Western Arrogance and European Vassalage

Andrés Ortega

11 mins - 21 de Abril de 2023, 07:05

In the face of the war in Ukraine and the growing tension with China, the West (above all the United States) has adopted an arrogant rather than defensive attitude which almost no one else in the rest of the world follows. It is a vestige from colonial or imperial times and, above all, from the unipolar moment that prevailed until recently. 'The Biden administration aspires to achieve a unipolar order that no longer exists', according to analyst Stephen Walt, who claims that the US 'fears' a 'multipolar' world. Obama during his tenure once called Russia a mere 'regional power'. Yet now, we can see it more clearly. 

In this world there are third parties, including some Europeans like Macron, who do not want to get caught up in the festering tensions between Washington-Beijing, let alone with Moscow. The world has changed, but the West seems either unaware or unwilling. It not only wants to defend its interests, values, and ways of life, which is normal and legitimate, but also to lecture others. Already since the middle of the last decade, the Western economy has been smaller than the rest, a trend that has been on the rise ever since, not to mention the demographic weight in this regard. The West will have to adapt.

Almost no country outside the realm of US allies (the West Plus, which Moscow calls the 'collective West') has followed the sanctions against Russia imposed from Washington or Brussels (the EU is already on its 10th sanctions package, which is a bit ridiculous), which are making a dent in Moscow, but not as significantly as quickly as hoped for and expected. India, the US's great hope against China, is going its own way. Saudi Arabia, a key US player in the Gulf, has seen that it has lost interest in Washington (except for selling arms to Riyadh), and has made a diplomatic rapprochement with its arch-enemy Iran, mediated by China (which will make little difference to that rivalry in the long run). 

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West Plus, the West extended to Japan. South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, speaks of the need for a 'rules-based global order' (it no longer says 'liberal'). But what rules? Much of the world has condemned Russia's aggression, which is undoubtedly both illegal and brutal. The US (and British) invasion of Iraq in 2003 was also illegal - and based on lies - and the dismantling of its state structures was unwise, as it fostered the birth of Daesh terrorism. But President George Bush was not brought before any international tribunal. Not to mention the torture in Abu Graib, or the cases of Libya or Kosovo. The Guantanamo detention centre at the US base in Cuba is still open and operational with 32 prisoners, 20 years after it was opened following the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan. The latter was legal as it was unanimously approved by the UN Security Council (including China and Russia, those were different times). Now the International Criminal Court (ICC) has begun investigating Putin and his acolytes for crimes against humanity. Morally, this is understandable, but politically it makes it difficult to find solutions. The US supports this, but remains, like Russia (and Ukraine), not a party to this legal framework (the Rome Statute), and its soldiers are protected from prosecution almost everywhere in the world. 

China is on the rise. How far? It remains to be seen. The reality is that it is the largest trading partner of almost every country in the world today (for example, the US, Japan, France, and Germany) and in some technologies it is ahead of the United States. In others, it lags behind. It is historically normal for it to want the world order and its rules to accommodate in part to its interests and values. It is not in its interest to break them, but to shape them. China is not a breakaway. In fact, it has developed under the rules established by the West. China wants a world order based on its 'civilisational values', and is promoting related institutions parallel to, but limited by, its interests. Accommodating it somehow, without losing some essences - let us not call them universal - is a way to avoid between the US and China what Graham Allison, referring to the wars between Sparta and Athens, has dubbed 'the Thucydides trap'. 

It is not just China. India, although it competes with it and is in the QAD security dialogue (along with the US, Japan, and Australia), comes after it with its own, non-Western conceptions that will also shape the world order of the future. Already this year it is the most populous country-civilisation, with nuclear weapons, but without a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The US, like China, believes, with reason, that technological dominance is essential and that controlling it will allow the West to compensate for its growing demographic weakness, not only regarding China but also India, Africa, and the 'Global South' in general. 

On Taiwan, the US is defying the Nixon-Mao agreement from more than half a century ago of 'one China'. The Biden Administration may be trying to dissuade Beijing from a possible invasion (which some in Washington believe in and some do not), especially as Taiwan is home to the world's most important factories of essential microchips. All this has an internal component in the US, a polarised society, with a democracy challenged from within by a large section of the population.

