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The Overstretched West

BERLIN – The chaotic consequences of the gradual disintegration of Pax Americana are becoming increasingly clear. For seven decades, the United States safeguarded a global framework, which – however imperfect, and regardless of how many mistakes the superpower made – generally guaranteed a minimum level of stability. At the very least, Pax Americana was an essential component of Western security. But the US is no longer willing or able to be the world’s policeman.

The staggering accumulation of crises and conflicts facing the world today – in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Gaza, and Libya – are linked to America’s new stance. Should matters come to a head in another seismic zone of world politics – namely, East Asia – the world would confront a global catastrophe stemming from the synchronicity of numerous regional crises. Obviously, it would be a crisis that no one could control or contain.

The bipolar world of the Cold War is history; George W. Bush squandered America’s brief moment as the only true superpower. Economic globalization has so far not given rise to a framework for global governance. Perhaps we are in the middle of a chaotic process that will lead to a new international order – or, more likely, we are only at the beginning of that process.

The debate about a future global order is taking place primarily in the West – specifically, North America and Europe. With the emerging powers largely trying to adapt their strategic positions to their national aspirations and interests, they are unwilling or unable to articulate the ideas and binding rules that should underpin a new international order.

What, for example, does a Chinese or Indian formula for a new global order look like? (In light of events in eastern Ukraine, it is perhaps advisable not to inquire too closely about Russia’s views.) The old transatlantic West seems to be alone in this respect, and therefore remains indispensable to preserving global stability.

And yet the frequency of crises has also revived in Western countries an old, fundamental normative conflict between idealism and realism, or a value-based and an interest-based foreign policy. Though it has long been clear that Western polities rely on both, the contrast, however artificial, is now front and center once again.

The crisis in Iraq, and the horrific violence of the Islamic State (IS) there and in Syria, is largely the result of the West’s non-intervention in the Syrian civil war. The foreign-policy “realists” opposed a supposedly idealistic “humanitarian” intervention. The results are now clear: a humanitarian disaster and a grave challenge to the Arab Middle East as it has been constituted for the last century.

The controversy in Europe about arming the Kurds seems bizarre in light of the situation in Iraq. Before our eyes, the IS is threatening to kill or enslave all members of religious and ethnic minorities who do not immediately convert to Islam or flee. With the world watching the IS threaten genocide, taking action is a moral duty. Questions regarding, for example, what happens after the fighting ends to the weapons given to the Kurds are of secondary importance.

In terms of realpolitik, this argument is strengthened by the fact that Iraq’s national army is all but incapable of defeating the IS, while the Kurdish militias could – but only if they are equipped with modern weapons. A victory for the IS in northern Iraq, or even just the capture of Erbil, the Kurdish Regional Government’s capital, would cause not just an unparalleled humanitarian disaster; it would also pose an enormous political threat to the greater Middle East and world peace.

So the nexus between values and interests is self-evident and renders the conflict over fundamental foreign-policy principles irrelevant. This is particularly true for the European Union. A Middle East with a brutal, unfettered terrorist state at its center would be a direct threat to neighboring Europe’s safety. So why not help those in Iraq who are willing and able to confront this peril?

But if only the West assumes responsibility for maintaining global order, won’t it become overstretched, given the number and nature of the crises it faces? Most of these struggles are not clashes between states; they are asymmetrical conflicts, for which Western societies – including the US – are not equipped. These conflicts are further exacerbated by the ruthlessness that characterizes religious wars – just like those in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. So, yes, the West does indeed face a high risk of becoming overstretched.

But what is the alternative, other than accelerating chaos, mushrooming security risks, and serial humanitarian disasters? For the West – and for Europe first and foremost – this dilemma cannot be avoided.

Today’s accumulating crises, accompanied by America’s strategic fatigue, are forcing Europe to define what role it will play in the future of Western – and global – stability. If the US can no longer bear the burden of Pax Americana, Europe must do more for collective security. But Europe cannot assume greater responsibility for global order and stability without unifying politically. Unfortunately, too many European leaders cannot – or will not – understand this.