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How the West Can Still Lead the World

Julianne Smith





Listen to any European or American leader talk about the transatlantic relationship these days and you will hear a handful of common refrains. Major policy addresses of this kind often start with the recognition that the world has changed. Europe and the United States face unprecedented challenges on the world stage, ranging from asymmetric warfare to non-state actors to the diffusion of technology to the return of great power politics. The speaker then reassures the audience by noting that, contrary to those arguing that the West is in decline, Europe and the United States come at these challenges from a position of strength. It has been the West, after all, that spent the last sixty years establishing the world order, and it is the West that has the ability to maintain and further develop the international order according to its common values.

Many, myself included, find these speeches reassuring. They ease the minds of policymakers that feel overwhelmed by world events and breed transatlantic confidence at a time of considerable uncertainty. But are they right? Even if one assumes that the West has the ability to shape today’s complex security environment (which is by no means a foregone conclusion), one has to ask if it possesses the will, innovation, and resources to actually do so. In truth, what Europe and the United States are actually doing in response to the changing face of geopolitics makes what they are saying far less inspiring.

Unimaginative “Reforms”

There is no question that the West deserves high praise for the creation of a global network of international institutions, laws, treaties, and norms. From the United Nations to NATO to the World Bank to the OECD, the West has invested decades in building, maintaining, and reforming the bedrock of the international order. With emerging powers, revisionist powers, and non-state actors actively challenging that system, though, how much is the West doing to either counter or adapt to those challenges?

The heads of major international institutions will tell you “a lot,” rattling off a long list of internal reforms over the better part of the last two decades. But such reforms have done little to halt Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bomb attacks against the Syrian people, the rise of Islamic State (IS), or China’s aggression in the East and South China Seas. Why? Many of the oft cited “reforms” are simply too unimaginative and timid. By tinkering on the margins, these reforms do little to get at the heart of the challenge. Bold structural reforms on the scale of revisiting the consensus rule in NATO or the veto on the UN Security Council are considered impossible, counter to our interests, or too high risk.


The article’s full-text is available on the website of The National Interest

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