The Collapse of “the West”

Owen Harries. Foreign Affairs. Volume 72, Issue 4. September/October 1993.

The proponents of intervention in the Balkans believe that the West should go East. William Pfaff was surely speaking for many when he argued that the West should act through NATO to guarantee existing frontiers in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, so as to deprive transnational ethnic rivalry of its political and military explosiveness. The NATO guarantee to these new states should be backed up by force if necessary. There are specific problems with such a course of action. But more important, the various policy proposals and position papers advocating such a course reflect a philosophical inertia, an inability or unwillingness to jettison old concepts and modes of thought in the face of utterly changed circumstances. Over the last half century or so, most people have come to think of the West as a given, a natural presence, and one that is here to stay. It is a way of thinking that is not only wrong in itself, but is virtually certain to lead to mistaken policies. It took the presence of a life-threatening, overtly hostile East to bring it into existence and to maintain its unity. It is extremely doubtful whether it can now survive the disappearance of that enemy.

Old Thinking in a New World

Underlying the recent debates over Bosnia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe more generally, there is a much broader and unanswered question about the condition and future of the West. The proponents of intervention in the Balkans believe that, simply put, the West should go East. William Pfaff was surely speaking for many when he argued eloquently in these pages that the West should act through NATO—”the true Great Power in Europe today”—to guarantee existing frontiers in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, “so as to deprive transnational ethnic rivalry of its political and military explosiveness.” The NATO guarantee to these new states should be backed up by force if necessary. Only such a policy, it is claimed, can both recover for the West the moral and political ground it has lost through its mishandling of the Yugoslav crisis and lay a base of stability for the future of Eastern Europe.

There are specific problems with such a course of action. But more important, the various policy proposals and position papers advocating such a course reflect a philosophical inertia, an inability or unwillingness to jettison old concepts and modes of thought in the face of utterly changed circumstances. In particular, such proposals for what amount to a new NATO are based on a most questionable premise: that “the West” continues to exist as a political and military entity. Over the last half century or so, most of us have come to think of “the West” as a given, a natural presence and one that is here to stay. It is a way of thinking that is not only wrong in itself, but is virtually certain to lead to mistaken policies. The sooner we discard it the better. The political “West” is not a natural construct but a highly artificial one. It took the presence of a life-threatening, overtly hostile “East” to bring it into existence and to maintain its unity. It is extremely doubtful whether it can now survive the disappearance of that enemy.

Should the West Go East?

The proposals that NATO move eastward, guaranteeing the borders of or offering membership to the Iron Curtain states, have support both among certain Western intellectuals and analysts and within the NATO apparatus itself. The organization’s secretary general, Manfred Worner, is an enthusiast for NATO taking on the operational responsibility for peacekeeping operations in Europe by its member states. Doing so would obviously go some way toward solving the problem of potential irrelevance that NATO faces in the absence of a Soviet threat.

A move east, however, would suffer from a variety of specific difficulties and complications, making it in all likelihood unworkable.

First, the proposal takes no account at all of Russian susceptibilities and interests and envisages no role for Russia in Eastern Europe. NATO is simply to take over responsibility for the stability of a region that has been in Russia’s sphere of influence for centuries. The 45-year interlude of the Soviet bloc was merely an episode in a much larger history, and its demise should not be taken as marking the end of Moscow’s involvement. Strategic interests, traditional motives of prestige, the “historic mission” of freeing the Greek Orthodox population from infidel rule, and the pan-Slavism that had a varying but real impact on policy—all these combined to make Eastern Europe, and the Balkans in particular, a matter of intense concern for Russia long before Lenin and Stalin appeared on the scene. Russian troops went to Hungary in 1848 to put down a revolution against Hapsburg rule. It was to counter Russian hegemony in the region that Britain and France fought the Crimean War in 1853-56. In the 1870s Bismarck could dismiss the revolt of the Balkan Slavs as a rising of “sheep stealers,” but Russia responded by fighting a war against Turkey and creating the state of Bulgaria.

