It is ironical. In the early 20th century, the West was overconfident to assume “white man’s burden”, which led to the zenith of imperial capitalism, and ultimately, the most devastating World Wars in history. But today, a reluctant and self denying West is responsible for global disorder. It is not just Obama’s superpower suicide. In Britain, the House of Commons rejected R2P action to Syria, which gave a blow to Cameron’s ideal of inheriting Blairite liberal interventionism. Also in Germany, people turn less willing to endorse European integration in view of the burden of helping financial crisis of Greece and Cyprus.
During the Cold War, a solid Transatlantic alliance was the anchor of the Free World. This helped American alliance spread across the Asia Pacific and the rest of the world. After the Cold War, NATO expanded their mission to Afghanistan, in order to manage globalized threats out of the Euro Atlantic sphere, typically Al Qaeda terrorism. But currently, both America and Europe are hesitant to use their hard power and soft power for global and regional public interest, and pursue their own recluse happiness. What happened with the West?
Both in the United States and Britain, people are tired of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Partisan politics and weak economy hurt their global policemanship. Autocracies like Russia and China, and terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda make use of such annoyance for their favor (“The weakened West”; Economist; September 21, 2013). The heir of Greco-Roman civilization and the creator of universal liberal norms is disposing the burden for global public interest.
Let me see country by country to explore why the West has become so reluctant to take leadership roles. First, I have to talk about the United States. In view of public hesitation to attack Syria, President Barack Obama remarked that the United States would not act as the world policeman on September 10 (“Team America no longer wants to be the World’s Police”; Washington Post; September 13, 2013). In an interview with France 24 TV on September 27, Xenia Dormandy, Senior Fellow at the Chatham House, commented that American military and economic power still overwhelm others, but the problem is how to use them and whether it sustains the will to use them for global interests. See the video below.
Despite the war wary atmosphere among the public, some American leaders are keenly aware of benefits of Pax Americana for the world and America itself. Senator Marco Rubio comments “History teaches us that a strong and engaged America is a source of good in the world. History also teaches us that the best way to preserve the peace is to have the military power to win any war. Our foreign policy should sustain and deepen our relationships with our allies, including those who are threatened because of their willingness to stand with America” (“Putin Is Wrong”; National Review Online; September 12, 2013). What Rubio mentioned here is the vital lesson of 9-11 terrorist attacks.
Then, I have to talk about Europe. At the World Economic Forum in 2008, Europeans questioned if Japan was a forgotten power on the global stage. However, I would like to remind them that their post imperial mindsets lower global public attention to Europe as well. For example, the media in Japan pay far more attention to South Korea than the EU and major European powers. Considering their political, economic, military, and cultural power, this is absurdly unbelievable. That is primarily because Europeans are too self-critical of assuming global responsibility, and become too inward-looking.
Even in Britain, that boasts a global power status through the special relationship with the United States, the House of Commons rejected intervention to Syria. Quite importantly, some Tory MPs such as Davis Davis, Crispin Blunt, and Julian Lewis voted against the Cameron administration for fear of an escalation of the war and confrontation with Russia (“Dozens of Conservative MPs defied David Cameron over Syria” Daily Telegraph; 30 August, 2013). Polly Toynbee, Columnist of the Guardian, comments that the decision at the Commons illustrates a farewell to Britain’s imperial legacy and Blair styled liberal interventionism (“No 10 curses, but Britain's illusion of empire is over”; Guardian; 29 August, 2013). But what is Britain that hesitates to police the world with America, detaches from the EU, and rejecting the imperial legacy?
Reclusive isolationism is on the rise in Germany as well. Despite the victory of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in the last election, its neo liberal coalition partner Free Democratic Party lost seats (“Early results give FDP 4.7 percent, short of representation in Bundestag”; Deutsche Welle; 22 September, 2013) for fear of the borderless economy across the globe and within Europe. Germans chose Merkel because they are content with relative stability and prosperity in a continent of debt crisis and youth unemployment coupled with resurgent nationalism (“Why Germans May Stick With Merkel’s Steady Hand”; Bloomberg News; September 21, 2013). German voters are not so much interested in greatness, strength, and regional obligations of their nation, judging from their self-defensive response to the Greek and Cypriot financial crisis. This is a problem, considering Germany’s historic contribution to European integration.
I shall never endorse “white man’s burden” idea in the old days, but in presentday context, Europeans should play more proactive roles to manage global problems, and they should not be forgotten. The fatal consequence of such a reclusive and self-indulged West is a growing assumption among challengers like Russia, China, and Islamic terrorists, that neither America nor Europe is capable of boasting their primacy. An understanding of “Western decline” provokes them to behave more assertively and defiantly to current global system. As a result, the clash between the West and the rest of the world will be intensified. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent contribution to the New York Times (“A Plea for Caution From Russia”; New York Times; September 11, 2013) is an apparent declaration against American, and more broadly, Western preeminence.
The chasm between the West and the rest will place intermediary nations like Japan, India, and Turkey in awkward positions. These non-Western democracies are regional powers closely associated with the West. Japan and Turkey are too well known for successful modernization through the Meiji Restoration and the Kemal Revolution. After the World War II, both nations are natural member of the Western alliance. On the other hand, India has been assuming itself a leader of the Third World. However, since the inauguration of the Singh administration, India has been deepening economic ties with the West. The War on Terror has made India's relations with the West ever closer.
In view of a reluctant West and aggressive challengers, should intermediary nations act independently? Remember the failure of detachment from the West by the Hatoyama administration of Japan and the Erdoğan administration of Turkey. Quite interestingly, both Hatoyama and Erdoğan thought emerging economies in their neighborhood were more prospective partners than the West. But Yukio Hatoyama’s initiatives for the East Asia Community stalled due to China’s autocratic and expansionist policy. So did Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutogul’s blueprint of “Turkey at the heart of the Afro-Eurasian sphere”, as Turkey failed to improve relations with Iran, Syria, and Iraq, and Islamic populist Morsi administration of Egypt was overthrown. Turkey realizes that NATO is the only reliable partner to manage the civil war in neighboring Syria, just as Hatoyama’s Japan learned the real meaning of US deterrence against Chinese threats. From this point, Japan’s former ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa was wrong to manage the Sino-Japanese diplomacy through the instinct based on his businessman background.
The West is predominant in capability of setting universal norms and founding a global regime, which is deep rooted since the Greco-Roman, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment era. Seemingly powerful, challengers simply defy the West, but not thinking of supplanting its global supremacy. Russians claim their preeminence in the Eurasian heartland, Chinese do in the Pacific area, and others do accordingly. What intermediary democracies like Japan and India, need to do is to explore how to share burdens with the West, rather than to detach from it. The failure of Istanbul’s bid for the Olympics symbolizes fatal consequence of Erdoğan’s “independent” foreign policy. Rather, proactive engagement by intermediary powers will bolster the confidence of the West to assume global responsibility, and this is more constructive than the Hatoyama- Erdoğan initiatives.