffusion slips into erosion; and the pathology of state power shifts from loss of control to loss of function. On both sides of the Atlantic, huge public debts are crippling governments and forcing them to make cutbacks in public services. Fragile economies, decaying infrastructures, declining industrial competitiveness, and dwindling prosperity, as well as growing unemployment and social inequality, have all contributed to a toxic polarization of domestic politics — and to the discrediting of politicians as well as of the institutions of representative government. In America, this has been taking the form of bitter partisan division. The European Union, for its part, is battling re-nationalization, populism, and rising xenophobia. Charles Kupchan is right to call this a “crisis of governability.”

More is at stake than mere effectiveness: Our liberal democracies, the EU, the transatlantic alliance.

Yet more is at stake than mere effectiveness. Our liberal democracies, the European Union, the transatlantic alliance: All of these — and not just the eu, as Kagan would have it — are Kantian communities, based on a contractual agreement to preserve the peace and foster mutual gain through mutual trust, obligation, and solidarity. If they continue to be undermined by fear and zero-sum thinking, then we could all of us find ourselves back in a Hobbesian world — at home. Or, to return to Cooper’s stark metaphor: The jungle will take back the garden. No more garden parties for the hobbits.

Exaggeration? Take the case of eu member Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been mounting a meticulously considered and organized assault on the independence of his country’s media, judiciary, central bank, electoral laws, and data protection agency — in other words, on some of its key constitutional checks and balances. Astoundingly, it took the eu the better part of twelve months to decide that this was alarming enough for action. And there are still some European conservatives who argue that all this is unavoidable in order to undo the evils wrought by previous post-communist and socialist governments. The lesson of Hungary is that even in “postmodern” Europe, the achievements of liberal constitutionalism and representative democracy are far from automatically assured. Contracts, like gardens, need to be watched, tended — and guarded against predators.

The effect of this process of erosion on foreign policy is already palpable. Fearful, divided, and inward-looking publics allow governments few resources and less room for maneuver, least of all in foreign and security policy. In America, the success of the crude isolationist notions of a Ron Paul, but even President Obama’s prudent retrenchments, always under the heading of saving resources for “nation-building at home,” testify to this. In Europe, too, the signs of zero-sum thinking are multiplying: haggling about the price of solidarity with Greece, and foreign ministers (the uk’s William Hague, Germany’s Guido Westerwelle, or Canada’s John Baird) solemnly intoning the need for a “commercial foreign policy,” which is essentially shorthand for making lucrative deals with China regardless of its treatment of dissidents. And then there was the falling-out within nato over intervention in Libya, which was notable for Germany abstaining in the un Security Council vote along with Russia and China. There was a reasonable disagreement to be had over the feasibility and legality of a Gaddafi ouster, and, indeed, half a dozen nato members shared Germany’s reservations (even if rather more privately). It was Berlin’s public breaking-out of the Western consensus when it mattered most, at the vote count in the un Security Council — and senior cabinet ministers later denigrating the motives of those nato members who joined in the intervention — that tore at the fabric of the Western contract.

Three principles for policymaking

It is a truth universally acknowledged among strategists that all power must be in want of a paradigm. An auxiliary, lesser truth to this Very Big Truth is that a strategist’s ultimate test of manhood — as Tony Judt once noted acidly — is to trump George Kennan’s Long Telegram, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which became the blueprint for the United States strategy of containment vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Robert Kagan’s essay “Power and Weakness” stands tall in a long line of heroic attempts to spear the ghost of Kennan, slice off its ears, and march triumphantly around the arena with them. Yet if one thing seems clear about the new strategic dispensation, it is that it does not invite the formulation of paradigms, or grand strategy (much less the overweening triumphalism that was in evidence after 1989 and once more, briefly, after the removal of Saddam from power in 2003). Hence the accuracy of Stephen Krasner’s observation that the rather more humble notion of “orienting principles” is more appropriate to an era of uncertainty. Here, then, are three suggestions of what such principles might look like.

Focus on risk management. In open societies where power is more and more in private and individual hands, governments must move from a focus on dominance, threat deterrence, and control to a focus on risk management and legitimate influence. Western alliances — nato as much as the European Union — will have to learn to accommodate and manage disagreements: on threat assessments, on priorities, and on appropriate policy options. Under these circumstances, issue-based, case-by-case coordination and cooperation is probably going to be as good as it gets. A transatlantic quarrel such as the one over intervention in Libya should therefore not be read as an ominous portent of Western decline and decay. It is the new normal, and we had better get used to it quickly. Otherwise, we stand to create a self-fulfilling (and self-crippling) prophecy of failure.

