In The Media

Judy Asks: Is the West selling itself short?

by Judy Dempsey (feat. Julian Lindley-French)

Carnegie Europe
February 17, 2018

Carnegie Europe was on the ground at the 2018 Munich Security Conference, offering readers exclusive access to the debates as they unfold and providing insights on today’s most consequential threats to international peace.

Zeynep AlemdarHead
of the International Relations Department at Okan University, Istanbul

Remember the shame that the West felt when its arch enemy, the Soviet Union, unpredictably fell apart, ending the easy-to-understand bipolar worlda as we knew it? Then came the popularity of post-modernism, pointing out the flaws of rationality on which that bipolarity was founded. What has happened in the world since then includes a fervent denunciation of rationality, disproportional support for group rights over individual rights, and neglect of the crucial question of who will determine which group is better than the rest.

In the midst of this intellectual setting, we have been delegitimizing the values of the Enlightenment: respect for individual rights and the indivisibility of equality, freedom, and justice. Yet these values are still valid, and Western institutions are still the only ones working to operationalizing them, questioning them, and improving their function. The data that these organizations provide is in itself a service to the rule of law: consider the Justice Scoreboard of the European Commission. The checks and balances mechanisms that the West developed are still best at upholding the rule of law, and we should not doubt them.
Carl BildtCo-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations

The ideas and the values of the West remain the best—indeed, historically, the only—way to build societies that allow the talent and aspirations of humans to develop fully, to the benefit of themselves and others. But lately we have been too shy to state this as clearly as we should.

The success we have seen of other societies has been essentially them moving toward the values and ideas of the West. China is undoubtedly an increasingly authoritarian society in terms of its political system, but the country’s astonishing economic success during the last quarter of a century is the result of freeing up the system for the talent and entrepreneurship of individuals. And the true emergence of China in the world will be when it dares to do the same in the political sphere. It’s not imminent—but it will happen.

Ian BremmerPresident
of Eurasia Group

Yes. The “West” encompasses the most compelling, stable, and sustainable political systems the world has. But it’s slipping fast.

In part, it’s because the West is so divided, so inwardly focused, so seemingly incapable of long-term strategy. And in part, it’s because much of the West, and most particularly right now the United States, refuses to lead by example.

The strength of the West is ultimately about ideas and values. If we stop believing in those things (and if, indeed, we forget what they are), so will everyone else.
William J. BurnsPresident of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Yes. We have substantial enduring strengths, which are foolish to underestimate. But it is equally foolish to underestimate the challenges we face. Crises of governance, political dysfunction, and economic inequality handicap us at home. The reckless detachment of the Trump era leaves our allies uncertain and our rivals emboldened.

There is still a window before us, an opportunity to revitalize the transatlantic community and help shape a new, multipolar order—before it is shaped for us by the rise of other powers and other forces. It won’t stay open indefinitely. The test for the West is whether we can act with urgency and common sense to fix our internal troubles, and with discipline, realism, and confidence in a world in the midst of historic transformation.

Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook
Founding executive director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School

After a seventy-year run of vibrancy and dominance, the West has fallen into a deep Sinnkrise—a crisis of purpose. Doubted from within and pressured from outside, critical questions have emerged. Is the West a defense against Russian aggression? A bulwark against Chinese economic dominance? The purveyor of equal opportunity, domestic security, political access, and economic prosperity for all? On every front, the Western alliance seems to be failing.

Is it time to bail on belief in the West’s values and its future? No, but it is time to be clear-eyed. The end of the Cold War bled away a deeper sense of collective purpose. Rapid economic and social changes exposed systemic weaknesses. Inequality reduced popular faith that Western values promote a prosperous common good. Sharp differences emerged across Europe and the Atlantic on how to rank the values of freedom, equality, and equity. These differences must be addressed outright.

The West must prove itself to the individual—its remarkable achievements must be made deeply, personally resonant again. This week’s ideas from Brussels could help. Despite its failings, no political culture offers more capacity for invention, freedom, and human dignity. Our system remains deeply attractive from the outside. Ernest Renan said that French citizenship required a daily, personal affirmation. This is not the time to cut and run. It is time a time to affirm and engage to contemporize our joint history.

