The West needs to wake up
- December 20, 2023
- Timothy Less
- Themes: Geopolitics
The West’s hegemonic position faces a growing challenge from an emerging coalition in the East which seeks to revise the international order in its own interests. To preserve its position, the West must take decisive action. Whether it has the will to do so is unclear.
There can no longer be much doubt about the threat to the position of the West. After 18 months of struggle, Russia looks poised for a historic victory in Ukraine whose quest to join the Western sphere is now seemingly at an end.
Not only has Russia practically annexed a fifth of the country’s territory, which now lies behind one of the most heavily-fortified frontiers in the world, but the prospect of the rest of Ukraine remaining in a state of permanent instability precludes any chance of its integration with NATO and the EU, at least as matters stand.
Meanwhile, the position of Israel is in serious jeopardy as it walks seemingly into a trap laid by Hamas which provoked Jerusalem into a perceived overreaction that draws in Palestine’s allies to the east, while alienating Israel’s traditional allies to the West and scotching the United States’ attempted diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world.
Having crossed the red line represented by Israel’s border with Gaza, Iran has stated its intention to mobilise an ‘axis of resistance’, backed by Russia and more distantly China, while the Muslim world is in uproar and Israel has been left reliant on a divided West, whose support is irresolute and indecisive.
Why this is happening is a topic of much debate but two factors stand out. The first is that revisionist powers in the East have been steadily gaining in strength in practically all domains, and with it their ability to project power internationally. Economically, they command a majority of global GDP, having capitalised on efforts by the West over the last three decades to promote an integrated, globalised economy that has disproportionately benefitted the developing world.
They have invested heavily in their capacity for aggression. China can mobilise enormous military resources including the largest navy in the world and a huge range of capabilities, from aircraft to missile technology. Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and, under conditions of conscription, has raised an army of 1.5 million. And Iran has developed a dormant nuclear capacity and an established a network of heavily-armed proxies across the Middle East.
They are internally unified under conditions of autocracy. The position of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party is unassailable and, in its achievements and ambitions, displays the confidence of a country on the rise, much as the Europeans did in the 19th century. In Russia, polls consistently put support for President Putin at around 80 per cent. In Iran, the Ayatollahs are firmly in charge, despite displays of dissent, and there is no obvious alternative government in sight.
The East is also coalescing internationally into an informal alliance. At the core of this is a new ‘no limits’ partnership between Russia and China, defined by political support for each other’s foreign policies, backed by various practical measures – mutual protection at the UN, deepening trade and investment, the use of the yuan to bypass the Western financial system, and so on.
The two have established a formal security alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which incorporates India, Pakistan, Iran and three central Asian states. They have deepened and expanded the BRICS which from next year will add Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Argentina to its ranks, and beyond that up to 14 other countries, including Algeria, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Palestine, Venezuela and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, China and Russia have expanded their network of bilateral alliances. The former has co-opted around two-thirds of the world into its Belt and Road Initiative and the latter has been on a diplomatic offensive since its invasion of Ukraine, reviving Cold War-era friendships in places such as Africa, South America and the Middle East.
The second reason, by contrast, is the weakening of the West in relative terms and with it the status quo power’s ability to preserve the existing international order. Europe in particular has been stagnant for much of the last 15 years, as a consequence of bad luck and bad economic management. It never really recovered from the financial crisis of the late-2000s, which was followed by the pandemic and the breakdown of trade with Russia.
These developments have played upon underlying problems of poor productivity, ageing populations and a culture of welfarism; de-industrialisation as governments eschew strategic protectionism in favour of free trade and make a push for net zero; and, in the Eurozone, the strictures of monetary union. Similar problems of worklessness and poor demographics afflict the US.
The consequence is a rise in public debt to 100 per cent or more in most of the West’s major economies which, among its many baleful effects, has left little money for governments to spare on the elements of power projection, from defence to intelligence, diplomacy and overseas aid.
