Is the West Still Committed to Defending the Pax Americana?
On November 10th 2023 a delegation of the Atlantik-Brücke met with Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies at University of Oxford, for breakfast. The evening before they had dinner with German Ambassador to the United Kingdom Miguel Berger for a discussion with MP Alicia Kearns and Atlantik-Brücke Chairman Sigmar Gabriel. Looking at all the geopolitical challenges of today, one thing became clear: The West lacks a joint strategy in all of them and sometimes is even deeply divided over the ends it should pursue.
by Jakob Flemming, Program Manager at Atlantik-Brücke
Walking through the streets of London on the weekend of November 11th and 12th, one could observe a revealing simultaneity of events. On Sunday morning, at the National Service of Remembrance, British and Commonwealth veterans paraded at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Meanwhile, the streets were still covered by stickers and posters demanding a free Palestine “from the river to the sea”, an end to “Israeli state terror”, or calling for a “socialist Intifada”. The day before, on Armistice Day, London saw the “National March for Palestine”, one of the largest demonstrations in British history which rallied 300,000 people in support of a ceasefire in Gaza. On the sidelines of the march, besides abhorrent outbreaks of antisemitic violence and violent clashes with far-right counter-protesters, pro-Palestinian demonstrators climbed onto the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner and waved a Palestinian flag.
On this weekend, both the geopolitical tensions and the domestic divisions within Western societies seemed to concentrate and erupt in London. It could not have been more timely, albeit coincidental, that just on the two days before Atlantik-Brücke gathered a group of 30 members in London to discuss the challenges of the geopolitical moment. On the evening of Thursday, November 9th, the German Ambassador to the United Kingdom Miguel Berger hosted the group for a dinner discussion with MP Alicia Kearns and Atlantik-Brücke Chairman Sigmar Gabriel on what lies ahead for the London-Berlin-Washington triangle. On Friday, the delegation met with the distinguished Professor Timothy Garton Ash of the University of Oxford who shared and discussed his thoughts on the UK-US-EU relationship and the current geopolitical environment.
The Challenges Ahead: Russia, China, Middle East
One persisting challenge for the transatlantic alliance is the ongoing full-scale war Russia imposed on Ukraine. Ukraine’s counter-offensive this summer has clearly fallen short of expectations, both due to strategic mistakes and insufficient or delayed military aid from the West. In his keynote speech, Timothy Garton Ash predicted that without significant gains by the fall of 2024 Ukraine could be forced to agree on a ceasefire that would include substantial loss of land. Thereby, Garton Ash suggested that the West should make a massive push sooner rather than later for providing Ukraine with the weaponry it needs to make significant gains. Given that the focus of the U.S. could keep shifting away from Europe, Garton Ash placed particular responsibility on Europe. The question remains, however, whether a decisive Ukrainian victory is the outcome that the West seeks and, if so, whether it will take the necessary means to achieve it.
Another big challenge ahead is the geopolitical and economic confrontation with China. Over the past years, the awareness has evolved in the political arena that China aims to establish an alternative world order and that the West needs to act to prevent this, a point which Alicia Kearns made emphatically clear. At the same time, however, there is an awareness that the deep economic interdependencies between China and the West limit the toolbox of economic statecraft. As Julia Friedlander and Josh Lipsky recently wrote in their piece for Politico, the U.S. and Europe “should jointly propose guidelines for what kind of sanctions and other economic measures should be used and when” to address concerns that sweeping sanctions against China could backfire against the West.
The third, in most Western minds currently most present challenge is the fear of an escalating war in the Middle East after the Hamas terrorist organization had murdered 1,200 Israeli civilians with unimaginable cruelty. The images and numbers of Palestinians killed in the subsequent Israeli campaign to take out Hamas have since then pushed October 7th out of many minds. This has fueled the fear of Western policymakers that Israeli actions in Gaza could provoke Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Syria to enter the war, and in turn force the U.S. to intervene militarily. However, the West – and Europe alone – is utterly divided over its views on Israel and the Middle East. While some EU governments, like Spain and France, have criticized Israel in harsh words, others, like the Czech Republic and Germany, have taken firm stands insisting on Israel’s right to self-defense. While this disunity has stripped the EU of hardly any relevance in the conflict, U.S. President Joe Biden has made clear he will defend Israel’s security but has also called on Israel for considerable restraint.
The Transatlantic Quest for Purpose and Unity
Looking at these geopolitical challenges, one thing becomes clear: The West lacks a joint strategy in all of them and sometimes is even deeply divided over the ends it should pursue. In the Russia case, the Russian nuclear threat blackmails the West into hesitating to provide Ukraine with the necessary means to not only not lose but win the war. In the Israel case, the calculation of Iran and Hamas seems to work out: The provoked and tragic fact of killed Palestinian civilians destroyed the rapprochement between Israel and the Arab world for the time being, and the threat of escalation even pressures the West into distancing itself from Israel. In both cases, the West, in the absence of clear strategic goals, does not seem to be ready to fully employ its deterrent capabilities. This lack of strategic unity does not go unnoticed in Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran, and emboldens these authoritarian regimes to challenge the rules-based world order and its foundational basis, the Pax Americana.
This inevitably poses the question whether the West is actually still committed to defending the Pax Americana. Clearly, Western disunity is not limited to intergovernmental divisions, but runs deep through Western societies. Some in those societies, both on the fringe left and the fringe right, seem to rejoice in the notion that the rules-based order guaranteed by Western dominance is set to be replaced by a multipolar order. While the fringe left is convinced that the West is morally bankrupt and therefore not entitled to impose its order on the rest of the world, the fringe right is not interested in any kind of order that points beyond national borders.
These fringes are, in many Western societies, not so much fringes anymore and have made it to governmental ranks. As Timothy Garton Ash noted in London, the rise of these populists has been fueled not only by economic but also by cultural inequality. To address the latter, he argued, not only economic and social policies would be required but the emergence of politicians which can culturally represent, i.e. speak the language ofthose who have resorted to vote for populist parties. To exemplify this type of politician, he pointed to Federal Minister Robert Habeck’s recent viral speech on antisemitism and German responsibility for Israel. But does Robert Habeck’s speech actually have the potential to convince AfD voters of the necessity of a liberal internationalist approach in foreign policy?
While his speech was certainly important to clear things up for his very own progressive, well-educated milieu, it is rather questionable whether he will ever gain cultural influence beyond this milieu. So, in order to rein in the right-wing anti-Western electorate, it requires politicians from a right-wing milieu to convince them that involvement in global affairs is in the national interest. Only when leaders from both sides of the ideological spectrum can rally their electorates behind the basic notion that democracy and freedom need to be defended on the international stage and that the gravest threat to their security is not the other party but authoritarian, expansionist regimes abroad, the West can rediscover its purpose and unity. But there is hope: As Timothy Garton Ash highlighted, in Poland a moderate centrist, pro-Western coalition just won the elections, and throughout Western societies there still is a center of both progressives and conservatives that is committed to defending the Pax Americana.