Heather Conley
Senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at CSIS

Yes, the West is selling itself short at the moment. The West has been in a crisis of confidence for over a decade, which began with the global financial crisis, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and the beginning of the accelerated ascent of China. The economic crisis in turn fueled a political crisis in most advanced democracies, where the political status quo for the past two decades is being rejected as centrist political leaders give increasing ground to more extreme ideologies. This feeds a fear of the future rather than confidence. It is true that that the West is not looking its best at the moment, which makes authoritarian regimes seem orderly and attractive in comparison.

But what goes underappreciated is the West’s many strengths: we are constantly innovating economically; our civil engagement pushes us in new directions; and our commitment to and the resiliency of the rule of law—no matter how it is tested—is our greatest asset. In other words, the West has the ability to self-correct. I do not know the outcome of the U.S. midterm election in November, but I do know the outcome of the Russian presidential elections in March. In short, paraphrasing former U.S. president Reagan, we must to return to the sentiment of: “It’s morning again in the West”—that our enthusiasm and energy about the possibilities of tomorrow is greater than today. Until that time (paraphrasing Secretary of Defense James Mattis), we must “hold the line” as best we can until the West gets back on its feet again.
Thomas de WaalSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe

It’s true that the “liberal international order” is in a crisis of self-doubt. But Western liberalism is, after all, a project of the European Enlightenment, with its commitment to self-criticism and skepticism. So rigorous self-questioning is part of the legacy and is also a sign of sophistication.

The European Union has been knocked back by the Brexit vote and by illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland. There is a warning there, that the EU had come to assume that its liberal order was a new religion, a self-evident reality that all would accept. It is in fact a work in progress whose precepts constantly need to be tested with the general public. When it comes to issues like further EU integration, inequality, and migration there are no easy or “right” answers.

At the same time, this is not a moment for panic. Illiberal regimes, from China to Russia—and we must now include the Trump White House on that list—may sound triumphant, but do they have answers to global problems, such as climate change? Soon enough, many people will realize that the world still needs smart solutions to global challenges from liberal, multilateral institutions like the EU.

Charles Grant
Director of the Centre for European Reform

The West—a group of democracies committed to the rule of law, at home and internationally—is on the defensive. The rise of China, a country that spurns Western values, is transforming the global economic and political order, offering a viable non-Western model of development. The United States, the preeminent Western power, has a leader who is apparently ambivalent about some Western values. Meanwhile, the EU now includes two governments and several influential populist movements whose commitment to Western values is questionable. Indeed, an alternative concept of the West seems to appeal to leaders like Orbán, Kaczyński, Trump, and Putin—one based on the defense of Judeo-Christian civilization against Islam and immigration, and on the smack of firm government rather than civil rights.

But all is not lost. Macron and Merkel are strong leaders committed to Western values. The combination of Brexit and Trump has boosted support for European integration across much of the EU. In the United States, checks and balances are constraining Trump’s behavior. And countries such as South Africa, Brazil, and Japan are following Western values rather than alternatives. What the West needs is self-confidence in the resilience of its own values.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves
Former president of Estonia

Be it a malaise of self-confidence or a genuine inability to forge common responses to new challenges, the West seems to be falling into a serious case of learned helplessness.

By all measures the West has never been this rich, this powerful, and this secure. Yet it cannot act. Its leaders (with the possible exception of Emmanuel Macron) lack vision or will, failing to realize that the slow, incremental construction of the post-Cold War West over the past quarter century will not suffice to engage with new challenges. Nor are leaders willing to admit that these challenges were foreseeable. China’s inevitable rise to become an economic, technological, and even military powerhouse (at least regionally) was predictable two decades ago. It has been clear for just as long that the income differential between Europe and its south and southeast would, at the slightest spark, lead to massive flows of people northward. Russia’s behavior since 2008—and especially after its 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea—should have set off warning bells across the West.

