The three challenges for the West in the new cold war

Western states will only maintain their unity and resolve if they address major problems related to their external alliances, EU unity, and people power

State of the Union address delivered by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen on 14 September 2022 in Strasbourg

Russia’s war on Ukraine has forced Europeans to rethink their place in the world. This violent conflict has also created a new cold war. But, in contrast to the confrontation of the Soviet era, in this cold war it is still unclear whose side many states are on.

The outlines of this cold war emerged around the time of NATO’s June 2022 summit in Madrid. Members of the alliance showed remarkable unity and resolve as they decided to funnel arms to Ukraine, increase defence spending, bolster their military deployments in eastern Europe, and impose severe economic sanctions on Russia.

Despite this, they need to contend with the fact that the West has lost much of its normative power – as this author was reminded in a recent series of meetings with politicians from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Western states will struggle to convince countries in these regions to side with them in the new cold war.

Globally, around two-thirds of countries support Ukraine. However, this does not mean they are willing to back sanctions on, or even multilateral declarations condemning, Russia. For instance, the BRICS states – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – invited 12 other countries to their recent summit. China used the opportunity to call on them to unite in support of one another’s fundamental interests. Given the internal strains on liberal democracy, which will increase if the far right wins the coming election in Italy – and given the ongoing international struggle between liberal and authoritarian states – this sort of effort could harm democracy’s normative standing in the global arena even more.

Against this background, the Western alliance now faces three major challenges that will shape the new cold war. These challenges, which are constantly developing, involve: external alliances, the unity of the European Union, and people power. In all three areas, Western governments play a markedly different role from their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

External alliances

Many countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia remain traumatised by colonialism and wary of what they see as double standards in US foreign policy. The NATO-led military intervention in Libya only increased some of these countries’ concerns about the Western alliance – as did the US-led withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, which left behind the wreckage of unfinished reform projects. Nonetheless, this does not necessarily mean that these states have any more confidence in Russia, China, or Turkey.

Most Latin American, African, and Asian states are far less interested in the West’s efforts to uphold a rules-based order than in transactional relationships that could help them deal with domestic problems. Russian and Chinese disinformation, cheap Russian energy, and accessible Chinese loans and infrastructure projects can be far more appealing than what the West appears to offer.

The EU must therefore consider how it approaches its international engagement and seek to offer tangible alternatives to Russian and Chinese strategies. To secure its geopolitical position, the EU should establish strong links to emerging markets, investing at a significant scale in their local private sectors and enabling them to enter the global supply chain. A focus on industries such as energy, the green economy, and smart infrastructure would help present a forward-looking and future-orientated commitment to partner countries. This is something that China lacks. Mobilising funds that can practically rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative and channel them in a strategic way throughout Africa and Asia is a challenge itself, as it would require enhanced consensus among EU member states. However, the EU’s Global Gateway infrastructure investment programme, if implemented quickly and efficiently, would be a geopolitically significant project for EU engagement with external actors.

EU unity

Recent statements by various EU and NATO leaders suggest significant differences between them on the question of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Crucially, NATO member Turkey has engaged in behaviour similar to Russia’s – invading and annexing the territory of independent countries (Cyprus and Syria), calling into question its border with a neighbouring state (Greece), shifting towards authoritarianism, and committing widespread human rights violations at home.

Just as the Russian president invokes Peter the Great and dreams of the Russian Empire, his Turkish counterpart invokes Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottoman Empire. While the United States and many EU countries may have often ignored this problem, there is still a risk that Turkey’s revisionism could threaten the unity of the Western coalition. The EU should acknowledge that the assertiveness of Turkish foreign policy is a challenge to regional stability and adjust its Turkey policy accordingly. Adopting a transactional relationship framework and developing some kind of interdependence on select bilateral issues would be a first but politically important step towards increasing the EU’s negotiating power with the country.

People power

Many Western countries will soon hold elections against the backdrop of multiple crises. Most of their citizens want to support Ukraine, but they are also weary of long-running economic and public health problems, as well as the widespread sense of insecurity in Europe. All this could affect their attitudes towards the new cold war and solidarity within the Western alliance.

The situation could deteriorate this winter, as further rises in energy prices contribute to political instability and social tensions. It is unclear whether, in these circumstances, citizens will continue to support increases in defence spending or maintaining a hard line on Russia. There is a chance that, in some Western countries, a culture of individualism and reluctance to make even small sacrifices for the greater good could lead to a major shift in foreign policy.

The situation could deteriorate in winter, as further rises in energy prices contribute to political instability and social tensions

In the long run, democracy is the most powerful and effective governance system available. But, in the coming months, Western states will have work to do if they are to convince their partners elsewhere in the world of this fact. Democracy in on the defensive and the reasons for this are fairly clear. If the West wants to convince of the power of its governance system, it should first fix its problems and then create an exportable grand narrative.

The two most important priorities towards this end are: firstly, to fix inequities in a way that shared prosperity is guaranteed; and, secondly, to revitalise the Western security order in order to guarantee peace and stability on our soil. The Western alliance will need to deal with the mounting domestic challenges its members face if they are to maintain the unity of their alliance and help defend Ukraine. In this respect, they will need to find a way to bring peace to Ukraine while expanding democracy in a world where democracy’s enemies are gaining ground. The recent Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit was a golden moment for the united authoritarians of the world – whether they as an anti-NATO force or an economic coercion machine, we should all beware. Anne Applebaum is perhaps right: the bad guys are winning. Our duty is to make sure that any such victory is short-lived.

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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