The World Is Becoming Less Western. What Should Europeans Do?

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Western dominance is gradually fading, and with it the primacy of force over law is returning. The world is shifting away from Westernization. What should Europeans do?

For a long time, the Western world’s conception of international relations has been based on the balance of power established by the Treaties of Westphalia (1648). These treaties created an inter-state order in Europe beginning in the 17th century, characterized by legal equality between states. The sovereign state was the foundation of the political order, even if historical evidence suggests that this notion was introduced in the 19th century. To ensure that no state attempted to upset this balance, a coalition was formed to stop Napoleon’s conquering ambitions during the Napoleonic Wars. This system found its expression in the concept of the European Concert, which was enshrined in the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The UN Charter, which affirms the sovereign equality of the organization’s members, has upheld these principles to this day. The international game was dominated by power relations and the balance of power.

In Asia, China’s rise is posing a challenge to America’s presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In a white paper on Asian security cooperation released in January 2017, Chinese officials conveyed their desire to replace American hegemony in the region by dismantling Cold War-era alliances (Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia). The White Paper also emphasized that small powers should not obstruct greater ones, as this only serves to strengthen China’s hegemonic ambitions. In Africa, the Beijing Consensus, a mercantilist vision of international relations that dates from the early 2000s, has allowed China to develop relations with countries producing raw materials without being constrained by ethical considerations. China has been described as a colossus, a palpable global force, and a game-changer. It requires space and must ensure adequate energy supplies while also feeding its huge population and meeting the demands of its growing middle class. Without necessarily resulting in disruptive policies, this is having a significant impact on the country’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Russia, too, is attempting to reestablish a sphere of influence. It can do that by relying on Russian-speaking minorities in Eastern Europe, the Donbas, the Baltic States, the Caucasus, and Crimea. The “Russian world” serves as the ideological foundation. It is an easy way for Russia to justify a right of control (or even more) over the political situations in neighboring countries. It is also a form of soft power that is used to project Russia’s image around the world.

In the Middle East and Libya, Russia is mainly concerned with regaining its position, and can sometimes obstruct diplomatically and sometimes intervene militarily in support of a regime (Syria) or a faction (Libya). We could give numerous examples of countries whose foreign policy is marked by a strong assertion of power – India, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, even the United Arab Emirates. This comes as a rude awakening for Western democracies, which no longer appear to be models! The international order set in place by Western dominance is disintegrating. These developments seem to be resulting in a world in crisis, marked by the return of power over law, but also by doubts about multilateralism’s ability to deal with global issues.

The modern world is in a state of flux. Power strategies appear to be dominant. However, in order to positively influence the evolution of the world, Europeans – and Westerners more generally – must continue to defend their principles. For the Old Continent, all efforts in that direction will be futile as long as European foreign policy has not chosen its identity, either as the European component of a Western bloc or as an autonomous balancing power.

In order to do so, the European Union must maintain its position as a world power. Because we have returned to a balance-of-power system, the EU must be able to counterbalance the dominant powers. However, with American protection, Europe has never chosen the path of power. And, if European power exists, it is similar to soft power, which is based on influence and the power of attraction, as opposed to hard power, which is based on the power of arms and money. This is inadequate to compete with and influence the rest of the world on a global scale. Let us recall Raymond Aron’s definition of power: “I call power on the international scene the capacity of a political unit to impose its will on other units.”

Europe’s foreign policy cannot remain on the defensive. New diplomacy in the 21st century has yet to be invented in this transitional period. This is an existential challenge for Europeans, who have a long history and are capable of mediating and facilitating all peace processes. Today’s European diplomats can help to make Europe a force for peace. Europe, the birthplace of the Westphalian order and the nation-state, has a role to play in this world of hazy horizons.

Richard Rousseau, Ph.D. is a specialist in international relations. Formerly professor and chair of political science departments at different universities in Canada, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates, he has authored over 800 academic, analytical and commentary articles. His research interests include the former Soviet Union, international security, International political economy and Globalization. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.