Risk management also implies the recognition that there is no absolute security, no complete elimination of risk. It means applying reasonable rather than extreme standards of safety; and it means investing in political, economic, and social resilience in preparation for those cases where risk tips into reality. Policymakers will have to learn how to manage public expectations about feasible levels of safety at a time when public opinion is clamoring for total protection. In an open society, there is no such thing as freedom from risk.

A transatlantic quarrel such as the one over intervention in Libya should not be read as an ominous portent of Western decline.

Focus on awareness and understanding. Knowledge is the ultimate key to security in today’s world. The continuing process of global integration and the interdependence it creates — combined with split-second communications technology — means that reaction times have become dramatically foreshortened. Given that today’s threats and risks tend to ignore borders, government reactions will have to be coordinated across borders as well. (In the eu, that can mean across as many as 27 sets of national borders.) Available timespans for preparing decisions, analyzing facts, and weighing options will therefore continue to shrink. In exceptional cases, the consequences of a risk’s materializing might be so catastrophic that the focal point of state action would have to move to anticipation and prevention. As a result of all this, a premium will be put on strategic awareness, understanding, and judgment. As the 2008 French Defense white paper notes: “Knowledge represents our first line of defense.” The fact that the Arab rebellions and the protests in Russia — or people throwing thousands of small banknotes over the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s garden wall to help him pay his legal bills against the government — came as a surprise to Western policymakers does suggest that they might not have been paying enough attention in the right quarters.

All this has profound implications for the organization and power of state security. Western governments will have to invest more in strategic foresight and seek the expertise of those who have developed forecasting techniques (such as Singapore). Ideally, strategic analysis capabilities will be bundled, centralized, and situated so that they can provide direct counsel to heads of government. Beyond that, however, hazardous territory awaits. After the al-Qaeda attacks of 9-11, most Western governments pumped up their intelligence collection and cooperation capabilities, for good reason; the United States and the United Kingdom, in particular, have made vast investments in this field, particularly with regard to space and cyber technology. Because some of this information is secret, it must be gathered by intrusive means, which already raises complex issues of control and accountability. In the context of a strategic posture based explicitly on openness and risk management, however, the need for knowledge increases exponentially. In terms of the constitutional balance of power, the effect is a “giant sucking sound” (in Ross Perot’s immortal phrase) in the direction of the central executive. The organizational imperatives of resilience — which requires redundancy, delegation, and distribution — will go some way but by no means all the way in countering this effect. In sum: If the acquisition of knowledge is not to undermine the very freedoms and liberties it is designed to protect, then Western states will have to be scrupulously conscientious in recalibrating oversight and accountability functions.

The state is the only means for creating a decent society; thus, the social contract cannot be ignored.

Focus on strengthening the state. It has recently become almost commonplace for writers on strategy to call for a “restoration” (Richard Haass) or “renovation” (Gideon Rose) of national strength, for “responsible sovereignty” (Stephen Krasner) or a return to “political and economic solvency” (Charles Kupchan). It might, in fact, be time to reconsider a fundamental principle of constitutional governance whose intrinsic merits we take for granted, yet which is constantly undermined in current political practice: representative democracy. One of the tropes of transatlantic debate in the past decade has been the notion that Europeans are obsessively consumed with the design of processes and institutions — as opposed to an American fixation on leadership and the heroic individual. Again, there is some truth in the cliché. Yet the achievement of translating the European concept of representation into a robust and lasting constitutional architecture belongs to the authors of the Federalist Papers, and in particular to James Madison. Their emphasis on the separation and balance of powers, and the importance of functioning institutions, as a counterweight against the willfulness of majorities is well worth recalling today. After all, the temptation to play to the sovereign in the street — as an easy alternative to the hard slog of hammering out consensus in representative institutions — has been very much in evidence on both sides of the Atlantic lately.

Yet as the state is only the means towards the ultimate goal of creating a decent society, fixing representative government without repairing the social contract would be futile. From the 1980s onwards, America tilted the societal balance sharply towards liberties and markets, and Europe followed suit. This produced a great expansion of freedom and prosperity — but also an ever-widening divide between rich and poor, and a fraying of institutions. It is now past time to recover equilibrium by tilting back towards fairness and justice. For “in a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.” Marx? No, Madison.

In the end, of course, there is another, larger contract to be renewed: that which underpins the global order. In an era of uncertainty, it would appear that this task is best approached with a mixture of humility and hope. Hope because we see the citizens of authoritarian regimes claiming rights and freedoms which we believe to be universal; humility because our own historical trajectory is strewn with poppy wreaths.

About the Author

More from Policy Review