Summer 2014 has been non-stop, and it is not even over yet. It started on a positive note with the success of European soccer teams in Brazil – and France even displayed a good team and produced creative soccer -. But the summer quickly turned sour for Western powers.
Since June a series of crises broke out. The conflict in Ukraine increased in intensity, while the West remained cautious on sanctioning Russia. At this point, most analysts and reporters thought that Putin had won the war. Putin had already
stolen annexed Crimea and the pro-Russian militiamen were solidly backed by Moscow. It was until the pro-Russian militiamen brought down a commercial airplane flying over Ukraine and killing over 290 civilians, most of them being Dutch. Such event was a turning point in the conflict
in Ukraine. EU Member States finally agreed on tougher sanctions against Russia. Weeks later, Moscow responded by banning the imports of EU foods. Since then, Moscow has tried to maintained its support to pro-Russian militiamen with the progression of a ‘civilian convoy’ for humanitarian purposes sent by Moscow. With the progression of the tensions in Ukraine, Germany has progressively shifted its pro-Russian foreign policy and has emerged as a leader against Russia. For instance, as a reaction to the Russian convoy, Berlin has pledged more than $690 million for reconstruction and aid to Ukraine. Moscow may have been able to keep the fight alive in Eastern Ukraine, but seems to have lost an ally in the West.
The second main crisis has been the intensification of the ebola virus disease (EVD) affecting Western African nations. In recent days, reports have emerged underscoring that the outbreak has been underestimated. Even tough, the EVD does not directly threaten the citizens of the Euro-Atlantic community, it has become a serious issue for the West. Starting in Guinea, and then in Liberia and Sierra Leone, it has now spread to Nigeria. The main concern has always been Nigeria, one of the most populous and developed countries in Africa. The recent cases in Nigeria have been a cause of concern for Western powers considering the deep connections between Nigeria and the West. The EVD becomes of global nature due to the complexity of the globalized world we live in. Globalization has made the EVD an eventual threat to most world nations.
The third main crisis has been the solidification of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Iraq. The rise of ISIS, a radical Sunni Muslim terrorist group, has been progressive and it has benefitted from the vicious war taking place in Syria since 2011 (read here a previous analysis on the issue). The civil war in Syria was a piece of the Arab Spring puzzle with popular opposition to the regime of Bashard al-Assad. The members of the Euro-Atlantic community, at the
exception of the French, were reluctant to either arm anti-government groups by fear of arming extremist groups and/or launch airstrikes against Assad’s forces. ISIS has grown and strengthened itself in fighting government forces. Early summer 2014, in June, ISIS started its invasion of Iraq. It has received some assistance by Iraqi sunni, that have felt undermined by the former shiite government of al-Maliki. Since, ISIS has used violent and vicious tactics in order to strengthen its control over its controlled territories. In the past week, the US has re-launch military interventions in Iraq through airstrike bombings, arming Kurdish and Iraqi forces. However, US Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, underscored that “the defeat of ISIL is not only going to come at the hands of airstrikes. It’s bigger than just a military operation.” He added that in order to defeat ISIS, the US will have to go to Syria. Such vision is increasingly been shared in Washington. For instance, Steven Simon, a former White House adviser to Mr. Obama on the Middle East, argued that “common sense suggests you need to hit them in Syria.”
Last but not least, the war in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas, launched by Israel on July 8th, has already caused high level of destruction in Gaza and heavy civilian casualties with over 2,100 deaths. The war has underscored the diverging strategic positions of the members of the Euro-Atlantic community. In large EU Member States, populations and governments have expressed their concerns regarding Israel’s actions. The US, historically a close ally of Israel, has not budged its position. In recent days, talks have increased in order to agree on a United Nations Security Council Resolutions including the following conditions: “prevent Hamas and other militant groups from rearming, give the Palestinian Authority control, relax the Israeli embargo, reopen all border crossings and expedite reconstruction.” In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, titled Club Med for Terrorists, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN underscores that the problems in the Middle East are all financed by Qatar. He wrote “Given Qatar’s considerable affluence and influence, this is an uncomfortable prospect for many Western nations, yet they must recognize that Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.” The war between Hamas and Israel is going much further than Gaza.
The end of Western domination?
Let’s be clear, none of the crises analyzed above have suddenly appeared; they have all been slowing progressing and evolving. It is just that Western powers have become some type of risk aversion and have implemented a certain status-quo in avoiding to directly confront complex crises and issues. The US certainly leads the way in its ‘wait and see’ strategy. So, what can be said about the handling of these crises by Western powers? It surely looks like the early 1990s all over again. Even though it is debatable to justify the real control of Western powers on all foreign events, summer 2014 has underscored the inabilities of western powers to shaping and containing them. The US and its European partners – Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Italy among others – have simply been trying to catch up.
In the case of the US, to paraphrase Hillary Clinton, the Obama’s foreign policy approach
of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ may have been a root cause of the limited US influence in shaping events. She has been much more vocal in advocating for a more interventionist foreign policy. She argued during her recent interview with Goldberg of the Atlantic, that “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Summer 2014 could be identified along two lines: either, it is an anomaly, meaning it just happens that crises followed one another; or, is it the continuation of the sliding process of Western grip over the international system? I will tend to go with option 2, Western decline.
In order to look at the question of Western decline, one should look at two dimensions: external and internal dynamics. Externally, the succession of crises and western inabilities to shape the outcomes and/or prevent them are obvious and were analyzed above. Internally, both the US and European powers/and EU have been facing deep political, societal and economical challenges. This accumulation of domestic crises and tensions contribute to affecting the global aura of the West. Even among the Euro-Atlantic community, its members are unable to actually find an agreement on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (see here a comprehensive book on the topic). This agreement seen as a way to relaunch the transatlantic economy has become a tense political fight between the 29 + 1 actors (28 EU Member States, the US + the European Commission). The difficult negotiations are affecting the global credibility of the Euro-Atlantic community as its members cannot agree on the values, norms and identities supposedly shared and exported. As demonstrated below, the transatlantic soft power is clearly loosing its grip and credibility.
Domestically, the US appears very weak. Between a blocked government, a lame duck president, a weak economic recovery, and tense societal relationships among the different segments of the population, the US is facing serious challenges. The debates of inequalities, minority rights, healthcare, religion, immigration, education and economic changes are slowly affecting the identity of the US. The US, as most European countries, is on the brink of chaos at any moment. The violence in Ferguson, after the death of an African-American man shot by a white cop, have taken the nation by surprise. The emotions around the situation in Ferguson are powerful as such event is underlining a dark reality of inequalities and racial tensions to most Americans. Once again, Richard Haass was correct in claiming that foreign policy starts at home.
Across the pond, the European economic situation is worrisome and has now led to serious internal challenges within each Member State. Experts, like Michael Heise, even wonder if Europe is not entering into its ‘lost decade’ the same way Japan went through the 1990s. European economic growth remains anemic. Germany has maintained its status of the strong man of Europe, but its economy is starting to contract, while the French economy is stagnating (ant the government is unable to govern, read here) and the Italian is in recession. “GDP fell in Germany, the biggest,” according to the Economist, “and Italy, the third largest, by 0.2%; France, the second largest economy, stagnated.” The consequences of this continuous weak economic outlook in Europe, causing high unemployment levels, increasing inequalities and affecting the moral of Europeans, have fostered this ramping euro-skeptic sentiments. Additionally, the message of European unity is not even present in Brussels, as illustrated by the difficulties to select the next top EU leaders. In this context, it is difficult to imagine a strong Europe willing to shape and influence events. The EU has always lacked hard power, but domestic tensions within the EU have affected the credibility of its soft power.(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).