To ignore all this history and to attempt to incorporate Eastern Europe into NATO’s sphere of influence, at a time when Russia is in dangerous turmoil and when that nation’s prestige and self-confidence are badly damaged, would surely be an act of outstanding folly. It could well provide a catalyst that would enable extreme chauvinistic elements in Russia to exploit frustrations, resentments and wounded national pride in ways that would have unpleasant consequences both internally and internationally.

Second, given the pathetic performance of Western countries in the Bosnian crisis, the proposal suffers from a massive credibility problem. Why should anyone in Eastern Europe take such a guarantee seriously? Why should they believe that it was any more than a bluff, something done in the hope that the commitment itself would be an effective deterrent and with no serious intention of honoring it? Besides recent evidence of division and infirmity of purpose, there are many precedents from earlier European history that would justify skepticism. In the eighteenth century, the powers agreed to honor the Pragmatic Sanction, which was supposed to guarantee Maria Theresa’s succession as ruler over the Imperial possessions. But as soon as the Emperor Charles died the promise was broken. The Locarno Treaty of 1925, under the terms of which Great Britain and Italy guaranteed a pact of nonaggression between France, Germany and Belgium, is another case in point. Of it, the English historian A.J.P. Taylor laconically remarked, “The Treaty of Locarno rested on the assumption that the promises given in it would never have to be made good—otherwise the British government would not have given them.”

If East European memories are as long as we are told, such examples would surely be remembered. If they were not, then the more recent and even more relevant example of the French failure to honor their obligation to Czechoslovakia at Munich certainly would be. To recall such precedents is not to make mere debating points, for much of the recent behavior of West European states raises legitimate doubts about their political seriousness and willingness to bear responsibility when it comes to the test. Indeed, in all cases when the vital interests of states are not clearly and directly involved in an issue, the fact that they have made promises with respect to it does not ensure that they will deliver when the moment of truth arrives.

Third, if it is assumed that the NATO guarantee would be serious, intended to be honored, then, given the extent of the region’s problems and its propensity for violence, it would amount to the acceptance of a potentially extensive peacekeeping and peacemaking role. As Laurence Martin has pointed out, such a commitment would likely tax the overall military capabilities of member countries to the point of distorting their force structures away from those best designed to meet their core security needs. In Martin’s judgment, such a skewing of force structure has already taken place in the case of Britain-toward the army and away from the navy and air force—as a result of its involvement in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. (To consider just how distorting the effect of the commitment might become, reject that retired General William Odom—head of the National Security Agency in the 1980s and a supporter of intervention in Yugoslavia—estimates that to be effective a force of 300,000 to 400,000 would have to be committed in the Balkans, for one to two decades.)

Fourth, a policy of blanket guarantees would most likely lead to intramural disputes in NATO over the distribution of merit and blame, as well as the most appropriate action to take, in specific cases. A record of acrimony in the past when the question of out-of-area intervention has arisen suggests that this would be the case. Despite claims to the contrary, NATO does not remotely resemble a great power, with well-defined interests over a range of issues and a well-developed will of its own. Each major European power has its own interests and concerns; what Germany deems vital to its security and prosperity, England may regard as peripheral. To insist on joint intervention in such a case would only create friction where none previously existed.

At a time when the core purpose of the alliance—mutual protection against the direct military threat posed by a clearly defined adversary—has lost much of its urgency and binding power, intervention in the complicated affairs of the Balkans and Eastern Europe, where the merits of the case are rarely obvious or entirely on one side and where many of the leading NATO states have had intense and emotion-laden involvement in the past, might prove seriously disruptive of alliance unity. Thus an effort to save NATO by finding a new role for it might end up having the effect of hastening the alliance’s demise.

Fifth, such proposals take for granted the superior merits of united American-European action and never pause to consider whether in the conditions of post-communist Europe a division of labor and responsibility might be preferable. Instead of NATO being responsible for everything, might it not be better if the Europeans were to assume responsibility for second-order problems in Central and Eastern Europe, while the United States concentrated on wider issues, particularly those directly involving the major players, Russia and Ukraine? The notion that solidarity, unity and general participation are always preferable to a differentiated, selective, “horses for courses” approach is questionable. As long as the United States is actively involved it will always assume leadership, and as long as it does so it will be difficult for European states to reacquire the habit of being responsible for, and wielding effective authority in, their own region. And those who do not bear responsibility tend to behave irresponsibly.