Yet responses have been piddling, nationally self-serving, or even ostrich-like. Individually, governments have paid little attention to China and followed NIMBY politics on immigration, especially in much of Eastern Europe. On Russia, both the United States and Western Europe treated those who knew better as “Chicken Littles.” Meanwhile, at the EU level, those charged to guide foreign policy have nothing to show aside from trivial accomplishments with secondary issues such as Cuba and “standing up to America,” when that country suddenly has begun to act in ways as nationally self-centered as many European states have been for decades.

The West has been a frog in water slowly being brought to a boil. Will it notice the rising temperature and jump?

John Kornblum
Senior counselor at Noerr LLP

Yes, the West is selling itself much too short. But cultural pessimism and Weltuntergang moods are standard for Western society. The fact is the world is getting progressively better. Almost any indicator of human well-being around the globe shows important progress in the past thirty years. Things look bad for two reasons: we are in the midst of radical, destructive change; and we are suffering from the fear of losing an unusually long period of stability and growth that followed World War II. After so much death and destruction, people everywhere felt the need to behave. And after so much war and depression, postwar technological advances made everything seem automatic.

Now the old era is passing away and the change makes us nervous. Nothing wrong with that. It keeps us on our toes. But one thing is sure. Western society and values remain the best system yet invented for regulating the relationship between the individual and society—between power, wealth, and justice. It will continue to be even more important in the digital age for a simple reason—it works. Nothing else that China, Russia, or Lower Slobovia can invent will ever match it for simple pragmatism. So let’s not abandon our principles just because we have entered a rough patch. The future will probably be confusing, but it will also be astounding.
Miriam LexmannFormer permanent representative of the Slovak Parliament to the EU and member of the advisory board for the COMPASS project on capacity-building and governance at the University of Kent

The answer is, sadly, yes. But the questions is why? Is the West going through a crisis of self-confidence or are there other reasons why it sells itself short? There are several coinciding reasons that influence each other, though each originates in a different in-house or global source. We have to look behind the veil and see what features the West as a normative power has really developed since 1945.

First, some urge us to step back from the bleak headlines and prophecies of doom and instead follow the data that show that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Yes, maybe in general—but not for everyone. Second, our very mission for equality, humanity, and support of human dignity is often characterized by the technocratization and technologization of politics, administrative arbitrariness, and the dehumanization of the “welfare state.” At the same time, epistemic and gnoseologic violence deepens the gap between socially liberal and socially conservative parts of our populations. Finally, the West has devaluates itself as it exchanged the ideal of exporting universal values with importing corruptive manners for quick gains on the global market.

Once we start to address these insufficiencies in our values, the world may become again Western-centric, as the West’s system of governance will naturally pull the rest of the world toward itself.

Julian Lindley-French
Senior fellow at the Institute of Statecraft, director of Europa Analytica, distinguished visiting research fellow at the National Defense University, and fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute

This question presupposes a whole raft of assumptions, given that the West is more of a global idea than a place in the twenty-first century, having sold its core idea of the “freeishness” of both people and markets very successfully. The New West in the Old East is selling its version of “the West” very well—even China has adopted some very “Western” ideas.

The problem is the “Old West.” Europe is led by a Germany that is as deeply ambivalent about American power as it is about its own. Berlin is particularly ambivalent about American power right now. French President Emmanuel Macron has leapt enthusiastically into the void where “the West” once stood firm—partly in an effort to reinvent said West á la française. Unfortunately, Macron’s ambitions are far bigger than his country.

And Britain? The West was born aboard the USS Augusta in 1941, when Churchill sat across a table from Roosevelt. That West presupposed an American Rome to a British Athens. With Britain fast becoming Europe’s “snowflake” state, the future West depends on Americans and Germans together crafting a new idea of it. After all, one cannot sell anything unless there is a product!

Nora Müller
Head of International Affairs at the Körber Foundation

A year into the Trump administration, an unprecedented level of transatlantic alienation has become a fact of life. In many fields, the United States and Europe are no longer pulling in the same direction—be it on climate protection, free trade, or the JCPOA. At a time of formidable external challenges, the West stands divided and incapable of unlocking its joint potential.