Western societies are also politically unstable, divided between elites and voters and along ideological lines over issues of economic inequality, cultural issues such as race, sexuality, identity and history and the totemic issue of immigration, which has weakened the internal coherence of its societies and awarded political rights to people whose loyalties lie elsewhere. A study published in 2021 found the US is as divided today as Bosnia was on the eve of its civil war in 1992.
Not only have these divisions undermined the confidence of the West, at least among the governing classes, which have led the existential soul-searching; but they have rendered many countries virtually ungovernable as different factions vie for power, resulting in weak, ineffective leadership and dysfunctional institutions.
To complicate matters, the Western bloc is fracturing as the US struggles to play an effective leadership role and its satellites lack political direction. Some in Europe are trying to establish the EU as a separate bloc, dividing the West but also the EU’s own members, many of which reject this ambition. It has also alienated international partners by squabbling with would-be members of its bloc over matters of ideology and hectoring non-Western states about their morality and different ways of life.
Where this leads remains to be seen but, if events remain on their current trajectory, three outcomes are assured. The first is further success by revisionist states in reordering the world in their own interests, expanding their spheres of influence, redrawing borders and bringing wayward governments to heel. Taiwan and parts of East Asia are clear flashpoints for conflict, while Moldova, Georgia and the rest of Ukraine could all be drawn back into the Russian sphere.
The second, conversely, is the further retreat of the West, certainly from more distant parts of the world but also regions on its periphery, such as the Balkans, North Africa and South America, which are wholly or partially ceded to rival powers, and even from within the West’s own domain, where rival powers are attempting to divide Europe from the US and pick off individual European countries, such as Bulgaria, Hungary and even Italy and Germany.
And third, other countries, from emerging powers, such as Turkey to smaller states such as Serbia and Azerbaijan, will exploit the shifting balance of power to resolve their unresolved issues of state, whether access to resources or national unification. Regions in the West’s geographical hinterland, including the Balkans and the Middle East are at risk of cross-border conflagrations that draw in an array of local actors.
In short, the stakes could not be higher. Analogies to history are never exact, but the last time the West faced a political constellation of this kind – when rising powers threatened the international order and the status quo powers were burdened by economic stagnation, internal division, weak leadership and a loss of national confidence – was the mid-1930s. By decade’s end, the West’s position was in mortal jeopardy.
That is not to say events will automatically play out in the same way. The next chapter in this drama remains to be written and the question of whether the West can uphold the current international order in the future will be determined by the strategic choices it makes in the present – of which two represent almost certain defeat.
The first effectively amounts to a call for surrender, expressed in the form of opposition to the West and its proxies, sometimes backed with demands for unilateral disarmament, and support for non-Western actors, especially those involved in supposed liberation struggles against Western tyranny.
This position derives from a worldview which frames every international problem as a contest between a victim and an oppressor, with an imperialistic West playing the role of the latter in its desire to uphold an international system that serves its interests against weaker, non-Western foes. Such views have informed critiques of intervention in Ukraine in which the West is cynically depicted as exploiting the Ukrainians as cannon fodder with which to attack Russia, where its interests really lie.
This worldview naturally aligns with the position of groups who are loyal to their cultural and religious kin – most obviously Muslims in relation to the Palestinians – and who have called on Western governments to withdraw their support for Israel’s ‘genocidal’ campaign in Gaza and, in some cases, for Israel’s very destruction.
In doing so, such groups are re-enacting the role played by Western communists in the 1930s, who supported the supposed liberation project underway in the Soviet Union, and Moscow’s broader efforts to export its revolution abroad as the means to end a reactionary West’s oppressive grip on power.
The second strategic choice auguring defeat is the call for retreat by isolationists on the political right, reprising the role of their forebears who advocated passivity in the face of the German and Soviet threat. This approach is particularly prevalent in the US where polls suggest around half the population, jaded by ‘forever wars’ in peripheral regions, wants Washington to withdraw its support for Ukraine, a position endorsed by the Trumpian wing of the Republican party.
