The 20 year crisis

Commentary

Response to the Haiti tragedy; the struggling mission in Afghanistan; the economic crisis. The west is in a '20 year crisis'.

European and American leaders are converging in Munich this year in an atmosphere of crisis.  The tragedy of Haiti, and the failed airplane plot pile pressure on leaders already destabilised by the political aftershocks of the economic crash and the struggling mission in Afghanistan.  But the trauma of the west has longer antecedents than the collapse of Lehman brothers in 2008 or even 9/11.  Its roots go back to 1989. 

In 1939 the English historian EH Carr wrote a seminal book called The Twenty Years' Crisis, which showed how the liberal powers squandered their victory in 1918 by failing to adapt to a changing world. Today's West is suffering a 20-year crisis of its own.   Of course, 2009 is not 1939. There is no prospect of war in Europe, and the financial crisis has not wreaked the havoc of the Great Depression. But the analogy of the 20 years crisis does function in a fundamental way: the liberal powers in 1919 believed that they were the centre of what would become a democratic world and were taken by surprise by the economic resurgence of authoritarian regimes.   The same is true of the west after 1989: we believed that history was on our side, and that the world was cheering us on. 

But 1989 not only opened the door for globalisation and a shift in economic power from West to East (and the shifts in the military balance that rising powers could afford).  It has also sowed the seeds for a multipolar world of ideas where many global leaders embrace the Beijing Consensus over the Washington consensus, Russian sovereign democracy over European liberal democracy, while western attitudes towards sovereignty, human rights and intervention struggle to gain ground in international court of public opinion.  In this context, the lack of reform of international institutions, from the UN to the IMF, could be seen as a mini-Versailles Treaty; a symptom of the fact that the liberal powers were too busy basking in their victory to ready themselves and their institutions  for a different world.

President Obama is now preparing for this post-Western world by re-setting American relations with China and Russia, and reconceptualising the US policy towards Af/Pak, the Middle East, and Iran.  Many EU leaders, conversely, have strategic jet-lag: they remain in thrall to the thinking of the 1990s (an incredible decade that saw Germany re-united, the seeds for NATO and EU enlargement planted, a European single market and currency completed, and the creation of a new generation of multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the Kyoto Protocol, and the International Criminal Court).  Because its world view was shaped by this glorious decade it is struggling to adapt to changes in its own continent or the wider world.

The 1990s was the EU's unipolar moment, at least in its own neighbourhood. Russia descended into chaos, the countries of the eastern bloc began their long journey towards EU accession and the liberal European model was the only one on offer. Enlargement - of NATO first and the EU - has been the EU's most successful foreign policy ever, but its very success is preventing the EU from developing fresh thinking for the challenges of the 21st century.  Enlargement in the 1990s was based on the assumption that Europe is the only pole of attraction and that countries want not simply to join it, but to become like it.  However, beyond the Western Balkans and Turkey, neither of these assumptions hold true.  Today's neighbourhood is multipolar with Russia and a newly active Turkey using soft and hard power to bring countries into their sphere of influence.  While the new neighbours are attracted by the European market, they want to choose European benefits ‘a la carte' rather than embark on the wholesale transformation of their societies.  They see the European Union as a way of increasing their leverage against Russia.  And at the same time, the United States - through its re-set diplomacy and the step away from missile defence and NATO enlargement - has signalled to Europeans that they will return to off-shore balancing - leaving Europeans to take primary responsibility for their backyard.

It is in this context - of an increasingly multipolar Europe - that we need to think about the Medvedev proposal.  For diplomats there is a natural tendency to go for a defensive posture of marking out European red-lines and sending the debate into the graveyard of the OSCE.  But the core questions we need to start with are: do we live in the best of all possible orders given the political situation in Russia? Are the post-cold-war institutions underpinning European order and giving us the security that we need? If the answer to these questions is yes, there may be problems with the OSCE, CFC, and Georgia but any renegotiation will simply play into Russia's hands - allowing them to undermine NATO, EU and OSCE; divide and rule Europeans and Americans; and re-establish a sphere of influence. 

An alternative approach is to recognise that the post-cold war order is already crumbling and that the status-quo we are trying to defend is inherently unstable.  If that is true it might be worth risking moving beyond red-lines to forge a united European position that could shift the Russians on arms control, common missions in Transdnistria, mutual recognition of the status-quo in Georgia.  Of course, this approach will probably not succeed because of the conceptual differences between the two sides.  For Europeans, the idea of security is about pooling and constraining sovereignty.  For a Russia that is busy trying to rebuild its sovereignty and protecting itself from outside interference the very idea of security in the EU is a threat.  Conversely, it is the Russian idea of security - a sphere of influence shielded from external interference - which makes Europeans feel insecure. However, the EU has more to lose from passively responding to the Russian proposals than from debating its own idea of a European order and asking others to sign up.

On the surface, the US faces a similar dilemma on the global stage in responding to the rise of a China that has become a factor on all security issues.  The conventional wisdom is that we have two choices in dealing with China: either we give it the space to pursue more ambitious economic, diplomatic and defense objectives within the existing order; or we will find that China tries to alter the international rules and institutions of the Western order in order to build a new one in its own image.  But seen from Beijing there is no a binary choice between engagement or exit. China depends too much on the existing system to drive its economic growth to seek to overthrow it, but it is showing little sign of becoming a "responsible stakeholder". Whether in sinking the chances of a meaningful deal at Copenhagen, in controlling the pace of P5+1 process on Iran, working with India as a deal-breaker in the WTO negotiations, or restraining the capacity of the UN Security Council to take action on Burma and Zimbabwe, a more engaged China has generally acted to weaken the liberal orientation of the system wherever possible. Rather than being transformed by the institutions, China has used its participation in the western system to constrain the ability of the west to pursue core policy goals while at the same time working outside the existing system to create a new network of relationships and institutions that exclude the west.   None of these steps are likely to result in outright confrontation with the West - not least because avoiding such a conflict is one of China's primary goals. But in the round, it represents a powerful challenge to the liberal order that was in the process of developing after the Cold War.

Rather than developing plans for a G2, the US should be working with the EU to develop an approach to preserve the liberal bias in the global order.  The goal should not be to hope that China will become responsible, but rather to make the existing order China proof.  The central idea to adopt is an approach of "conditional integration" - using tools such as "Carbon taxes" or the threat of exclusion to make participation contingent on the contribution countries are willing to make.  The goal is not to create a "league of democracies" but for western powers to get much better at acting in concert and recruiting of others to break up illiberal coalitions in global institutions.

Forging new partnerships means being unafraid of escaping the thinking of the last 20 years. Today's Washington is already less focused on Europe and busy forging its own policies with other powers which may not always be in tune with European interests.  This is not a bad thing.  Over the past half century, Europeans have been infantilised by America - whether in the form of Atlanticism or anti-Americanism. Rather than developing their own responses to global issues, the tendency has been to pass a running commentary on American policy. But now, in a "post-American world", there is a chance to develop a new security agenda motivated not by nostalgia or emotion but shared interests, including the preservation of a liberal world order in an increasingly multipolar world.

This piece was first published in The Security Times - supplement for the Munich Security Conference. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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