European governments have readjusted their policies—cognizant that “we can either try to shape the world ourselves or wait to be shaped by the rest of the world.” Boosting the EU’s capacity as a global actor is a prudent (and long overdue) move—but it must not fool European leaders into abandoning transatlanticism as a pillar of our foreign policy. In spite of Trump, the transatlantic partnership remains the closest thing to a community of values that we have—not to speak of the tightly woven fabric of mutual dependence.

As Europeans, we must not forget that the United States in many ways remains “the indispensable nation.” And as Westerners (from both sides of the Atlantic), we should know our Benjamin Franklin: “We must all hang together, or we shall all hang separately.” Any other strategy would be selling ourselves short.
Norbert RöttgenChairman of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee

The West, with its system of democracy and the rule of law, remains the most attractive form of society in the world. The best proof of this is the millions of refugees who have set out for Western countries—not only since 2015. The migration movement is merely perceived as a problem, although it is the clearest possible recognition of our way of life. Many people worldwide want to live like us; they come to us, and not to emerging powers like China or Russia. The West must not degrade itself—despite growing nationalist forces and the current phase of political weakness in several countries—it remains a place of longing for millions of people.

However, this awareness entails the responsibility to preserve and defend this way of life. We can only live up to this claim if we start to take action. This means that we cannot stand by and watch when states extend their sphere of influence to other countries, such as Russia in Ukraine; or when governments kill their own people, like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The West must take a clear position and also draw the necessary consequences, such as sanctions. Otherwise, the West will severely endanger its liberal form of society, eventually even for its own population.

Gwendolyn Sasse
Nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and director of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin

It has become difficult to define who exactly the “West” is and what it collectively stands for—therefore, it cannot “sell” itself convincingly. But in the marketplace of ideas, it is not those shouting the loudest to sell their wares who win others over. In the medium to long term, only ideas that deliver on the expectations they raise stand a chance. Populist ideas in government have a limited shelf life, at least in democracies where they can be replaced fairly easily.

This may seem like a risky game, and it should not be misunderstood as complacency. It requires revitalizing a debate across different parts of society—within and across national borders—that is both self-critical and critical of others. The key challenge is to rebuild trust in democracy as a practice and a political value. This implies both a bottom-up and a top-down process. Alternative approaches trying to recreate a sense of Western unity—for example, through rhetoric harking back to the Cold War era, through focusing on defining “the other,” through higher military spending, or through dividing the former “West” into different camps—will on their own fall short of their objective.

Marietje Schaake
Member of the European Parliament

When looking at the quality of life for people in Western countries: absolutely. When looking at the sense of urgency to address the various challenges to liberal democracies: there is no time for complacency.

At a time when the pressures on democracy, open societies, open economies, and the open internet are growing, we need to stand firmly for what we believe in. Yet attacks on centrist parties by populists, nationalist, and anti-democratic forces have led to uncertainty and paralysis.

Simultaneously there are growing tensions within “the West,” not in the least between the EU and the United States.

If we do not want to sell ourselves short, we must stand more strongly for the values and benefits that set liberal democracies apart from others. That includes avoiding the erosion of those liberal democratic values from within. Celebrating what we are proud of should go hand in hand with a realization of how precious liberal democracy is, and that it is worth fighting for.
Constanze StelzenmüllerRobert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution

Arguably, Western nations are currently so absorbed in grappling with their own domestic polarization and dysfunctionality that the question of “selling themselves” doesn’t arise. Rarely have we—the United States, as well as the nations of Europe—appeared so vulnerable, so bereft of resolve, and so inarticulate. In the United States, the president’s reckless messaging is perpetually at odds with that of more sober advisers. Britain’s leaders can’t seem to agree on what they are trying to achieve with Brexit. In Germany, the traditional party system appears to be heading for self-immolation. And we appear to be either complacent or paralyzed as authoritarian leaders in Poland and Hungary reshape their countries as illiberal democracies.

