Strategically, the 1990s were a golden decade for the West. For the North American-European couple, whose marriage – a marriage of the head if not of the heart – started at the end of the Second World War. Here was a household that had just won the Cold War and which China, Russia, India, no less, officially aspired to imitate.
Mr America and Madame Europe – between whom there was not a cloud – walked confidently across the planet giving everyone lessons on the market economy and human rights. Everyone listened with respect. Anyone who dared to challenge them was quickly brought to heel.
It was a decade that began with a war against an Iraq that had swallowed-up Kuwait, and ended with another against a Serbia trying to retain Kosovo. In both cases, having put together a broad coalition of armed forces, and with only minor diplomatic or media criticism, the West forced through its strategic vision in less than six months of military operations.
As we approached the new millennium, everyone accepted that it a West that had vanquished both Nazism and Communism now set global values and rules. An American philosopher summed it up as “the end of history”.
Everything changed at the beginning of the twenty-first century, largely because of the overreaction of the American leadership to the September 11 attacks in 2001. The neo-conservatives surrounding George W Bush came up with a new strategic concept – ‘preventive war’ – and applied it to Iraq in March 2003. This had two crucial consequences: it drove a wedge between the US and old Europe, and it generated a significant amount of anti-Washington mistrust in all non-Western nations.
Since that blatant violation of the United Nations Charter, Western leadership has continued to crumble across the world. The West keeps pronouncing, giving orders, storming and bombing. But geopolitical realities continue to move in a different direction. It’s as if the fate of the planet is gradually trying to escape Western dominance.
In the Arab-Muslim world, the collapse of Western leadership is striking. In Libya, where the Western powers intervened militarily in March 2011, none of their values have taken root. We have seen a return to a society of tribes and trafficking, even slavery. In Mali, where France has had a military presence persecuting jihadists since January 2013, the country has not made the slightest progress in political reconstruction. The Tuaregs of the North and the Blacks of the South still refuse to work together.
In the Middle East, the Americans are still able to mount an impressive show of force – as they did on February 8 in Syria, on the banks of the Euphrates, to protect their Kurdish friends against pro-Bashar Assad Christian militias which, with the support of Russian mercenaries, were ready to seize a lucrative gas site. But, apart from the fight against ISIS, there is no new strategic vision that can stabilise the region.
In the long run, the West’s influence in the Levant and Mesopotamia keeps ebbing away as the new Turkish/Iranian/Russian axis continues to grow.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Barack Obama rightly said that what was needed were stronger institutions rather than more strongmen. Nobody listened. Ignoring the West, African leaders cling to power while China finances them without the slightest hesitation.
On its north-eastern border, the West has failed to bring Russia back into the European family where it culturally belongs. Ukraine worships the West while remaining the worst student on the planet in learning to apply the Western notion of a rule of law.
In Asia, Chinese President Xi-Jinping is pursuing a long-term strategy of absolute control – at sea, on land, across trade routes. One could interpret it as a good set of tactics in what is an economic war. But where is the West’s counteroffensive?
The transatlantic relationship continues to crumble. America is asking the Europeans to rearm while carefully keeping Europe’s military industries legally and technologically dependent on the US.
Meantime, the European Union’s weakness continues to spread. It is unable to secure its borders or protect its industries. Its members are divided between federalists and supporters of a Europe of nation states.
Adding a weak Europe to an America turning away from the world, we end up with ever-increasing Western strategic impotence.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.
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