Atlanticists on both side of the pond have used the current standoff with Russia over Ukraine to reassert the centrality of NATO and of the transatlantic partnership. Continued interest in a united and purposeful West is a good thing, but the conceptual basis of the transatlantic relationship is outdated and in urgent need of overhaul. What is needed is a new transatlantic grand strategy and a new vision for the West that is more in line with the new world that is emerging.
Following the de facto annexation of the Crimea by Russia, talk of a new Cold War dominates the headlines. By talking up the Russian threat and comparing Putin to Hitler or Stalin, Atlanticists have been seeking to construct a new enemy picture better able to re-unite the West than the War on Terror was able to. They have succeeded in drawing attention away from the recent NSA spying scandal, and even in keeping the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) on the agenda. But this success may be short lived and instead of strengthening the West, their approach could further weaken it.
The problem is that the transatlantic partnership is still based on an underlying American hegemony and still follows a grand strategy made in Washington, which, since the end of the Cold War, has pursued the globalisation of the liberal international order and the globalisation of American hegemony to underwrite this order.
In the current strategic context, this strategy demands the rolling back of the growing power of Russia and China in particular. This is reflected in US policies with regard to the civil war in Syria, the continuing standoff with Iran, the crisis in the Ukraine, the much-touted pivot to Asia, NATO’s missile defence shield in Europe, the Fed’s policy of quantitative easing and particularly its recent tapering, and even the TTIP and Trans-Pacific Partnership initiatives.
But pursuing ‘hostile’ policies towards China, Russia, Syria and Iran simultaneously while at the same time facing serious social, economic and political problems at home, a struggling global economy, an imploding Middle East, continued violence and instability in South Asia, growing tensions in East Asia, the South China Sea and elsewhere must be seen for what it is: a poor strategy.
Instead of thinking about ways to adjust their aims and ambitions, many policymakers, especially in Washington, appear to have decided to simply continue pursuing the same strategy more vigorously in the hope that they will be able to turn the clock back. Success in this endeavour, however, is highly unlikely. The world has changed in fundamental ways and the grand strategy outlined above is simply no longer feasible. Instead of saving the West, continuing down this road will only hasten its decline and further increase global instability.
The aim of enlarging and deepening the Euro-Atlantic community, however, is still the right one, both for the US and for Europe. But it cannot be achieved on the basis of being considered a mere subsidiary aim in a broader globalist vision. And it can neither be achieved on the basis of the continuing expansion of either the EU or NATO, nor by attempting to rollback and subdue rather than cooperate with Russia.
Seeking to dominate rather than cooperate with Iran and Russia has been one of the gravest strategic errors committed by the West in the last decade; not least since doing so has driven them closer into the arms of China, threatening to create a potent anti-American and anti-western Eurasian bloc. The second major strategic mistake of the West has been to continue the disastrous neoliberal globalisation policies that have led to the offshoring of western middle class jobs abroad and the hollowing out of western economies, resulting in the explosion of private and public debt levels, multiple social and political crises, and the erosion of the foundations of the West’s power and leadership role in the world.
It is time for both Europe and the United States to reverse course and make fundamental, and not just cosmetic, adjustments to its strategic vision and grand strategy.
Some policymakers and strategic thinkers in the US, while perhaps not yet willing to fathom the full consequences and logical conclusions of their own arguments, are waking up to this need. This is implicit in the president of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass calling for a much greater focus on nation building at home; President Barack Obama demanding a ‘tax code that lowers incentives to move jobs overseas, and lowers tax rates for businesses and manufacturers that are creating jobs right here in the United States of America’; or Charles Kupchan pointing out that ‘the rules that we have written are of the West and for the West’, that it is thus ‘difficult to untangle the liberal world order from western power’ and that ‘the biggest mistake we can make is to assume that our liberal order is about to be universalised and get on our horses and stuff it down people’s throats’.
The principle that should guide this search for a new grand strategy ought to be the dictum ‘less is more’. Or, to put it more clearly, the West’s first and foremost aim must be its internal political and economic rejuvenation, followed by its consolidation, i.e. its enlargement and deepening. Such an enlarged and more integrated West should ideally consist of five or six building blocs or sub-regions: the United States and NAFTA, Latin America (maybe UNASUR), the European Union, Britain (either as part of the EU or as an independent member), Russia (or the Russian-led Eurasian Union) and possibly Turkey. The further integration of sub-groupings and regional unions within the New West should also be encouraged.
Realising this vision, however, requires the establishment of new, and ideally confederal, institutions for this New West, i.e. the complete overhaul of the transatlantic institutional architecture. This is the only way in which the varying interests and sensitivities that are in the way of a closer partnership and eventual integration of the six sub-regions to be accommodated; and for the necessary level of mutual trust to be established. A new and overarching western institutional architecture (NATO and other existing institutions should of course be retained) would also address such precarious questions as Britain’s role in the EU, whether Turkey will have to join the EU in order to be anchored in the West, what to do about contested countries like Georgia and the Ukraine, and how to deal with an emerging Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
The benefits of this vision for the future of the West are numerous. It would create the single greatest and, crucially, most autarkic economic bloc in the world today. It will have access to the huge markets and technological and innovative potential of the old West as well as the higher vitality and growth potential, and abundant natural resources, of the new members of this New West. And, moreover, the relative convergence of living and regulatory standards necessary for the successful integration of varying economies will be much easier to achieve in this New West than it has been on a global scale. Realising this vision would rejuvenate the West and even allow for the resurrection and reinvigoration of the liberal international order itself.
The first step that has to be taken, however, is to immediately halt the escalation of tensions with Moscow over the Ukraine. The solution to this crisis and the steps necessary to rebuild trust between the old West and Russia have already been proposed: They include a federal solution for the Ukraine, the commencing of negotiations between the EU and Russia on a free trade area spanning from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and a pledge by the EU that it will oppose any further enlargements of the EU and NATO. Taking these steps would stabilise the current situation and set Western-Russian relations on a new foundation. Once this has been achieved, more far-reaching negotiations on the building of a New West could commence.
This article originally appeared in The Atlantic Times/The German Times in May 2014.