According to this view, the US should focus exclusively on resolving its numerous domestic problems, limit its involvement in the outside world to preventing a direct attack on the US itself and eschew intervention in the affairs of distant nations. Why, they ask, should the US defend Ukraine’s border if it cannot defend its own border with Mexico? Better either to negotiate a peace deal in which Ukraine cedes territory to Russia or pass the whole problem over to Europe.
For their part, many Europeans also support an accommodation with revisionist rivals, driven by a combination of fear of the outside world and a desire for a comfortable life. Ukraine fatigue has well and truly set in as ordinary Europeans bear the cost of higher food and energy bills, while governments are forced to raise tax to subsidise the war effort. For all their talk of de-risking, Europeans have also proven unwilling to give up their materially-beneficial trade ties with China.
The problem with this position is that, by turning away from the external threat, the West is simply vacating the field of play, allowing revisionist powers to expand their spheres of influence, potentially to the very borders of the West, thereby significantly strengthening their positions.
That may buy peace in the short term, but only by further weakening the West, which will eventually have to confront its rivals if it wants to preserve its sovereignty. After years of accommodation, Britain finally understood this point by 1939 in relation to Germany and the US, too, by 1941 – though almost too late to turn the situation around. The lesson from the 1930s is that, if a confrontation is coming, it is better to start from a position of relative strength.
This last point is at least clear to liberals who, from their position in government, have begun to push back against the East with the aim of disabling their international rivals. The US in particular has backed Ukraine in its efforts to repel Russia, begun building an international coalition to contain China’s ambitions, and imposed sanctions on their proxies such as the Serbs.
In the last few weeks, Western governments have also backed Israel in the face of threats from Iran, sailing a fleet of warships into the eastern Mediterranean, launching missile strikes against Iranian-backed militia in Syria and Iraq, and defending Israel’s position from criticism at the UN.
Despite their intended objectives, however, liberals simultaneously undercut their own efforts to contain regional rivals, trapped within an ideological framework that compels them to adopt a self-contradictory position. One manifestation of this is their depiction of the struggle as a contest between democracies and autocracies, insisting that those in the Western alliance must place themselves on the right side of this Manichean divide.
Arguably, it is valid for politicians to require members of the West to adopt liberal democracy as a defining characteristic of its identity, provided this is not confused with the new ‘liberal’ ideology, whose pessimism, focus on collective over individual rights and authoritarian practices are antithetical to the tenets of classical liberalism.
Yet to demand this of others outside the West serves mainly to alienate potential allies that either fear the West is trying to topple their governments or resent what they see as external interference in their domestic affairs, and whose support is needed to contain Russia, China and Iran.
Liberal politicians similarly alienate potential members of the Western alliance, entering into conflict with groups such as the Serbs and Albanians out of aversion to nationalism and a rigid attachment to norms of territorial integrity, pushing them into closer relations with Russia, China and Turkey. It also frustrates Turkey’s wish for a sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean commensurate with its growing size.
Meanwhile, liberals empower their regional rivals, even as they try to constrain them. The West buys their exports, enriching their respective governments, and sells them as Western exports, helping to modernise and build their economies. It invites eastern companies to enrich themselves in the West and Western companies to relocate to the east, taking with them technology and know-how. It admits their citizens to settle in the West and awards them political rights; and grants revisionist powers a place in international institutions where they can constrain the West’s own room for manoeuvre.
In their defence, advocates of liberalism argue that the benefits of global free trade outweigh the risks of giving rivals control over the supply of critical goods; that rival powers can be tamed and westernised by a process of strategic engagement; that co-operation with states such as China is essential to make progress against common threats, such as climate change; and that the West would be compromising its own values if it discriminated against immigrants according to their origins.
Yet, despite the seeming complacency and skewed sense of priority which informs this worldview, such arguments are increasingly shaping debate over policy towards the Middle East where liberals in the West place higher priority over the human rights of Palestinians than the need to support a Western ally against the threat from Iranian proxies and Iran itself, with Russia and China standing behind it.
