The West Loses More Ground

Reports of the death of American hegemony have been greatly exaggerated, as I argued in my last column. But this does not mean all is well. The fall of the dollar is one obvious indicator of relative decline; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's celebratory visit to Baghdad is another. Last week, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told the International Herald Tribune's Roger Cohen that "the magic is over."

America and Europe face political, economic and demographic challenges to their longstanding primacy. This is a delicate moment for a power transition, given the host of emerging global threats: global warming, nuclear proliferation, macroeconomic imbalances, terrorism, the need to reform global governance and so on. The question is, can the United States and the European Union continue to exercise leadership on these issues? The answer, at best, is, "not for long."

The signals of a decline in Western influence are getting hard to ignore. The Center for Transatlantic Relations reports a mixed bag. On the one hand, in 2006 the United States and European Union were responsible for less than 30 percent of world exports. On the other hand, the two regions accounted for more than 75 percent of outward foreign direct investment. As Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently put it, "talk of decline of the West is as old as the West itself."

To assess the strength of the transatlantic relationship, I attended the Brussels Forum, an all-star confab orchestrated by the German Marshall Fund (GMF). The conference made it clear that relations between America and Europe have recovered significantly from the trough of 2002-2003. This accords with public opinion. A just-released British Council poll found that strong majorities in America and Europe want a closer partnership. Both the United States and the European Union have been humbled in recent years by missteps in the application of hard power and soft power, as Constanze Stelzenmüller pointed out in a GMF briefing paper. The rise of new state threats (Russia, Iran) and nonstate threats (see above) have led the transatlantic neighborhood to recognize that they have more common than divergent interests.
That's the good news. The bad news is that it is far from clear whether Washington and Brussels are truly focused on external challenges and threats. The same poll revealed that both Americans and Europeans were unimpressed with transatlantic cooperation on peacekeeping, global warming, human rights, poverty reduction and counterterrorism. The elites attending the Brussels Forum seem to share this skepticism. When panelists at one meeting devoted the bulk of their time to carping about past disputes (like NATO expansion) and second-tier issues (like Kosovo), former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke complained: "We're having a really stupid conversation."

Unfortunately, this trope repeated itself throughout the conference. At dinner one evening, I was sandwiched between a Bundestag representative and an Austrian ambassador. Conversation was lacking until the question of Turkish admission to the European Union came up. Both guests remarked that it was a mistake to have offered the Ankara accession negotiations to admit Turkey to the EU. They agreed that Russia was more a part of Europe than Turkey. At the same time, rumors were flying of a secret plan to sneak Turkey into the Union. This symbolizes a chronic problem that plagues the EU: any effort to present a common external front gets sidetracked by persistent questions about defining Europe's borders.

The United States is just as incapable of action. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry said that for state-building to proceed in Afghanistan, military efforts need to be augmented with civilian efforts. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer concurred, noting that there was "a substantial gap" between military and civilian capacities for crisis management. This echoed a theme that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stressed late last year: the State Department needs more money and resources to advance American interests in the Middle East. When one cabinet secretary lobbies for more money for a different cabinet agency, it's a sign that America's foreign-policy budget is way out of whack.

On issues where the transatlantic partnership really does have the lead, it's hard to see forward progress. In Afghanistan, NATO is paralyzed by the fact that only the Canadians are willing to send troops to the Kandahar region. If the alliance cannot scrape together another battalion to send to the region before NATO's Bucharest summit next month, then the Canadians will withdraw.

On trade, no one at the conference sees any forward progress on the Doha Round; experts were advocating a "pause" in those talks. Trade liberalization is a negotiation process in which the parties ostensibly see a win-win. If the United States and European Union cannot agree on reducing agricultural subsidies, how can they possibly agree on how to reduce global warming?

Perhaps the West's difficulties are overstated. Perhaps conferences like the Brussels Forum allow Americans and Europeans to vent their frustrations as a first step toward problem solving. Nevertheless, both the Bush administration and the Barroso Commission are in their lame-duck years. At a time when urgent action is needed, status-quo policies are likely until 2009.

Perhaps the magic is still there, but as Kouchner gloomily concluded, "I knew what was the West, and I don't know what the West is now."