international analysis and commentary

Extending the West requires rethinking mental maps

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The idea of extending the West – a club of like-minded countries – has been at the heart of transatlantic debates over the past two decades. It had tangible expression in EU and NATO enlargement. Today, both of these processes are now less central and less strategic. But they have left a lasting legacy in terms of the “enlargement” debate and, above all, the global debate about affinity and values, spurred on by the perceived challenge of the rise of China.  In different ways, and with different degrees of enthusiasm, both Marta Dassù and Charles Kupchan have taken up this theme in Aspenia online. They offer contrasting visions and, in a sense, they are both right.

First, we should not be under any illusions about the ability of a wider partnership among like-minded countries (going beyond the traditional north-north axis) to revive troubled Western economies, and troubled social models on both sides of the Atlantic. As Charles Kupchan correctly notes, the rehabilitation of European and American economies, and the meeting of new governance challenges, has to start at home. Questions of innovation and mobility will be resolved at the national level, or within regional institutions. New global approaches on trade, regulation or security may help, of course.  But the key adjustments will come within Western societies. Less positively, this reality is now reinforced by the rise of nationalist impulses in key regions, including some well within the scope of previous Western enlargements.

Second, the values perspective matters, but it has some important limits. The US and Europe are not the only actors with an interest in projecting a normative foreign policy, and for many emerging powers, the idea that not all strategies need to be “made in the West” is integral to their worldview. Turkey, despite its close ties to Europe and Euro-Atlantic institutions, is increasingly inclined to see its external policy in more diverse terms. Brussels and Washington are no longer the overwhelming focal points for Ankara in an environment that is unquestionably multipolar when seen from Turkey. In a very different setting, and in a much more secure geopolitical context, Brazil is looking to project its growing influence on the international stage. But it wants to do so in a distinctive way, with Atlantic affinity as one part of the equation. Certainly, for Brazil, the notion of reinforcing the role of the global south in economic and political relations is important, and this too will be about values, norms, and alternative strategic perspectives. This could be seen quite clearly in Brazil’s activism – with Turkey – on the Iran nuclear question.

Third, the focus on promoting values on the one hand, and addressing broad geopolitical competition with Asia (as Zbigniew Brzezinski, among others, has recently argued) on the other, risks neglecting an equally important element of extended cooperation on a range of practical issues, where a wider definition of partnership – especially Atlantic partnership – can be useful. Here, Dassù makes a strong point about rethinking Western enlargement along north-south as well as east-west lines.  For decades, transatlantic cooperation has largely neglected the southern half of the Atlantic basin.

The rise of Brazil and South Africa, the emergence of an Atlantic energy system with Brazil and West Africa in the vanguard, and the shift of non-traditional security risks southward, all underscore the logic of a more comprehensive approach to transatlantic relations: the US and Europe should take a more serious approach to dynamic partners in the wider Atlantic space. One only has to look at the evolving pattern of drug trafficking between Latin America and Europe to understand the importance of this north-south dimension. Today, this flow of drugs and criminality goes via West Africa, and poses challenges to stability from the Caribbean to Brazil, from Senegal to the Maghreb, the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. The logic of closer cooperation among Atlantic partners, north and south, is compelling.

To be sure, the rationale for extending the West is about values, at least in part.  This will not always be an easy discussion with global partners. It is also about functional issues, concrete cooperation, and the need to rethink mental maps when it comes to geopolitics, particularly in the Atlantic space. This may or may not be an effective counter to the rise of Asia – if such a counter is actually required. But it will help the West and its global partners address current and emerging challenges affecting the future of our societies.