In recent weeks, the tensions within liberalism have been made clear by a vociferous and very public spat among governments, politicians and officials within the West about support for Israel, whose critics have condemned its actions as violations of international law, disregarding the indifference of Hamas and its great power backers to legal niceties and the obvious implications for the outcome of the struggle.
Any such suggestion can only represent a third pathway to defeat for the West and its allies, alongside those prescribed by the defeatists on the left who advocate surrender and the isolationists on the political right who support a strategic retreat.
What to do? The answer is that the West can successfully uphold the existing international order if it is willing to do so in a way that is both resolute and comprehensive; and that this must begin with the US, the largest, most powerful state within the Western bloc and its natural leader at times of crisis, resuming its traditional leadership role.
That will require a change of mindset within the American electorate to create the necessary ideological environment for a more decisive foreign policy that political parties can then adopt in the knowledge this will lead to electoral success.
Changes of this kind cannot be willed into existence. The process, if it happens, will begin with a willingness by political, intellectual and media elites to explain to ordinary Americans why the US cannot ignore what happens in the outside world, how the growing strength and cohesion of the East threatens the US’ vital interests, and what pushing back against the East means in practice.
Encouragingly, some have begun this discussion in recent weeks, most notably President Biden, who argued in a call to arms in mid-November that history had approached an inflection point, that Russia, Iran and Hamas represented part of a single unified threat, that defending the existing order depended on the US and that standing silently by was not an option.
The second precondition for the defence of the West must be a consolidation of the transatlantic alliance under overall American leadership, as happened during the last Cold War, rather than allowing the West to divide into two separate poles, one based in Washington and another in Brussels.
Not only does such an outcome risk the possibility that the two will pursue separate and potentially conflicting geopolitical strategies, limiting the US’ strategic options. But that as a weak and unnatural entity lacking a single European nation to bind it together, the EU lays itself open to manipulation by Russia and China, both of which can exploit its internal divisions to pick the union apart, and with it the West itself.
To this end, Europeans will have to abandon the illusion that the EU is a great power in its own right or that it ever can be on a continent that, despite sustained attempts at homogenisation, is still defined by a plethora of distinct nations whose security depends not on merging themselves into a closely-knit European superstate but on forming a broad alliance with Western peers based on their common interests and identity.
If the Europeans are to fall into line behind the US, Washington must address the reasons for the quest by some Europeans for ‘strategic autonomy’. This involves hard guarantees of their interests and security, which do not depend on the vagaries of American politics or changes in occupancy of the White House.
Fortunately, despite rhetoric to the contrary, the actual behaviour of the Europeans suggests their preference is to bandwagon with the US. The EU’s eastern members have actively sought to draw the US into Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. Finland and Sweden have sought American protection in the form of NATO membership. Individual countries, from Denmark to Cyprus, have signed new bilateral security agreements with the US. And governments have largely rejected calls by integrationists to cede their powers of veto over matters of foreign policy to Brussels.
The need for consolidation also applies to the wider Western world, including the UK, Canada and especially Australia and New Zealand, which are at risk of drifting into China’s orbit amid growing dependence on the country for their prosperity and economic security, but whose incorporation into an American-led coalition is vital to prevent non-Western rivals from making gains.
As a matter of policy, the immediate priority must be to defend the West’s geographical hinterland and prevent it from falling to rival powers. That begins in the Middle East where Israel is fighting to defend a bastion of Westernism in the face of Islamist threats.
The West should also grasp the opportunity to embrace a swathe of peoples on its immediate frontier which share its culture and identity, and want to join the Western camp. That applies most obviously to Ukraine, which is fighting a war to break free from Russia’s orbit and reduce its sphere of influence.
The rationale applies to all the remaining non-integrated states in eastern Europe which are amenable to joining the West, from the Balkans to Moldova and the Caucasian states of Armenia and Georgia, in which, fortunately, there is now renewed interest. This month, the European Commission called for most of these to take a step towards integration with the EU.