Biden presents the world as a confrontation between democracies and autocracies although he sometimes forgets that liberal democracies are not setting too many good examples (such as the storming of the Capitol on 6 January 2021). There are differences with the Beijing regime on what is meant by democracy. As Mark Leonard points out, 'from China's point of view, the real battle for supremacy today is not between democracies and autocracies, but between different interpretations of what democracy means'. Neither Hungary's Orbán (from the EU) nor Turkey's Erdogan (from NATO) were invited to the recent second Democracy Summit hosted by the Biden Administration. But yes, Narendra Modi, who is carrying out a serious rollback of freedoms in India, and Israel's Netanyahu, who is trying to control the judiciary to avoid being convicted of corruption, were invited. Others instances could be cited. The whole world is waiting to see what will happen in the US in the 2024 elections, with a Republican party and a possible candidate, Trump, who has become increasingly authoritarian and extremist and does not seem to be moving towards a new moderation, but quite the opposite. 

The United States is the world's largest military power. Its defence spending accounts for almost 40% of defence spending globally. It has some 750 military bases (2020 data) in more than 70 countries around the world. China and Russia have far fewer, although they are endeavouring to expand them. The Europeans have a few. They are all engaged in an arms race, on land, sea, air, physical space, and cyber and information space. It is the quest for 'full spectrum dominance' as US doctrine calls it. 

The war in Ukraine, so traumatic for us Westerners, the first on European soil since the Balkans in the 1990s, is seen from the Global South as 'whites killing whites with the support of other whites rather than whites killing non-whites or non-whites killing each other, sometimes with the support and encouragement of whites', as Singapore's Bilahari Kausikan puts it. Moreover, along with the arms race with China, it marks the end of the 'peace dividend' that followed the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. But in that strategic siesta, China was awake.

China and Russia are trying to divide the West. The West has been more united in the face of Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine than in the face of China's challenge, but there are serious cracks within it. Europeans have undoubtedly lost the veil of naivety in the face of Beijing, but it does not want a divorce, a decoupling. Xi Jinping is receiving representatives of European states, but gives much less pomp and attention to those of European institutions. China sees that Europe is not only dividing internally, but dissolving, by country, into a new West. Macron's call for Europe to distance itself from rising US-China tensions, most notably over Taiwan, and to forge its own strategic autonomy in everything from energy to defence, has not gone down well in some Western quarters and has highlighted deep divergences between Europeans, including between Germany and France and within Germany's own coalition government. 

Europe can seek, if anything, autonomy; the US, hegemony. The reality is that Europe, the EU, although it has come a long way with the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, is today more dependent on the US than before in terms of energy, arms, technology, culture and so on. 'The art of vassalisation)', Jeremy Shapiro and Jana Puglierin call it in a crude analysis for the European Centre for Foreign Policy (ECFR), prior to the leak of Pentagon data that is shedding light on the Ukrainian war but also revealing once again that the US spies not just on Russia, but on its own allies. Macron also uses the term 'vassal', to get away from it. Europe is far from this strategic autonomy, a concept that not everyone shares. Some want to remain vassals. And, with Ukraine, almost all have realised, or have realised again, that they are dependent on the US for their security. Washington knows it, and while it seeks strong allies, it does not want the vassals to catch up either. And if Macron claims European autonomy, he is very much defending French sovereignty, including in technological matters. 

The EU is a great contribution as a new political form, but it still has a long way to go (if it can and wants to). And although many states want to join it, even more after Brexit, and many people want to come and live in Europe, nobody outside wants this model for themselves, despite European arrogance rather than pride.

In this arrogance, one might mention the reluctance of some former metropolises to return works of art that were brought from their domains and are now in their museums, presented not as colonial but as cosmopolitan. The anthropologist Adam Kuper calls them 'other people's museums'. A whole debate is underway (also with Greece). The West must defend its values and its model, but not try to impose itself as in the past in this other world that no one will be able to dominate alone. Arrogance will not serve it, neither outwardly, nor inwardly, in a world full of problems.
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