Only five years ago, the general consensus among U.S. and European policy wonks was that, notwithstanding occasional glitches, the so-called liberal international order would remain the dominant global paradigm. For decades, the cognoscenti had assumed that export-driven modernization would eventually transform the likes of communist China into a mega-scale Japan, and that Russia, though authoritarian, would nonetheless adhere—at least in Europe—to the rules-based order. In hindsight it doesn’t really matter whether we fell victim to our own wishful thinking or refused to admit what was in front of us all the time—namely, a brief pause in great power competition followed by two great powers intent on revising the international order, in terms of both its principles and its geostrategic fault lines. We finally awoke to the geostrategic dimension of the ongoing rivalry when Russia seized Crimea and stoked a war in eastern Ukraine, and when China militarized the South China Sea by deploying military assets on its artificial islands. But the West has yet to fully grasp the realities of the system’s overall transformation, and especially its emerging axiology. The reason for the latter is not a lack of data points, but rather our inability to own up to the ideological shift underway within our own culture.
At the geostrategic level, the state of global affairs today is defined by two principal trends: the growing assertiveness of Russia and China, the two principal revisionist states; and the accelerating realignment of states worldwide in response to this rising pressure. More importantly, this challenge to the West runs in parallel with the apparent determination on the part of China to supplant democratic governance with a system built around authoritarianism, framed around a party elite. And for the first time the West seems too divided to launch a coherent response to this ideological pressure from abroad.
On paper, the West stands head-and-shoulders above any real and potential peer-competitors according to any reasonable economic measure. Judging by the numbers alone, the West should be able to dominate its adversaries: The GDP of the European Union totals about $17 trillion (all figures from World Bank, 2017), and that of the United States, around $19 trillion (as opposed to $12 trillion for China and $1.5 trillion for Russia). Likewise, given the combined EU population of roughly 512 million and the United States of close to 330 million (not counting the economic resources and population of our principal allies in Asia—Japan, for example, has a GDP of close to $5 trillion and a population of more than 126 million), Western democracies should be uniquely positioned to sustain their supremacy into the foreseeable future. And there are other geostrategic advantages that have accrued to the democratic world: Europe’s key position as the doorway to Eurasia, the U.S. status as a “continental island” advantageously positioned to project power in the Pacific and the Atlantic, with alliances, partnerships, and forward military deployments to match. In short, the democratic world does not have a shortage of usable power, whether one views it in terms of economics, population, or geography. And while it is true that we have made our situation worse by offshoring our supply chain to Asia and, most importantly, allowing the Chinese to acquire, whether legitimately or by theft or extortion, some of our most valuable intellectual property and technology, Beijing’s growing economic and financial muscle is no match for the combined heft of the West.
The real trouble for the West, rather, is what has been happening within our own societies. Internal changes have made us more vulnerable than any economic calculus would indicate. For the first time since the end of World War II, the so-called declinists may be onto something fundamental when they argue that the West’s heyday may be a thing of the past. The problem is not the economy or technology, but the centrifugal forces rising within the Transatlantic alliance: in short, the progressive civilizational fracturing and decomposition, fed by the growing disconnect between political and cultural elites and the publics across the two continents. Alongside this is an even more insidious trend of fragmenting national cultures and the concomitant debasement of the idea of citizenship, the latter increasingly defined almost exclusively in terms of rights, with reciprocal obligations all but relegated to the proverbial dustbin of history. The growing disunity of the West, exacerbated by tensions caused by the rejection by some in the Transatlantic community of a historical and cultural narrative that once inspired pride and admiration, both across state lines and internally, is now arguably the key national security challenge confronting us. It is this deepening sense of self-doubt that has made it all but impossible for the United States and its European allies to move beyond personal acrimony and articulate a strategically coherent common response to the devolving international power structure.
The problem runs deeper than individual leaders or governments. We are at an ideological inflection point within the Transatlantic community because of trends that have been building up over decades. Both in the United States and in Europe, we are now subject to the added stress of a “take no prisoners” politics in which the goal is not so much to win the argument as to annihilate one’s opponent.