Finally, in any effective military intervention, there would be a high likelihood of numerous casualties—both taken and inflicted. The terrain of most of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as the passionate hatred that often characterizes the region’s quarrels, would not allow for military action that was both effective and cheap in terms of casualties, as the Persian Gulf War was (at least for the alliance). High casualties would quickly mean domestic division and Western opposition to involvement. That would cast doubt on the ability of Western countries to stay the course, to finish what they had begun. As far as the United States is concerned, there is a serious point to the pithy dictum coined by some military man: “We do deserts. We don’t do mountains and jungles.”

A Child of Danger and Fear

The countries of the West share vast commonalities: a common history, culture and political values and institutions. It is in all this—the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French and Industrial revolutions, representative democracy, the rule of law, the market economy—that many find the basis of Western unity. In this view, the threat from the East was just one additional factor, and by no means the most important one, in the creation of a political “West.”

But those who argue thus overlook the fact that while all these common features had existed long before the Cold War, they had never created or sustained a united West before the appearance of a shared and formidable enemy. A common civilization is one thing, political unity is another, and they should not be confused. In fact, relationships among the countries of the West have been marked by division and by particularly bloody internecine conflicts throughout their history—to the point that fratricidal warfare might well be offered as one of the distinguishing characteristics of Western civilization, as opposed to civilizations that have been less marked by political fragmentation, the development of nationalism and sophisticated military technology.

Something approaching a united “West” has been spoken of only three times in modern history: in 1917-18, 1941-45 and the Cold War years. In the first two instances, the term is a complete misnomer, since the enemies—Germany and Austria-Hungary in the first case, Germany and Italy in the second—were full-fledged members of the West. The conflicts could more accurately be described (and, indeed, they sometimes have been) as Western civil wars.

But if one stretches the point and allows all three as examples, it becomes clear that the notion of a political “West” is one that has been attractive to Europeans only when some or all of their countries have been in great and imminent danger. Desperation and fear have been its parents, not natural affinities. They have been the forces that have driven Europeans to unite among themselves and to associate with the United States under the banner of “the West.” Further, it is a concept that, in the European experience, is associated with the prospect of subordination and, for proud nations accustomed to being leading actors in their own right, a certain amount of humiliation. For, once in being, “the West” has always and necessarily been dominated by the United States, a country long viewed by many Europeans as unsophisticated in international affairs.

Fair-Weather Foes

In the absence of an overriding threat that one is incapable of handling on one’s own—and sometimes even in the presence of such a threat—the inclination on both sides of the Atlantic has been to emphasize not unity, but the difference and incompatibility of Europe and America. Thus, even before final victory was achieved in 1945, the prevailing model of the political world had become that of the “Big Three,” with Franklin Roosevelt more suspicious of Britain and its empire than of the Soviet Union; and immediately after victory, Harry Truman ruthlessly and abruptly ended Lend-Lease aid to Europe without any obvious concern for the overall well-being of “the West.” Even later in the 1940s, as the clouds of the Cold War were gathering rapidly, most Europeans who thought about such things—George Orwell for one—conceived the world in terms not of two groupings but of three, with Europe and the United States constituting not one but two of them. In an article written for Partisan Review in 1947, Orwell saw the two as divided not only as separate power blocs but ideologically as well. Europe stood for democratic socialism, the United States, for capitalism. He longed for a self-sufficient United States of Europe, able to hold out against both America and Russia—that is, for Europe as the original “third world.”

