Academic journal article Policy Review

The West Runs out of Power

Academic journal article Policy Review

The West Runs out of Power

Article excerpt

ON A BLEAK February day in 2.002, I found myself standing in a derelict Christian cemetery in Kabul, a bemused onlooker at a memorial service for the British soldiers who had died in two 19th-century Afghan wars. Western coalition forces had just arrived in the Afghan capital after having ousted the Taliban in retaliation for the attacks of 9-11. Their British commander, General John McColl, had himself decreed the ceremony, and the ancient walled enclosure had been spruced up with whitewash and vivid poppy wreaths. As the British Empire had lost both wars, with terrible losses, the service seemed a quixotic thing to do then; with hindsight, it appears almost prophetic.

My reverie, induced by biting cold and a series of Scottish burrs reciting the deeds of long-gone Highland regiments, was interrupted by the Anglican priest's homily. His praise of the soldiers for persevering in the thankless task of protecting their country struck an oddly familiar, if not quite biblical note. The Reverend David Steele, a cheerful New Zealander wearing his surplice over combat fatigues and boots, was delighted to reveal his source after the service. He had adapted it, he said, from a key scene in a favorite book, in which the warrior hero recounts how he and his kind have been guarding the fat, short, and feckless inhabitants of a tiny realm, unbeknownst to them, against the forces of an evil kingdom called Mordor.

This scene came back to mind on re-reading Robert Kagan's famous Venus vs. Mars analogy for the transatlantic relationship: Europe, that land of carefree hobbits, intent on garden parties and fireworks, blithely relying on being shielded from harm by the ever-vigilant American Dunedain. Kagan's comparison was a caricature, as he was quick to note himself, but like any really good caricature, it hit home. Its strongest and most durable point was the insight that Europeans' aversion to war, and preference for diplomacy and multilateralism, might be based on denial rather than principle--a psychological coping strategy, to avoid recognition of Europe's vulnerability and dependence. Ouch.

A decade later, a humbled and battered NATO is preparing to leave a brittle Afghanistan. American-led forces have already withdrawn from Iraq, after a war that brought transatlantic relations to a postwar nadir. They recovered, nonetheless, and managed to achieve a coolly pragmatic cooperation. Then, in 2008, the economic crisis hit. Now, with still no end to the financial turmoil in sight, it is time to stop pretending--to borrow a line from Kagan--that things are as they were before. The global strategic landscape has undergone profound changes. They bear on the nature of state power, as well as on governments' ability to deploy it; and they affect the very definition of security.

As for transatlantic relations, ten years ago, the ideological battle line ran between the guns of hard power (America) and the butter of soft power (Europe). But it was never fundamentally in doubt that either side had quasi-unlimited stocks to wield of its weapon of choice, given productive economies and sophisticated governmental structures. Nor, despite repeated fallings-out over which kind of power trumps the other, was it ever questioned that both sides of the Atlantic formed a community of values and interests. Today, however, the problem of both America and Europe is the diffusion and erosion of their own power, as well as the dwindling of their own sense of legitimacy--one might even call it a crisis of conviction. The challenge of the 21st century is not the weakness of others, but the weakness of the West.

A new strategic landscape

NOT EVERYTHING IS different, obviously. Traditional security threats remain very present; some have a government postal address (Iran, North Korea, Pakistan) while others operate in the shadows (al-Qaeda and its franchises, pirates, cybercriminals). Some of our most important and vulnerable assets are physical, as well as fixed (critical infrastructure). …

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