The re-engineering of the Western cultural narrative over the past 50 years, first in our educational systems and media, and now within politics writ large, has effectively deconstructed the foundations of our shared Transatlantic civilization. In America—and increasingly also in Europe—colleges and universities produce cohorts of indoctrinated political activists with little or no knowledge of the foundational texts of our political tradition, the greatest works of Western literature, or the most enduring political debates that have shaped the Western democratic tradition. That heritage carried the West to victory through cataclysmic world wars and laid the foundations for the seven decades of peace and prosperity that followed.
Today the very bedrock of the Western political tradition is under assault. In addition, for at least three decades immigration policies across the West have shifted away from acculturating newcomers to the now regnant multiculturalist ideology, which has resulted in unintegrated “suspended communities.” In the process, in a growing number of democracies the larger national identity, which was historically tied to the overarching Western heritage, has been subsumed under ethnic and religious group identities. We are not quite there yet, but once the sense of belonging to a larger shared Western cultural community has been abolished, we will have reached the tipping point: The Transatlantic alliance that has preserved, protected, and promoted democracy since 1945 will be effectively undone, regardless of whether or not NATO continues to exist.
The cultural unmooring of the West that is now well underway is the result of more than a misguided immigration policy; rather, it flows from the larger ideological transformation of America and Europe. It is not my purpose here to recount the number of times I have encountered undergraduate students who have never read The Federalist Papers or have no idea why the Framers insisted on divided government as the backbone of our political system. Suffice it to say that members of the rising generation increasingly see democracy as either so abstract a concept that it seems to have little direct connection to their experiences or as obstacle to the necessary wholesale transformation, or even abolition, of our obsolescent political systems. According to The World Values Survey, today only about 30 percent of Americans born in the 1980s think it is “essential” to live in a democracy, compared to 75 percent of Americans born in the 1930s. In Europe, the number of youth who see democracy as “essential” was slightly over 40 percent.1 In a 2017 European Youth Study by Germany’s TUI Foundation (a sample of 6,000 respondents aged 16-26), only 30 percent of the young saw the European Union as an alliance of countries with common cultural values, only 18 percent of them attributed a common cultural basis to the European Union, and only 7 percent mentioned the value of religion and Christian culture. Meanwhile, a 2018 Gallup poll found that only 45 percent of young Americans view capitalism positively. This marked an astonishing 12-point drop in only two years, and a dramatic shift compared to 2010, when 68 percent of young Americans viewed capitalism positively. The same poll also showed that, when broken down by party affiliation, Democrats were more positive about socialism than capitalism. In short, the societies that are about to emerge from decades of the Gramscian neo-Marxist “long march” through the West’s cultural institutions may in fact have little or no grounding in the foundational principles of liberty, free speech, and a powerful citizenry.
Today many Americans in the heartland are still connected to the values that flow from the Western cultural canon, while a rising generation of elites produced by our colleges and universities can neither understand nor engage with these denizens of what some call disdainfully “flyover country.” Likewise, in Europe the gap between the elites and the electorates continues to widen, especially when the discussion touches on the delicate balance between what ought to remain national and what ought to become all-European if the collective EU project is to survive. This state of play, whereby Western elites seem no longer to care much about preserving and transmitting the foundational heritage to future generations, ensures that in a crisis a larger sense of collective solidarity will likely fail to materialize. The long-term, systemic implications of this state of affairs are dire indeed, for the logical consequence of this deepening cleavage will be the continued fracturing of societies on both sides of the Atlantic, and with it the eventual implosion of the Transatlantic security system.