As it was at the beginning of the Cold War, so it was at the end. Two years ago, as soon as the Soviet Union disintegrated, what we immediately started to hear propounded on both sides of the Atlantic—and what we were still hearing from President Clinton during the July Tokyo summit this year—was a tripartite or tripolar version of the world, with Europe and the United States again constituting not one but two separate sides of the triangle, and with Japan/Asia as the third. Far from stressing the continuing existence of “the West,” once free of a Soviet threat many Europeans immediately began anticipating, often with ill-concealed glee, a post-Maastricht United Europe that would supplant the United States as the dominant economic—and ultimately political—force in the world. In particular, it was claimed that Europe, led by a reunited Germany, would take the lead in dealing with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. When fighting broke out in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991, for example, the immediate reaction of Jacque’s Delors, president of the European Commission was: “We do not interfere in American affairs. We hope they will have enough respect not to interfere in ours.” The fact that the United States had liberated Monsieur Delors’ country from occupation by one totalitarian regime during his lifetime and had subsequently protected Western Europe against the threat posed by a second such regime for four decades was neither here nor there. To say again: once deprived of a threat or some other serious trouble it cannot cope with, there is a strong tendency for Europe to treat the United States as a rival (and sometimes as a naive, heavy-handed and incompetent rival), not as a leader or a partner.

Subsequently, of course, the momentum toward European unity has faltered and Maastricht has become a divisive rather than uniting symbol. The European economy has gone into what looks increasingly like a prolonged structural recession. Almost to a man, European political leaders have become deeply unpopular in their own countries, their authority attenuated and their ability to conduct forceful foreign policies limited. And a nasty, racist form of populism has spread through much of the continent. As all these things have happened, and as Europe has proved embarrassingly incapable of dealing with the Bosnian crisis, European confidence that it can dispense with American leadership and operate as an independent force has drained away, and we have been hearing more, again, of “the West.” But if and when things improve significantly for Europe, we should anticipate another reversal.

American Arguments

If European needs and insecurities constitute one condition for the continuation of “the West,” there is also an obvious second condition: U.S. willingness to respond to those needs. That, too, has in the past required a deep sense of danger—danger to American interests—to overcome America’s moralistic distaste for European power politics. In 1917 it took a lot of German provocation before the New World finally did come in to redress the balance of the Old. In 1941 it took Pearl Harbor and Hitler’s foolish declaration of war on the United States to produce a decisive, if involuntary, intervention. And in 1946-49 the rapid spread of Soviet power into Central Europe provided the incentive, after the United States had initially responded to the end of World War II with instant and comprehensive demobilization. Absent a sense of danger, America’s aloofness has been as marked as Europe’s assumption of independence and superior sophistication.

So what are the prospects of continuing close American association with Europe in the political enterprise labeled “the West”? At present the odds are somewhat against it. On one side of the scale, and it is not negligible, is the weight of habits of involvement and leadership acquired over the last half century. Americans have got used to their country being a superpower and a leader, and they like it more than they care to admit (or possibly know). There are powerful groups in the United States—in the military, most obviously, but elsewhere as well—that now have a major vested interest in “the West.” And there are various arguments that they can advance in support of continued commitment to it.

One is the idealist argument that the United States has a new post-Cold War mission to promote democracy throughout the world and that this is best done in cooperation with other established democracies. Another is the realist argument that American participation is necessary in order to keep an eye on Germany and ensure that it does not go off the rails a third time before the end of the century. Beyond Germany is the even greater uncertainty about the future behavior of Russia and the need some feel for an American commitment to Europe in order to forestall any major misbehavior on Moscow’s part.

These are not negligible considerations and arguments, but neither are they compelling and conclusive. As for spreading democracy, sense of mission has never on its own been sufficient to lead the United States to commit itself to a policy of heavy involvement or close association with Europe, and this is unlikely to change. In June of this year, the House of Representatives voted to kill the National Endowment for Democracy, the agency created during the Reagan years to promote democracy abroad. Even if the Senate were to reverse this vote, it is a significant sign of the times. There is the further constraint that Europe’s zeal for spreading democracy is comparatively limited, and that, at this post-imperial stage of their history, European countries lack the confidence and assertiveness necessary to sustain serious intervention in the affairs of other countries.

