hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The West’s Existential Fight for Survival

Leangkollen, Norway. 4 February. Norway is a small country with a big internationalist vision. The past two days I have spent in debate with senior Norwegian and other leaders and thinkers at the outstanding Leangkollen conference which is this year celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.  There were many messages from the conference of which perhaps the most succinctly honest and elegant (not to mention typically Norwegian) under-statement came from Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg. “Globalisation brings its own set of challenges”, she said.  Doesn’t it just!  The West is facing an existential fight for its survival…but simply does not realise it.

My job is to look beyond the headlines at the drivers of big change.  Naturally, much of the conference was focused on the here and now; Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Islamic States barbarous attacks on civilisation, decency and humanity.  However, in many ways the threats to Europe’s eastern and southern flanks are symptomatic of much deeper structural shifts underway that within a decade will overturn all the assumptions about security and stability Western leaders rather complacently cling to.

My task at the conference was to consider what ‘we’ might expect in the future.  That question assumes of course there is a ‘we’ given the talk these days of division in the West.  There are profound divisions in Europe and between Europeans spiced with divisions between Europeans and North Americans. And, it is certainly true that the West is as fractious as at any time in its seventy-four year contemporary history.  However, it is important not to mistake the fractiousness of a pluralistic, democratic community with real schism.  The paradox of globalisation is that the much of the change it drives is also making societies across the West look ever more alike, facing the same problems and similar interests. 

The real problem for the West concerns how to generate sufficient, shared vision not only to see the scale of the challenges posed by globalisation and what one speaker called their “negative interdependence”, but to craft cohesive policy thereafter and then implement it.  ‘Policy’ derives from the (appropriately) Greek word ‘apodeixis’ meaning to set forth, which makes policy and power indivisible.  Unfortunately, for too long Europe has seen policy and power as distinct, even adversarial in favour of community.  The Russians are fast reminding the rest of Europe that policy without power is but prattle.  Indeed, as The Economist pointed out recently “European power has disappeared down the rabbit hole of European integration”.  Today, ‘Europe’ is far less than the sum of its parts.

Such a retreat from realism must stop. NATO Deputy Secretary-General Alexander Vershbow said that Russia’s aggression is a “…game changer in European security”.  It certainly is, although in so many more ways than the immediate challenge suggests. Indeed, Moscow’s actions represent the first real proof of what happens when the liberal powers deliberately and wantonly weaken themselves in the face of growing illiberal power.  This challenge takes many forms.  Russia’s challenge is that of an increasingly idiosyncratic, militarised and opportunistic Russian state led by a President who is prone to adventurism and surrounded by the necessary coterie of yes men all too willing to confirm him in his dangerous folly.  President Putin is carving Ukraine up simply because he believes that he can.  However, for all that there is still hope that rationalism and realism will ultimately temper President Putin’s nationalist illiberalism, but it will take a show of real Western strength, unity and resolve.

Islamic State offers no such prospect.  The brutal burning-to-death of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasabeh demonstrated all-too-graphically that the fight with Islamic State is a fight to the death with extreme illiberalism.  It is a form of extremism that is likely to be exacerbated in the coming years by the dark side of globalisation; energy insecurity, cyber vulnerability; the proliferation of ageing but dangerous technologies, terrorism, food and water stress, population expansion, mass movement, poverty and the very distinct form of geopolitics that is emerging from the interaction of global stresses. 

IS is a form of anti-state extremism that is also eating away at many states from within and without, not least Russia. Indeed, given the apparently ‘British’ identity of the psychopath responsible for so many hostage deaths at the hands of IS it is an illiberal threat that now extends into European societies. The inability/refusal of liberal European elites to deal with illiberal extremists within their own societies explains not only why divisions exist within the West but also why the threat posed is so dangerous. Quite simply, too many elected leaders are in denial.

Taken together all these dangers could ultimately pose an existential threat to the West.  And yes, institutions such as the EU and NATO are important in helping the state combat such threats. However, they will only succeed if they are imbued with the political courage to confront such threats, reinforced by political leaders able and willing to tell their peoples hard truths, and underpinned by real strategy.
To that end, it is high-time European leaders begin to reinvest in their armed forces.  If acted upon the September 2014 NATO Wales Summit will come to be seen as line in the sand of decline.  However, for years leaders told me often to my face that Europeans were not actually cutting defence when they were (they called it ‘reform’).  Today, they tell me that are reinvesting in defence when many of them are not.

But, even strong armed forces important though they are will be only one pillar of strategy.  The Millennium Development Goals are running their course.  There is some talk of replacing them with Sustainable Development Goals.  Such goals will be important if the drivers of dangerous change are to be halted and the consequent illiberalism challenged and defeated. 

There may be no Hitler or Stalin on the immediate horizon of the emerging strategic landscape (although such a challenge may emerge quickly).  However, hidden in that landscape is any number of threats and risks that could in time threaten the existence of the idea the West has become and in time the place.  Faced with such challenges if the West is to defend itself and assert the values it holds dear – freedom, liberty, democracy and the rule of just law – then it must think anew about its security and the solidarity and unity of effort and purpose needed if the West is to prevail.

Make no mistake; the West is facing an existential struggle for its survival in the twenty-first century and must awaken to both the fact and the challenge.

Julian Lindley-French 

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