Wednesday, November 26, 2014

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.

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    1. CommentedNichol Brummer

      Very interesting question from Fischer! If the US cannot anymore carry the full burden of European security, Europe will need to do more of that itself. And with the new challenges from Russia, and also the Middel East, Africa ... there is a strong argument that Europe has no choice but to go further in its political unification process. To become a military power. Is it only the US safety umbrella that allows Europe to dilly-dally with Euroscepticism?

    2. Commentedhari naidu

      I suggest Joschka to go back and find time to read 8 volumes on The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon - to get some historical perspective of the turmoil in international politics in 21st century.
      I of course supported you as FM during GWBs Iraq War and Munich Security Conference when you took on Donald Rumsfeldt US Defense Sec. That was real Joschka emotion exploding on live TV!
      Methinks you're lost now - e.g. Moisi - in trying to understand the raison d'etre of current developments. It's difficult to separate the forest from the trees, I accept, but you must also try and read the press in Beijing and Delhi, for example, to understand what the BRICS are thinking right now.
      Because it matters as we move into Asian 21st Century.

    3. CommentedJean-Louis Piel

      I love the way he writes, he thinks. He is so cynical, so opportunist, so twisted and vicious politician. It is such a pleasure to read a bad copy if the great and genius Machiavelli .
      Don't worry our dearest Fischer we love you for who you are! You allow us to feel human, weak, lazy, narrow . And because of that you let us find the clear strategic vision.
      Pax Americana has never existed except for us in Europe and Japan because for the others it has meant wars - horrible wars even worst that the one in WWII . Think about Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, all countries in South America, Africa, China, Middle East ( Iran, Palestine, etc). Look the TV serie directed by Oliver Stone remind us some of these horrors " Another Story of USA".

      What is the new order which is taking place ? It is so easy to see it : it is a strategic partnership between the West ( G7 and NATO countries including Japan, Turkey, Mexico plus India) and China. There is no other choice. Neither USA or China alone could dominate the World.
      We, Europeans, need to re-arm ourselves and to destroy this regional power of 110 millions Ethnic Russians . What means " destroy" ? Simply to integrate Ukraine , Turkey , Georgia in EU and NATO ( already the case for Turkey) and to push this Russia to become a Chinese province in cutting all our investments and relations with this Russia.
      In the next fifty years the real new strategic partner with Europe first and with this new strategic alliance will be Africa . African countries will the ones who will make the balance between the West and China . Africans will be 2 billions in 2050.
      In this context it is easy to see that Russia with 110 millions Ethnic Russians or IS are regional problems not really important - only needed to be destroyed. In a way or another. And because they are regional Europeans need to make wars more often I against these two.
      Germany will be obliged to follow the orders and to fight wars with his other allies as USA, UK, France, Poland, Ukraine, etc. to destroy this Russia as she is today will be a god exercise, a warm up.
      Saying that, it is to understand why I consider Fischer as a vicious and weak politician who never dare to offer real strategic vision and real understanding if the need to make wars . And the reason I love him because he represents so well this German attitude of a country who has been protected by USA , whose unification has been the results of the fight of the others mainly Polish.
      Now it is time for the Germans to realize they need to pay their due, to fight war with us - surely against this Russia.
      Globalization has always existed temporally - it has always resulted in wars never in peace . Peace moments have always been the period to prepare new wars . The reason is simple to understand - globalization is pushing for new balances between powers.
      Wars are useless destructions. They are most of the times irrational, too much human in their bestiality, and their results are totally unpredictable . But when we look the last 150 years it has never stopped to be wars all around the World with destructions for some bigger than the one of WWI . The good thing with the war against these 110 millions Ethnic Russians they have started this 2014 war . The one who starts generally is at the the loser.

    4. CommentedCornelis van Dijk

      In reality, the Kurds should then get independence, something the Turks would not agree with. Thus this reasoning, Mr. Fisher, is unsinn.

        CommentedÖmer Aytaç

        I guess you've been sleeping for the last couple of years.. Turks are exporting Kurdish oil directly without Baghdad. An Iraqi Kurdistan would only increase trade and create a nice buffer between Turkey and the Arabs with their Wahabis and their Shiites. Kurds in Turkey will have the chance to a referendum for independence in the future. But I don't give it any chance that Turkish Kurds, who now mainly live in Istanbul, will vote for independence and move there. Half the Kurds don't even vote for the pro-ethnic ("Kurdist") party. Even the Kurdist party is leaving that thought behind and going for a greater leftist-socialist type of politics.

    5. CommentedCornelis van Dijk

      The US should not be the world's policeman. It was useful for as long it lasted, but we all knew it would not continue.

    6. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I think talking about certain nations rising or falling, losing influence or gaining influence is not taking into consideration what it means that we evolved into a globally interconnected and inter-dependent world.

