Where the West Lost Its Way
World order is never in stasis for too long. And indeed, we seem to be witnessing a historic shift now. The relatively stable decades after World War II saw gains for global democracies, rapid economic growth fueled by globalization, and the birth of the Internet. But they also saw the speeding of global warming, widening inequality, and the scourge of transnational terrorism. The institutions and agreements that have grounded the modern international order are showing signs of weakness, while illiberal sentiment gathers strength across the West. Nationalism is having a moment. Europe is having an identity crisis. And China is challenging the dominance of the United States. How did we get here? What’s next?
The arc of world order is bending away from an era of liberalism, free trade, and shared international values, which was led by western alliances. “What happened?” asks editor-in-chief of The Economist Zanny Minton Beddoes. Former US ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute says the 1990s and 2000s were an inflection point for the West:
When world affairs went the West’s way in the 1990s, Lute says western countries started to neglect the institutions that helped make them successful. And in the 2000s, the arrogance of western countries led to grave errors (think the Iraq War and the Great Recession) that Lute says could have been easily avoided.
Former Eastern Bloc countries petitioned to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) after the Cold War, and many were accepted by the end of the 2000s. But former US ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute wonders if it wasn’t a mistake to grant those countries membership. Many countries admitted during this period are now eroding their own democratic and societal norms, says Lute. He claims the West “didn’t pay enough attention to democracy and institution building” in former Soviet Bloc countries and now NATO is faced with members states that don’t live up to the ideals of the treaty.
How it works
“The counterfactual on NATO expansion is the important one,” rebuts Kori Schake. Schake explains that Europe could look very different today if NATO hadn’t expanded. NATO did its due diligence with new members when it expanded, says Schake, and she points to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine as a fate that many countries avoided by joining NATO.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Great Recession were such extraordinary failures by western countries, says Kori Schake, that “they called into question [the West’s] fundamental judgment” on the international stage:
After the Cold War and the opening of China respectively, western countries believed that China and former Soviet countries would, if slowly, embrace western ideals. But it wasn’t to be so:
This exchange has been lightly edited for clarity
Douglas Lute: In the 90s, we sort of imagined the Russia we desired and it’s a little bit replayed with China. We lived in this period of hope and dreams, as opposed to the reality of China and Russia as they really are.
Kori Schake: I mostly agree with that, except you shouldn’t underestimate that Russia and China have changed. They made a set of choices, this wasn’t an inevitable path. They made a set of choices that have made them more antagonistic and that expressed a lack of confidence that they could prosper from the liberal order.
Douglas Lute: But in each case, they reverted back to what might be argued are their historic norms, their DNA.
John Judis: Countries make choices, but they make choices within their history.
Western alliances are fraying at the edges, countries are slipping into authoritarianism, China is ascendent — is ‘the West’ meaningful as a concept anymore? And if so, what should be done to repair the fabric of the West? Douglas Lute and Kori Schake give their opinions:
The short answer for Lute and Schake is yes, the values and norms the West has traditionally upheld are absolutely worth preserving. But they warn that unless western countries pay more attention to those values, they are in danger of rendering themselves insignificant on the world stage.