The 20 year crisis

Response to the Haiti tragedy; the struggling mission in Afghanistan; the economic crisis. The west is in a ’20 year crisis’

European and
American leaders are converging in Munich
this year in an atmosphere of crisis.  The
tragedy of Haiti, and the
failed airplane plot pile pressure on leaders already destabilised by the
political aftershocks of the economic crash and the struggling mission in Afghanistan.  But the trauma of the west has longer
antecedents than the collapse of Lehman brothers in 2008 or even 9/11.  Its roots go back to 1989. 

In 1939 the
English historian EH Carr wrote a seminal book called The Twenty Years’ Crisis, which showed how the liberal powers
squandered their victory in 1918 by failing to adapt to a changing world.
Today’s West is suffering a 20-year crisis of its own.   Of course, 2009 is not 1939. There is no
prospect of war in Europe, and the financial
crisis has not wreaked the havoc of the Great Depression. But the
analogy of the 20 years crisis does function in a fundamental way: the liberal
powers in 1919 believed that they were the centre of what would become a
democratic world and were taken by surprise by the economic resurgence of
authoritarian regimes.   The same is true
of the west after 1989: we believed that history was on our side, and that the
world was cheering us on. 

But 1989 not only opened the door for globalisation and a shift
in economic power from West to East (and the shifts in the military balance
that rising powers could afford).  It has
also sowed the seeds for a multipolar world of ideas where many global leaders embrace
the Beijing Consensus over the Washington
consensus, Russian sovereign democracy over European liberal democracy, while western
attitudes towards sovereignty, human rights and intervention struggle to gain
ground in international court of public opinion.  In this context, the lack of reform of
international institutions, from the UN to the IMF, could be seen as a
mini-Versailles Treaty; a symptom of the fact that the liberal powers were too busy basking in their
victory to ready themselves and their institutions  for a different world.

President Obama is now preparing for this post-Western world by
re-setting American relations with China
and Russia, and
reconceptualising the US
policy towards Af/Pak, the Middle East, and Iran.  Many EU leaders, conversely, have strategic
jet-lag: they remain in thrall to the thinking of the 1990s (an incredible
decade that saw Germany
re-united, the seeds for NATO and EU enlargement planted, a European single
market and currency completed, and the creation of a new generation of multilateral
institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, the Kyoto Protocol, and the
International Criminal Court).  Because
its world view was shaped by this glorious decade it is struggling to adapt to
changes in its own continent or the wider world.

The 1990s was the
EU’s unipolar moment, at least in its own neighbourhood. Russia
descended into chaos, the countries of the eastern bloc began their long
journey towards EU accession and the liberal European model was the only one on
offer. Enlargement – of NATO first and the EU – has been the EU’s most
successful foreign policy ever, but its very success is preventing the EU from
developing fresh thinking for the challenges of the 21st
century.  Enlargement in the 1990s was
based on the assumption that Europe is the only pole of attraction and that
countries want not simply to join it, but to become like it.  However, beyond the Western Balkans and Turkey, neither
of these assumptions hold true.  Today’s
neighbourhood is multipolar with Russia
and a newly active Turkey
using soft and hard power to bring countries into their sphere of
influence.  While the new neighbours are
attracted by the European market, they want to choose European benefits ‘a la
carte’ rather than embark on the wholesale transformation of their
societies.  They see the European Union
as a way of increasing their leverage against Russia.  And at the same time, the United States –
through its re-set diplomacy and the step away from missile defence and NATO
enlargement – has signalled to Europeans that they will return to off-shore
balancing – leaving Europeans to take primary responsibility for their

It is in this
context – of an increasingly multipolar Europe
– that we need to think about the Medvedev proposal.  For diplomats there is a natural tendency to
go for a defensive posture of marking out European red-lines and sending the
debate into the graveyard of the OSCE. 
But the core questions we need to start with are: do we live in the best
of all possible orders given the political situation in Russia? Are the
post-cold-war institutions underpinning European order and giving us the
security that we need? If the answer to these questions is yes, there may be
problems with the OSCE, CFC, and Georgia but any renegotiation will simply play
into Russia’s
hands – allowing them to undermine NATO, EU and OSCE; divide and rule Europeans
and Americans; and re-establish a sphere of influence. 

An alternative
approach is to recognise that the post-cold war order is already crumbling and
that the status-quo we are trying to defend is inherently unstable.  If that is true it might be worth risking
moving beyond red-lines to forge a united European position that could shift
the Russians on arms control, common missions in Transdnistria, mutual
recognition of the status-quo in Georgia. 
Of course, this approach will probably not succeed because of the
conceptual differences between the two sides. 
For Europeans, the idea of security is about pooling and constraining
sovereignty.  For a Russia that is
busy trying to rebuild its sovereignty and protecting itself from outside
interference the very idea of security in the EU is a threat.  Conversely, it is the Russian idea of security
– a sphere of influence shielded from external interference – which makes
Europeans feel insecure. However, the EU has more to lose from passively
responding to the Russian proposals than from debating its own idea of a
European order and asking others to sign up.

On the surface,
the US faces a similar dilemma
on the global stage in responding to the rise of a China that has become a factor on
all security issues.  The conventional
wisdom is that we have two choices in dealing with China: either we give it the
space to pursue more ambitious economic, diplomatic and defense objectives
within the existing order; or we will find that China tries to alter the
international rules and institutions of the Western order in order to build a
new one in its own image.  But seen from Beijing there is no a binary choice between
engagement or exit. China
depends too much on the existing system to drive its economic growth to seek to
overthrow it, but it is showing little sign of becoming a “responsible
stakeholder”. Whether in sinking the chances of a meaningful deal at Copenhagen,
in controlling the pace of P5+1 process on Iran, working with India as a
deal-breaker in the WTO negotiations, or restraining the capacity of the UN
Security Council to take action on Burma and Zimbabwe, a more engaged China has
generally acted to weaken the liberal orientation of the system wherever
possible. Rather than being transformed by the institutions, China has used its participation in the
western system to constrain the ability of the west to pursue core policy goals
while at the same time working outside the existing system to create a new
network of relationships and institutions that exclude the west.   None of these steps are likely to result in
outright confrontation with the West – not least because avoiding such a
conflict is one of China’s
primary goals. But in the round, it represents a powerful challenge to the
liberal order that was in the process of developing after the Cold War.

Rather than
developing plans for a G2, the US
should be working with the EU to develop an approach to preserve the liberal
bias in the global order.  The goal
should not be to hope that China
will become responsible, but rather to make the existing order China
proof.  The central idea to adopt is an
approach of “conditional integration” – using tools such as “Carbon taxes” or
the threat of exclusion to make participation contingent on the contribution
countries are willing to make.  The goal
is not to create a “league of democracies” but for western powers to get much
better at acting in concert and recruiting of others to break up illiberal
coalitions in global institutions.

Forging new
partnerships means being unafraid of escaping the thinking of the last 20 years.
Today’s Washington is already less focused on Europe and busy forging its own
policies with other powers which may not always be in tune with European
interests.  This is not a bad thing.  Over the past half century, Europeans have
been infantilised by America
– whether in the form of Atlanticism or anti-Americanism. Rather than developing
their own responses to global issues, the tendency has been to pass a running
commentary on American policy. But now, in a “post-American world”, there is a
chance to develop a new security agenda motivated not by nostalgia or emotion
but shared interests, including the preservation of a liberal world order in an
increasingly multipolar world.

This piece was first published in The Security Times – supplement for the Munich Security Conference. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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