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Is There A West? (Part I)

If there is a West, can it continue to provide a system of international order? And if not, what will be its role in a post-western system?

October 29, 2007

If there is a West, can it continue to provide a system of international order? And if not, what will be its role in a post-western system?

In examining the first question of whether or not a “West” exists, there needs to be an understanding of the nature and basis for the concept of the West and the relationship between the concept of the West and Atlanticism — the concept which deals with the relationship between the European West and the North American West.

Atlanticism was a concept developed during the Cold War period and refers to the unification of the two halves of the West in a community of values. Yet the end of the Cold War reopened the question about the meaning of both the West and of Atlanticism.

Was the West simply a creation of the Cold War and the security relationship spawned by the threat of the Soviet Union? Or is there a West beyond the Cold War alliance of states?

Owen Harries in 1993 was one of the first to argue that the West was largely a function of the Cold War and the need to provide ideological justification for the U.S.-European alliance against the Soviet Union.

Once the threat vanished, he posited, Europe would begin to chafe at its dependence on the United States and would reassert itself against U.S. power and the U.S. leadership role.

America, in turn, would lose interest in Europe after victory in its great struggle and would return to a more unilateralist role and away from its unnatural and a-historical connection to European affairs.

This view was shared by a number of political theorists who emphasized the importance of the nature of the structure of power of the international system.

Relations among states are shaped by the search for relative security — and, with the end of bipolarity in military affairs, the West and its key institutions, including NATO and the EU, would wither.

The Carnegie Endowment’s Robert Kagan offers a variant on this theme, arguing that the growing gap in military capabilities between the United States and everyone else, including the Europeans, has resulted in a shift in strategic cultures which has resulted in differing ways of seeing the world.

There is no doubt that the structural changes over the past two decades have been profound. These include not only the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the end of the balance of power which had provided an equilibrium in Europe since at least 1949), but with it the beginnings of a new global era.

But did the West emerge because of the Soviet threat? Or was the Soviet Union seen as a threat because there was a West based on a value and security community which was threatened by Soviet values?

If security was at the heart of Atlanticism, then this basis has been eroded with the end of the old East-West conflict and the subsequent rise of globalization.

While some may argue that the West will now reemerge in the context of the threat of global terror groups, globalization has removed a single unifying threat which could form the basis of a new Atlanticism.

True, both leaders and publics in both Europe and the United States regard international terrorism as a major threat. And there is a high degree of cooperation within the West to deal with the challenges posed by transnational terrorist groups.

And yet, it is not the type of strategic threat which can replace the Soviet Union, which is why there is a divergence in the strategic response to this threat.

So while the West is threatened, the threat is not a singular, unifying one, and the responses to it are diverse and often divisive.

In addition to terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction poses a significant threat to the West. Eleven countries have nuclear weapons programs — and 13 more are actively seeking them.

Seventeen countries have active chemical and biological weapons programs — and over 25 possess ballistic missiles.

The European preference for containing proliferation through an arms control regime and international institutions is compatible with the post-Iraq war American approach. What happens if diplomatic means fail?

The United States is clearly more willing to at least contemplate some use of military force to avert or delay a nuclear Iran.

Meanwhile, the Europeans would prefer a nuclear Iran to a war to prevent such an outcome. Europeans are also more likely to give the UN and other international efforts more time to work than is the Bush Administration.

Preventing proliferation, then, is another example of a common threat but different strategic responses in the West.

Editor’s Note: Part II of Mr. Szabo’s essay can be found here.

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