The West’s Comeback: Renewal Starts at Home

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Prominent publications on both sides of the Atlantic are full of anxious ruminations on the future of the West.  And for good reason.  Europe and the United States are simultaneously passing through a prolonged period of economic and political weakness.  Meanwhile, many of the world’s rising powers are enjoying steady economic growth and enlarging their geopolitical sway.  The possibility of a “post-Western” era looms on the horizon.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Marta Dassù have recently made thoughtful contributions to this debate in the pages of La Stampa.  Brzezinski counsels that the West should fortify itself by expanding eastward, extending its reach to Russia, Turkey, and Asian allies ready to check China’s rise.  Dassù counters that the West should look not only east but also south, embracing Brazil and others in a broader “panatlantic” community.  As it has done throughout its history, Brzezinski and Dassù agree, the West should strengthen itself through geographic expansion.

Both proposals are reasonable, but neither gets to the heart of the matter.  The future of the West will ride on the health and vitality of its traditional North American and European cores.  Although both Brzezinski and Dassù recognize the need for the United States and the EU to get their own houses in order, they inappropriately deflect attention from this priority by suggesting that enlargement rather than internal renewal is vital to the West’s future strength.

Moreover, even if the West is able to regain its internal vitality and enlarge its footprint, it will still have to manage the transition to a world in which power will be more equitably distributed.  In addition, non-Western approaches to domestic and international governance promise to pose growing challenges to the international order erected during the West’s watch.  The West may still have its best years ahead of it, but the material and ideological dominance it has enjoyed for the last two centuries is not sustainable.

The economic and political weakness afflicting the West is not just another temporary dip stemming from a downturn in the business cycle or a series of errant policy decisions.  Rather, the United States and Europe are together experiencing a crisis of democratic governance born of the impact of globalization on Western societies.

Globalization is taking a particularly high economic toll on Western democracies. The entry of billions of low-wage workers into the global economy is producing stagnating middle-class wages and growing inequality across most of the industrialized West. Over the past ten years, the average household income in the United States has fallen by over ten percent. In the meantime, income inequality has been steadily rising, making the United States the most unequal country in the industrialized world.  In much of Europe, middle-class incomes have been falling and inequality has been rising for the better part of two decades.  Even Germany, the EU’s premier economy, saw its middle class contract by 13 percent between 2000 and 2008.

Voters confronted with these challenges are understandably looking to their elected representatives for help. But just as globalization is stimulating this pressing demand for responsive governance, it is also ensuring that its provision is in desperately short supply.

The interdependence born of globalization dilutes the impact of many of the traditional policy tools used by liberal democracies. The scope and speed of global flows of commerce and capital mean that actions taken in Western capitals are regularly outweighed by developments elsewhere, such as Beijing’s intransigence on its currency valuation or the decisions of international investors and ratings agencies.  The diffusion of power from the West to the rest also means that there are today many new cooks in the kitchen; effective action no longer rests primarily on collaboration among like-minded democracies. And even if democracies can be nimble and responsive when their electorates are content, they are clumsy and sluggish when their citizens are downcast.

The mismatch between the growing demand for good governance and its shrinking supply is one of the gravest challenges facing the Western world today.  In the United States, the crisis of governance is taking the form of an intractable polarization.  On the other side of the Atlantic, it is taking form of a stubborn renationalization, denying the EU the collective wherewithal it needs to thrive in a globalized world.

Redressing these challenges has little to do with enlarging the West.  On the contrary, the West urgently needs a compelling answer to the fundamental tensions among democracy, capitalism and globalization. A new political agenda should reassert popular control over political economy. Liberal democracies must turn to strategic planning and state-led investment in infrastructure, education and jobs to restore competitiveness, redress inequality, and advantage mass publics rather than the party faithful or special interests.

Even if the West succeeds in restoring its economic and political solvency, Americans and Europeans must nonetheless map out a collective strategy for managing the coming transition in global politics. Rather than extending the West’s reach eastward to Asia or southward to Africa and Latin America, the United States and Europe would be wise to invest in regional institutions that can help promote stability and prosperity in these areas.

A regional security architecture for Northeast Asia is more realistic – and probably would be more effective – than artificially pushing NATO or other Western institutions into the Pacific.  The same goes for Latin America.  Mercosur and the defense union envisaged by Brazil offer more promise than a contrived “panatlantic” community that presumes that Washington, Brussels, Brasilia, and Rabat constitute a meaningful strategic community.

In addition to devolving more responsibility to regional actors, the West will also have to work with emerging powers to forge new rules of the road.  The world is fast headed toward not just multiple centers of power, but also multiple versions of modernity; free markets and liberal democracy will have to compete respectfully with other approaches to domestic and international governance.  The next world will not belong to the United States, Europe, China, India or anyone else; it will be no one’s world.  Managing this more diverse and unwieldy landscape will require cooperation and consensus between the West and the rising rest.

A version of this article appeared in the daily La Stampa on February 14, 2012