Yes, Russia and China (and Turkey and Iran) are exploiting these weaknesses—but they did not create them. That is our responsibility alone. Representative democracy—protection of minorities against the tyranny of the majority, separation and balance of power, and political pluralism—is what sets the West apart from the rest. Our foreign and security policy is only as effective and credible as the state of our democracy, as we have now learned. That issue will be center stage at the 2018 Munich Security Conference.

Angela Stent
Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies and a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University

Since the election of Donald Trump and the rise of euroskeptic populist groups in many European countries, there has been a growing chorus of experts predicting the imminent demise of the liberal global order and of the Euro-Atlantic rules-based system. But these predictions about the end of the world as we know it are premature. The Trump White House may seek to act as a global disrupter, but the rest of the executive branch is pursuing a foreign policy—including relations with America’s European allies—that is in line with previous U.S. administrations. The system of checks and balances still works and the U.S. courts have acted as a brake on the White House’s more populist proposals. Europe is also experiencing a period of greater instability and questioning of the previous order, but readjustments are inevitable, given the changing global landscape. The West is robust enough to overcome its current challenges. Its institutions remain strong as long as its leaders remain confident about their ability to prevail. Europe and the United States remain the chosen destination for people fleeing war and persecution and seeking a better life. That pole of attraction will not change for a long time.

Nathalie Tocci
Director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs

External challenges per se, from cyber to China’s rise to authoritarian retrenchment worldwide, do not threaten the West. The West risks succumbing to its own internal social, political, and institutional fragilities—of three interrelated kinds.

First are the deep socio-political fragilities that are poisoning Western liberal democracies, as manifested by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. The question is whether liberal democratic institutions will be strong enough to contain the damage inflicted by these political cleavages. The first year of Trump’s presidency suggests this may well be the case.

Second are institutional fragilities. Elsewhere in Western Europe, political divisions also abound, but nationalist forces have not won (yet) majoritarian support. Were this to happen, European institutions would not survive. Whereas U.S. democratic institutions are probably strong enough to survive Trump, EU institutions are still too young, experimental, and fragile to survive Marine Le Pen and her likes at the helm. Given the persistence of the populist nationalist threat—watch Italy in the coming weeks—the urgent task is that of relaunching the European project to strengthen policies and institutions at once.

Third are socio-political and institutional fragilities combined. Poland and Hungary stand out: two governments that implicitly or explicitly reject liberal democracy. Here, firmness on values alongside the rekindling of EU institutions with largely Europhile publics is crucial to put liberal democracy back on track.

Liberal democracy is the major source of strength of the West. Without it even the smallest of challenges become existential; with it even the greatest of threats can be managed.
Tomáš ValášekDirector of Carnegie Europe

Yes and no. Yes in the sense that the strength of our economies and the skills of our people beat the rest of the world in many regards. That in theory makes us well suited to a) easily look after our interests; and b) continue to mold global policies and debates in ways we find sensible and responsible.

But capacity means nothing without will. History is littered with triumphs of much less capable but determined parties over supposedly much stronger ones. The loss of confidence, the intra-Western squabbling—those are not just irritants. They are potentially fatal flaws. That is why what Emmanuel Macron does—infusing the idea of a positive, outward-looking Europe with new energy—is so important and so promising.

The two big pitfalls that I see on his path (there are presumably others): can the United States be brought back around quickly enough to see the relationship with Europe in win-win terms? And as Europe’s West (hopefully) finds its stride again, can it recognize the strength that lies in the diversity between it and the EU’s southern and eastern flanks, or will it fall for the honey trap of exclusion and fragmentation?

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Suite 2720, 700–9th Avenue SW
Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 3V4


Calgary Office Phone: (587) 574-4757


Canadian Global Affairs Institute
8 York Street, 2nd Floor
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1N 5S6


Ottawa Office Phone: (613) 288-2529
Email: [email protected]


Making sense of our complex world.
Déchiffrer la complexité de notre monde.


©2002-2024 Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Charitable Registration No. 87982 7913 RR0001


Sign in with Facebook | Sign in with Twitter | Sign in with Email