In this respect, the task is to overcome the barriers which have kept these countries at bay for more than two decades. In the case of Serbia, Albania and Kosovo, that will mean dealing with unresolved national questions that currently put them in conflict with the liberal-led West.
The EU must also reform itself, if necessary, via a process of loosening that allows relatively poor, corrupt and troubled states from the east to join it, without harming the interests of the EU’s existing members in the form of mass movements of population from east to west, huge financial transfers from west to east, the destruction of their agricultural sectors and the tensions that arise from sharing political institutions among states with different interests and priorities.
Further afield, the West should seek opportunities for building partnerships with states that, if not aligned with the West, are at least not aligned with its opponents. The greatest opportunity lies with states on the frontline of Chinese expansionism, such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan, which are already close to the West and in some cases already host American bases.
Another willing partner is Turkey, a NATO member which has declined to join the BRICS and has broadly supported Western policy towards Russia, providing weapons to Ukraine, restricting access to Russian ships through the Bosphorus, negotiating the grain export deal, sharing intelligence with Washington and rolling back Russian influence in the Caucasus. Yet Turkey also has means to harm the West if it frustrates Turkey’s basic interests.
Practically, that will mean having to concede Turkey’s claim to a sphere of influence in the eastern Mediterranean, by turning a blind eye to its extraction of energy from the waters around Northern Cyprus. It will also involve downplaying criticism of democratic backsliding by President Erdoğan at home.
The West can make gains with a set of other middle-ranking powers, from India to Brazil and Vietnam which, despite having joined the BRICS, are happy to play off rivalries between the West and the East to increase their strategic autonomy, advance their political interests and accrue material gain.
In this context, the West can exercise some leverage by opening up its markets to imports from these powers, selling them weaponry, supporting their positions in international institutions and financing infrastructure projects such as the proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor – Washington’s and Brussels’ answer to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Beyond these lies a plethora of smaller and more peripheral states, whose support will be difficult to lever. Many bear the scars of the colonial experience, are instinctively sympathetic to anti-Western powers and, in the case of Muslim states, resent the West’s support for Israel. Some are in bondage to Beijing after taking out huge development loans or are dependent on the East economically, for energy, grain or cheap consumer goods.
While this may preclude close alliances, the West can still leverage support of a kind – and at relatively low cost – by means of politically-conditioned economic aid, the selective lifting of trade barriers and enhanced security assistance, particularly in Africa where Russia’s Wagner Group has recently gained a foothold.
At the same time, the West should refrain from demands for democratisation along Western lines, obedience to liberal preoccupations such as human rights and the politics of gender and sexuality, and the adoption of a green agenda which run contrary to their interests, offend their sensibilities, are largely unenforceable and undermine the priority of drawing these states away from the West’s opponents.
Of all the interventions the West can make internationally, these are by far the easiest to achieve, involving no cost and minimal preparation beyond the need for a psychological adjustment to reality and a willingness to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
There are countries which have elected to throw in their lot with Russia and China, especially those in their immediate vicinity, such as North Korea, parts of Central Asia and even Pakistan, which can never realistically be turned towards the West, which has minimal influence there anyway, and which might as well be written off.
The flipside is the need to deter, contain and, if necessary, confront the West’s adversaries, necessitating action on multiple fronts. It must undermine their capacity by limiting the purchase of their imports, ending the export of know-how and technology, restricting their companies from operating in the West and Western companies from operating in the East, ignoring international institutions where rival states have gained effective control, limiting the admission of their citizens – and incentivising others to do the same.
The West must continue to test their internal resilience using the techniques of hybrid warfare, from espionage to the sponsoring of domestic opposition groups – whether the formal opposition or local NGOs – investment in counter-propaganda and the use of punitive cyberattacks.
It should also support regional opponents who are ready to confront these powers, whether Israel in the Middle East, Poland, the Taiwanese or the Romanians in Moldova, arming and training them to be an effective fighting force on the ground. This can be backed with the deployment of conventional military power, involving new bases in frontline states and naval placements in the seas surrounding rival powers.