      Humanity is in an unprecedented situation we have no experience, method or tools for. Still we hope we can solve, fix problems trying old methods that are built on a fragmented, polarized, "enemies vs allies" worldview.

      Such a world does not exist any more, we all became parts of an integral system, chained to each other, depending on each other whether we want it or not. In this system one simply cannot 'broker", or force agreements, "peace" on others.

      In a global, integral system only mutually complementing planning and action can work, there are no local, or even "two-state" solutions. The growing chaos, desperate helplessness witnessed from day to day is living proof.

      We will either have global, mutual peace or no peace at all.

    7. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

      Mr. Joschka Fischer, the West may be "overstretched", but it is not seeing the end of "Pax Americana". It's true that for "seven decades, the United States safeguarded a global framework". Despite its imperfections the international community has enjoyed a "minimum level of stability". Now Mr. Fischer fears that security in the West is at risk, as Americans are war-weary after having paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So they are "no longer willing" to interfere in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria. But they are the world's biggest military spender and still able to be "the world’s policeman".
      Sure, the "bipolar world of the Cold War is history" and George W. Bush's "war on terror" had weakend America's position as the "only true superpower". "Economic Globalization" had helped China and Russia become economic powerhouses. Today these two countries challenge "Pax Americana" and want to abolish status quo. While they are "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". The question is whether they will be more willing to step forward for the common good and assume new responsibilities? Another question is how they would resolve the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Ukraine with regional and global leaders?
      Mr. Fischer points out the crisis in Iraq has plunged the West into a "fundamental normative conflict between idealism and realism, or a value-based and an interest-based foreign policy". Indeed, realists were hesitant to arm the Syrian rebels in their struggle against Bashar al-Assad, for fear of being dragged into a nonstarter. Idealists' voices became loud, when humanitarian disaster reached highest level of emergency and the threat that the IS terrorist state will pose "to the greater Middle East and world peace".
      Many criticise Obama for having failed to intervene in Syria last year after chemical attacks by the regime on civilians. They - including Mr. Fischer - see this as an end of "Pax Americana". Yet Obama has adopted the policies of "leading from behind" - in Libya, Iraq etc. and devolving power to regional powers, as he sees it in their interest to be involved. He prefers to champion for collective action and work with as many other countries as possible to the US acting unilaterally.
      This shouldn't be seen that "the US can no longer bear the burden of Pax Americana". Mr. Fischer insists "Europe must do more for collective security", and "assume greater responsibility for global order and stability", by "unifying politically". He fears "many European leaders cannot – or will not – understand this". Well, a post-American world would quickly evoke fear and uncertainty, not knowing what may come next. No doubt many in the West would make its case for a continued global leadership role, because they see the end of the Pax Americana as a dangerous void - despite scorn from countries, that are anti-West.

    8. CommentedVelko Simeonov

      The crisis in Iraq is precisely the result of western intervention in ME, Iraq, Lybia, Syria (yes the “West” is involved there albeit through incapable proxies), not the result of its absence as the author claims. Herr Fisher is wrong again as he has been all too often. In fact history repeats itself with arrogant western politicians “determining” what “must” be done despite their complete disregard for the local history, alliances and popular sentiment. The last time, after WWII, they created the current ME geopolitical framework of made up states whose composition is driven by the west’s own needs and strategic/economic goals (Sykes-Picot Agreement), which they themselves have now collapsed with the idiotic interventions in the last decade. Now they want to again, get involved, and guess what the result would be. Herr Fisher’s is the best example of what happens when one ignores past mistakes, and then combines it, with his own ignorance and absurd a sense of superiority.

        CommentedSteve Rodriguez

        You don't offer any solutions, only historically one-dimensional criticisms. The Iraq invasion was a reasonable response to the risk of state sponsors of terror. The Hussein regime had sponsored terror groups; they had, and used, WMD; they did not submit to the Cease Fire terms of Gulf War I. In light of 9/11, the invasion was a rational act. What stemmed from the failed occupation was a travesty of Western failure and incompetence, but the original decision to invade was based upon post-9/11 reasoning. While I agree the West has totally FUBAR'd the entire region over the centuries, that does not mean we can allow a murderous ideology who has detailed its intent to destroy the West to not be dealt with. As with Russia in Chechnya, the West will eventually act to defend itself. Lastly, the author is incorrect to say the US is suffering from strategic fatigue. The body politic is still martial in spirit. We are poorly led. At some point the leadership will change. In 1979 we had economic collapse, debt, unemployment, we had been beaten in Vietnam, military inferiority, the Soviets were advancing on all fronts.....and then the 1980 election brought Ronald Reagan.

        Betting against America is usually a losing bet.