As for concern about the future behavior of Germany and Russia, as of now both cases lack the sense of a clear and present danger that has been necessary in the past to overcome American inhibitions and to cause the United States to commit itself to “the West”—and, for that matter, that has also been required to create a “demand” for such a commitment on the part of Europeans. In the absence of such a sense it is highly questionable whether, should a German or Russian crisis erupt quickly, the United States could mobilize the political support necessary to intervene decisively and expensively (in terms of casualties even more than of money, though the latter constitutes an increasing restraint also).

When that good Atlanticist, Jeane Kirkpatrick, wrote in 1990 that in the post-Cold War era “the United States should not try to manage the balance of power in Europe—we should neither seek to prevent nor assist Germany in reestablishing a dominant position in Europe or Central Europe. We could not control these matters if we tried and there is no reason to try,” she was expressing a view that many Americans share. In the cases of both Russia and Germany, if things were to deteriorate seriously, the United States would undoubtedly use its very considerable political and economic clout in an effort to prevent trouble. But there would be legitimate doubt about Washington’s willingness to commit American forces on a significant scale in either event. This would limit both the capacity and the acceptability of American leadership.

The ‘Nogood Boyo’ Approach

The most powerful argument for substantial American withdrawal from the kind of serious, sustained and expensive participation necessary to maintain “the West” as something more than a reassuring fiction is the urgent pull of domestic matters, long neglected or relegated to subordinate status during the Cold War. One does not have to be an isolationist or a “declinist” to believe that the time has come to alter the country’s priorities in favor of domestic concerns; and it is not only Patrick Buchanan who has been saying “Come home, America.” It was William Hyland, at the time sitting at the heart of the American foreign policy establishment as editor of Foreign Affairs, who opined that “What is definitely required is a psychological turn inwards.” This view has been echoed by many others, one of the most recent being Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has called for “a period of philosophical introspection and of cultural self-critique,” necessary, he believes, in order to tackle the moral, social and economic malaise that afflicts the “permissive cornucopia’ that the United States has now become.

To the extent that such attitudes prevail and such advice is taken, they are inimical to a united and purposeful “West,” which requires an active, outgoing and engaged America. There is good reason to believe that in the Clinton era such attitudes will prevail. President Clinton has an ambitious domestic agenda and little interest in or feel for foreign policy. He has equipped himself with a team that, to put it mildly and politely, is unlikely to press him hard to adopt ambitious, activist policies abroad, except in the area of trade. If the Bosnian crisis is any indication, one can expect that in Clinton’s Washington “the West,” together with the United Nations, will be used as devices not to facilitate action but to justify inaction. The United States wants to take decisive action, it will be claimed in a variety of situations, but it must be multilateral action and a proper international mandate must be given. If these conditions cannot be fulfilled, then the United States will, regrettably but justifiably, do nothing. In practice, whenever it has looked remotely as if the Europeans might agree to an American proposal regarding Bosnia, there has been a rapid backing off on Washington’s part. After the character in Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood Wood, this rationalization of passivity might be labeled the “Nogood Boyo” approach to foreign policy: “I want to be good, but nobody’ll let me.”

In fairness, it should be added that these would be difficult times for any administration as far as foreign policy is concerned, for today’s conditions are novel and puzzling for Americans. Framing choices in terms of all or nothing makes little sense. Earlier experiences of confronting clearly identified enemies in extreme situations, and of leading great alliances in bipolar situations, are not very helpful and may be misleading (particularly if they lead to an incessant and indiscriminate stress on leadership). Washington will have to learn to play new and different games.

While it is doing so, the concept of “the West” is likely to revert to what it has been for most of the past: a concept of last resort, held in reserve for when things go seriously bad and individual countries or restricted alliances are unable to cope on their own. One must assume—unless one has come to accept the fatuous nonsense that war as an institution is dead—that such circumstances will again return to haunt us one day, perhaps sooner rather than later. Indeed if those who speak of “the Clash of Civilizations” (Samuel Huntington) and of “the West and the Rest” (Kishore Mahbubani) are right, the idea of a political “West” may achieve greater authenticity in the struggles of the future than it did even in the days of the Cold War. But meanwhile the notion has lost much of its definition and raison d’etre.