The last time the United States and Europe shared a broad consensus of principal strategic objectives—the “for what” of state power—was during the Cold War, when the imperative to maintain the grand anti-Soviet coalition provided the glue that held the West together. Today NATO and the European Union, which for decades have served as our principal security and economic frameworks, are at risk of becoming hollowed-out shells. NATO is struggling on multiple levels—from the point of view of resources, capabilities, and, most importantly, its ability to marshal the political will of the alliance to act in solidarity in a crisis. The growing disparity in national outlooks on what constitutes first-, second- and third-tier threats has bred stasis and generated an aversion on the part of a growing number of governments to making necessary but potentially unpopular political decisions, including investments in defense. The fragmentation of the erstwhile allied consensus into regionalized security optics, whereby one’s geographic distance from a crisis point now seems to define the level of the mutuality of commitments, now rounds out the current sad state of affairs.
Internal political currents have also complicated the West’s ability to adapt to a changing geostrategic environment. In Europe the political center continues to shrink in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and the 2015-16 mass immigration wave that has upended traditional assumptions about leadership and political loyalties in a majority of countries. The United Kingdom has begun to resemble a politically broken country, as its leaders thrash about to find an orderly path to Brexit as the clock ticks down. Germany is already in the midst of its post-Merkel transition and yet beyond a reaffirmation of the centrality of Franco-German relations, the ideas currently under discussion (“a two-tiered EU,” “European Army,” or “Army of Europeans,” and so on) remain at a level of generality that is unlikely to yield any sort of concrete policy result. On the question of a “two-tiered or multi-tiered Europe,” there is a real risk that, once the European Union begins to think of itself in this way, the best possible outcome may be two organizations, while the worst outcome would be no organization at all. The United States, in turn, has been in a de facto “government shutdown” since the election of Donald Trump: Political polarization has all but dismantled U.S. policy elites’ ability to think in any but partisan terms. Meanwhile, the critical Transatlantic relationship, between the U.S. and Germany, is arguably more strained today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Finally, one must factor in the deepening “management fatigue” across the West—absent a coherent strategy for responding to a rapidly changing world, governments are left with the task of merely putting out fires. However, such reactive efforts will continue to drain our resources and, most importantly, in the end are likely to be rejected by the citizenry.
The malaise besetting the Transatlantic community is not likely to let up anytime soon; nor are these undercurrents likely to be fundamentally relieved—as some hope—by future elections in the United States and Europe. Even though much of the European criticism of the United States today seems to focus on the personality and management style of President Trump, the reality is that the current strains in Transatlantic relations are structural—the long-term result of the unmooring of a growing number of Western elites from the shared Western cultural inheritance.
The current state of affairs does not change the fact, however, that the United States and Europe need each other today more than at any time since 1989 in order to confront a challenge that is systemic in scope. The very nature of the tectonic shift now underway in the United States and Europe means that the project of rebuilding Transatlantic relations requires a fundamental rethinking of how we see ourselves and each other in this new environment. The West needs to adapt to a new world in which our traditional assumptions about polarity and the durability of established institutions will be increasingly challenged. This is likely to be a world of rapidly realigning actors, one in which the age-old adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is apt to gain currency, at times at the expense of institutional designs we have grown accustomed to. The emerging security landscape will require us to keep up with changing parameters and adversaries, and realize that even the most cherished legacy institutions and processes will not endure if they do not address real, urgent threats and generate real value. A good starting point for rebuilding Transatlantic relations would be to assess how far the United States and our European allies can progress toward defining a shared set of threats that our respective electorates would also recognize. Only then can we start thinking about how to confront those threats and adapt our legacy institutions accordingly.
The greatest challenges to redefining and strengthening the security community of the West will remain internal. In the final analysis, institutions are only as resilient as the people who make them work (or not). The deepening alienation of electorates from policy elites, the increasingly “de-nationalized” corporate practices of the business world, government paralyzed by political polarization, and media that function now more as propaganda channels than as sources of information, all reflect a deeper cultural malaise across the West.
At what point does a democracy’s ability to respond to new challenges become overwhelmed? Our present Transatlantic troubles are now no longer a brief hurricane to be ridden out, after which we can return to the old ways of familiar multilateralism. The collective West is heading for rough times in the next few years, and we may not like what emerges at the other end of the storm. The key question is: Can we still shape the outcome?
1Cited in Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk, “The Danger of Deconsolidation,” Journal of Democracy (July 2016).