Should rival states fail to respond to this deterrence, the West can ratchet up pressure, involving trade and financial sanctions, a comprehensive withdrawal of Western companies, expulsion from international institutions, a ban on entry for their citizens and support for separatist groups and opponents of the state – measures which have all been imposed on Russia in one form or another since its invasion of Ukraine.
The viability of a grand strategy such as this depends fundamentally on action on the home front to counter the West’s domestic weaknesses and lack of self-confidence. This has to begin with greater investment in the full spectrum of security and defensive measures. The West as a whole must be prepared to spend more on their armies, navies and air forces, which are too small to respond to simultaneous threats in eastern Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.
The West will need to increase the number of men (and women) in uniform to ensure there are enough personnel to man permanent frontline bases, if necessary, resorting to conscription, as it did during the last Cold War. The three Western nuclear powers must also invest in their nuclear arsenals – not with the intension of using them but to avoid a direct clash between the great powers themselves and that any potential wars are only fought by proxy.
Countering hostile states will also involve extensive investment in the intelligence services, which must be mobilised to counter both threats at home and wage hybrid warfare abroad, and investment in the domains of diplomacy, counter-propaganda and foreign aid.
This endeavour must be accompanied by reform on the economic front. At the core of this must be the reshoring, revival and, if necessary, protection of strategic sectors of the economy such as energy, manufactured goods and critical technologies that will end the West’s dependence for its prosperity and economic security on hostile states.
Yet the task is greater than this, involving a reversal of the West’s economic decline which has ceded power to the East in recent decades. Inevitably, this means a supply-side revolution involving reforms across a raft of policy areas, from regulation to education, pensions, welfare and infrastructure, a rolling back of net zero and the orderly dismantling of the EU’s monetary union.
Meanwhile, the West must undertake a democratic revival that rebuilds popular trust in government and marginalises defeatist elements which advocate isolation or surrender to hostile states. At a minimum, this will involve a greater willingness by elites to involve ordinary people in political life, to respect their basic wishes rather than dismissing them as populism, and to end the culture of growing authoritarianism which stands in the way of such a revival.
It will also involve efforts to promote social cohesion after decades of decay by fostering a common national culture with which all members of society can identify and take pride, rather than denigrating the nation as a reactionary relic or promoting the idea of a multicultural society which serves mainly to encourage division.
In this respect, the West must rethink its model of immigration, placing obligations of newcomers to adopt the culture of their host communities and show loyalty towards them, alongside a concerted effort to integrate existing minorities and, where possible, remove those who promote the interests of opponents.
Last, but most importantly, the West must rediscover what the West itself means as a distinct culture and civilisation, defined by its origins in the Christian and Classical traditions rather than a spurious universalism, which is worth preserving in the face of threats to its position from non-Western powers.
Whether the West can undertake such a revival and rise to the challenge of preserving the existing international order remains to be seen. For all the expressions of resolve by politicians, and a few concrete steps to shore up its position, the West has lacked resolve in Ukraine while equivocation over Israel sends a clear message of weakness.
On the home front, the West remains plagued by economic stagnation, political division and a loss of confidence and shows little sign of readiness to undertake the massive changes required to strengthen and defend its position. Externally, its will to confront international opponents, even those on its doorstep, is limited. Its commitment to facing down the threat from Russia lasted little more than 18 months before majorities in the US and Europe have called on their leaders to throw in the towel.
Weakness of this kind can only embolden the West’s opponents, who are gaining in strength and coalescing internationally, creating a permissive environment in which they can expand their spheres of influence and continue to reorder the world in their own interests.
All is not lost. In the 1940s, the US and its allies overcame their internal malaise in the face of an existential threat, pushed back and finally defeated their opponents, after the danger they posed reached the very frontiers of the Western domain. The question before us is whether the West must again reach the brink before it finally come to its own defence.