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Challenges facing the West – Part 5 of the World War IV Series

In this five-part series, I explore the development and scope of what I have termed World War IV. This series is based on my presentation at the CDA Institute Roundtable “Knocking on the Door of World War IV,” held in Ottawa on 10 June 2015.

Part 4 of this series looked at the West’s strong points. This concluding post examines the other side of the coin. The situation, while anything but hopeless, is rather less than encouraging. Five issues stand out.

First, the credibility of Western democracy is increasingly threatened on a number of fronts: a collapsing political centre, political party corruption, rising extremism, the dominance of big money (what has been called democracy in the US), voter apathy especially among youth, and so on. In far too many western democracies, politicians enjoy the credibility often imputed to used-car salesmen.

In the US, the key issue is the chronic gridlock in Washington. Arcane party financing practices have produced a situation whereby your average American politician spends more time raising money for various campaigns than focusing on the challenges facing his or her constituency, let alone the nation. At the same time, these practices also encourage the Republican and the Democratic parties to appeal to views on the right or the left as opposed to seeking out the only place where meaningful compromises can be forged – the centre.

Similar issues also plague the member states of the European Union. The EU, for all its joint institutions and common treaties, has twenty-eight national decision-makers and no less than three presidents, some more powerful than others but each capable of blocking or subverting the decision-making process. The key position in this scrum is, of course, taken by Germany with its debilitating history, own national interests, and a population of eighty million in a union of over five hundred million. How exactly is this supposed to work? At the best of times, this system is impossibly dysfunctional. At its worst, it is totally ineffectual.

Currently, the EU faces three existential challenges: the continuing flow of refugees from the southern shore of the Mediterranean; the crisis in and around Ukraine; and the crisis with and about Greece. All these issues are set to be major thorns in the EU’s side, absorbing political energies desperately needed elsewhere, for some time to come. They cannot be resolved within the prevailing political framework.

Second, the picture on the economic front is similarly disconcerting and ties into the governance challenges plaguing western democracies. While wealth is still impressive on any comparative scale, the back story is one of increasingly economic inequality. In the US, the inequality quotient is at levels not seen since the late 1920s. In the EU as a whole, the uptick from the financial crisis of 2007–2009 has been slow in materializing, while the unemployment rates among youth remain stubbornly high.

A third issue concerns America’s leadership role. Since its entry into World War II, the US has been the West’s indispensable nation. It has been NATO’s lynchpin, building a system of bilateral alliances around the world, sometimes with unsavory states, but for the most part with states where democracy would eventually take root. Today, however, the United States is strategically tired, fed up with military engagements abroad that have gone nowhere and delivered only continuing chaos. I do not agree very much with Russian President Putin but his criticism of US and Western dilettantism in their their policies towards the Middle East is justified. Not that Russia has done any better: witness its policy towards Syria.

Then there is the credibility issue. Diplomatically, two recent incidents have left very serious scars. One was the failure of the US president to act after the setting a red line in 2012 on the existence and use of chemical weapons by Syria. In the end, after the British House of Commons elected not to offer its support, it was a deal brokered by Russian President Putin that helped the US save face (well, sort of). The other was the failure of the US and UK to honour their security commitments to Ukraine under the 1994 agreement – the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, co-signed by Russia and of course Ukraine – that made Ukraine a non-nuclear state. At the two separate negotiations that took place in Minsk over the Ukraine crisis, neither the US nor the UK were present. This says it all.

Beyond that, Western and US policy in a range of Muslim-majority countries has several albatrosses around its neck. The main one is the almost uncritical support provided to one regional dictator after the other in return for energy and a not too tough line on Israel’s policies in the Middle East. America’s new energy independence provides an opportunity to review its policies towards the region but whether it will is an open question, and dependent on whether the next US President will be able to break loose from the lobbies.

These issues count. They shape the preparedness of Americans to support their government at difficult strategic junctures. They influence the disposition of America’s historical allies to remain allied. They can be decisive in determining how states and communities around the world will cast their lot as the strategic environment evolves.

In short, whether the West manages to rise to the new strategic challenges on its horizon is not so much about GDP but about the credibility of its alliances and the relations it enjoys with its allies and partners. The world wants to know whether the western democracies can maintain their superior system of governance and their historical tradition of cooperation. Their combined resources are more than a match for any adversary, but they are currently disorganized, unfocused, and undercut by a bout of strategic doubt and hesitation.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance.

(Image courtesy of the White House.)

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