Is the West fated to inevitably decline? Writing in the daily La Stampa on February 5, Zbigniew Brzezinski chipped into this now time-honored debate – aggravated by the financial crisis – by responding in the negative. But he added that there are two conditions which must be fulfilled if we are to prevent that decline. The first is domestic and it entails the United States rediscovering the reasons for its “primacy” (innovation, education, and a dynamic society); while the second belongs to the field of “strategic visions” — and the vision offered by the former national security adviser is both simple and direct: if it is to avoid losing its relevancy and its influence in the Asian century, the West needs to expand. But to expand in which direction? In a book recently published in Washington, Brzezinski argues that one might envision the “broader” West, a couple of decades from now, as comprising a head that is still American (on condition, of course, that the United States also does its homework) and a heart that is European (on condition that the EU becomes a genuine political union), with arms and legs stretching out toward Russia (on condition that it opts for full democracy), toward Turkey (on condition that it becomes more European than neo-Ottoman), and toward old and new Asian allies bent on balancing China’s weight. So, is that a strategic vision, or is it a mere theory that will never be implemented in practice?
The truth of the matter is that, at a time when the financial crisis is sorely testing liberal democracies and the combination between capitalism and authoritarianism is starting to be seen as an alternative model, it is crucial that we rethink the West’s borders. In Brzezinski’s opinion, it is obvious that the United States’ comparative strength be rebuilt first and foremost from the inside, just as the comparative strength of the Europeans demands a more solid union. But it is also clear that the old transatlantic relationship is no longer sufficient in the face of a shift in economic, demographic, and financial power toward new countries. From Brzezinski’s standpoint, expanding the West toward the Eurasian continent is the strategic priority.
Brzezinski’s mental map is still “horizontal”: it goes from west to east. Furthermore, along with the impact of China’s rise, it continues to reflect the last century’s unresolved problems: integrating Russia into the Western community is a hope that has remained at least partially unfulfilled since 1991. Russia’s veto on the resolution condemning Syria in the United Nations confirms that a significant gap still exists – and with bitter consequences, in this case for the people of Syria who have been exposed to brutal repression for months.
Yet there is also a “vertical” map worth exploring and it involves the possibility of bringing into the fold the Atlantic’s southern shores, where potentially strong economic powers, such as Brazil, are theoretically equipped with Western democratic “software” in the form of the historical and cultural roots that shape their identity. In other words, the broader West could have an important leg stretching not only further east but also further south, and the strategic vision could comprise a 21st century “panatlantic” community capable of benefiting from tangible resources (the additional thrust of an emerging area) and of using its common cultural roots to good effect. Keeping the Atlantic alive is an even more important precondition for the Europeans than it is for the United States if they wish to continue carrying weight in the Pacific century. That is one of several reasons why proposals regarding the establishment of something akin to a transatlantic free trade area should be assessed not only in economic terms (i.e. in terms of their cost and benefit in different areas of the economy) but also in terms of their strategic importance.
Having said that, the vision which Brzezinski prescribes for the United States quite rightly views the Far East as a region where, with or without the global economy, traditional geopolitics continues to matter. The economic interdependence between Washington and Beijing or the importance of commercial ties between China and Germany have not done away with the 20th century fault lines, with dynamics based on deterrence and military balances. In light of this, the “balancing act” – which Brzezinski recommends that the United States perform in Asia – is still necessary. Indeed, the US defense review is moving in that direction. But that is yet another reason why the Europeans should adopt an increasing share of responsibility along their borders, in North Africa and in the Balkans. Thus, if the West is to continue to wield influence at the global level, it must not simply expand: it must also specialize.
Of course, none of this is going to work unless the first condition that Brzezinski sets the United States – a condition, incidentally, which applies to Western democracies in general, i.e. that they impart a fresh boost both to themselves and to their economies – withstands the test of concrete implementation.
As Niall Ferguson argues in the latest edition of Aspenia, one of the causes behind the West’s relative decline is its tendency to shy away from using its winning weapons – competition, scientific research, the work ethic – and even to start questioning its own political systems. The revolution of “growing” expectations – which, after all, guaranteed the Western model’s success over the past two decades – has turned into its opposite, and the economic, political, and social repercussions of that transformation have yet to be gauged.
A version of this article appeared in the daily La Stampa on February 5, 2012