In September, the NATO allies will meet at the summit to discuss issues ranging from the end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan to the reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank.
The agenda and areas of consensus will mostly be prepared by national officials and the NATO staff well in advance of the meeting. Most likely not on the agenda, however, is a philosophical but critical question that hangs over the alliance: does the ‘West’ still exist?
During the Cold War, it was generally accepted that ‘the West’ consisted of the transatlantic democracies and a number of nations around the world that accepted, at least in principle, the North Atlantic Treaty’s support for ‘democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.’ Members of the alliance have taken different paths toward national application of these principles, and they never were fully agreed on all foreign policy or defence issues.
But they all understood that ‘the West’ did not include the countries that denied democratic choices to their people, severely limited individual liberties, and put rule of law to the side.
At the end of the Cold War, the question raised about NATO was whether or not such an alliance would remain relevant without an existential threat formerly posed by the Soviet Union. Populations and politicians are strongly motivated by fear – not so much by hope. The new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe rushed to join NATO and then the European Union – the two main institutions giving structure to the concept of ‘the West.’
They believed that these sheltering roofs would help protect them against a Russian reassertion of power. To earn their invitations, these countries were required to pledge that they would build their domestic political and economic systems around the core provided by Western values. It was hoped that Russia, too, would embrace the values that motivated ‘Western’ nations.
European states were so hopeful that they invited Moscow to join the Council of Europe, the organisation designed to be the protector of human rights across the continent.
The realisation now is that Russia’s culture, society and leadership have never truly become committed to joining the West, even though many younger Russians act as if this shapes their hopes for the future.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin seems determined to advance Russian national interests as well as his own dominant role in leading a Russian revival – fuelled by copious quantities of energy sources needed by the old and new European ‘Western’ nations.
The 17 July destruction of the Malaysian commercial flight with 298 on board, apparently by the Moscow-backed separatists, could move Putin’s adventures to a new and dangerous stage. It also challenges the United States and European leaders to shape an appropriate response.
Now, as allied officials work to prepare the summit, the regions to the alliance’s east and south face more turbulence than at any time since the end of the Cold War. From Ukraine and Russia to Syria and Iraq, virtually every piece on the international chessboard seems in play. This instability has emerged at a time when the Obama Administration has been reducing United States (US) forces deployed in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.
Many observers wonder who will fill the vacuums left by America’s receding roles. Some have even alleged that the Administration’s desire to limit US exposure to foreign entanglements is destabilising the international system.
Does the US still aspire to ‘leading the West’ or has that burden become too heavy for Washington?
In the meantime, Europe is of little help. Internal European divisions mean that no European government, not even the one led by Angela Merkel in economic powerhouse Germany, can provide a clear definition of and support for a European consensus on dealing with the currently troubled world.
In addition, US leadership of ‘the West’ has been called into question by the controversy surrounding the National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering activities and now by the arrest of a German national on charges of spying for the US.
Recent polling in Germany suggests that the image of the US has been seriously tarnished and that a majority of Germans no longer see the US as a model to emulate. Some see this as opening a door for even greater Russian influence on Germany in the future.
The German historian Heinrich August Winkler, lamenting that many Germans have ‘this irritating desire for equidistance [between Russia and the West]’, recently observed that ‘a strong minority is questioning vital elements of our Western orientation namely our memberships in NATO and the European Union. I find that unsettling’.
With all this said, what best characterises ‘the West’ is sometimes hard to pin down. Certainly the West is still defined by the values of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.
But it also has been defined by the belief in and commitments to free market capitalist economies – the so-called Western economic system. Here is the bind.
The profit motivations in the Western system – for corporation and countries alike – sometimes act directly against value-based definitions of ‘the West.’ But NATO nations have discovered most recently that the real world of economic interests (in Russian natural gas and emerging markets, for example) produces pressures to deal with countries whose approaches to governance and international affairs frequently run counter to the values embraced by the West.
Nations deciding to compromise articulated values is not a new phenomenon. During the Cold War, the West was defined in contradistinction to communist systems of governance and economy led by the Soviet Union.
Because the East-West struggle was the most important challenge for the West, Western values were from time to time put aside, for example, to bring Francisco Franco’s authoritarian Spanish regime into Western defence plans and to tolerate, on different occasions, military juntas in NATO allies Greece and Turkey.
So, perhaps we should be relaxed about the question of whether or not ‘the West’ exists. But, whether we like it or not, this somewhat-amorphous concept intrudes on important national and alliance decisions. Do the NATO allies need a renewed commitment to the values underlying their alliance? Those countries around the world that consider themselves part of ‘the West’ will be watching, as will those countries and forces that are not part of this value cluster.
The challenge to the West comes not just from Vladimir Putin’s aspirations to bring the Russian nation under a common roof, centred in Moscow. It also comes from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), whose aspirations for attacking ‘the Western world’ make al Qaeda’s approach to this task look modest indeed.
The answer to the question offered here is that actions will speak louder than words. The NATO leaders undoubtedly will utter all the right words to suggest that the heart and soul of ‘the West’ remain alive and well. But will they find the right balance of military enhancements, counter-terrorism cooperation, reassurance and creative diplomacy to demonstrate that there is a ‘West’?
This is a task that will require freshly-minted European courage, a clear US commitment to leadership of both the transatlantic alliance and ‘the West,’ as well as collective demonstrations of transatlantic trust and cohesion.
Stanley R. Sloan (Twitter: @srs2_), formerly the Senior Specialist in International Security Policy at the Congressional Research Service, teaches courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Middlebury College in Vermont and is an Associate Fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy. He writes for European Geostrategy in a personal capacity.