After the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Europeans are said to have turned their eyes away from the starry sky of Revolution to the world as it was. Europe was at last an idea grounded in physical reality—one could do something with it and respond to its challenges and complexities. Something similar is now happening with the United States. Bruised and disillusioned with the idea of “the West,” American thinkers and decision-makers are looking for something less ideal, something they can work with.
The West was an ideal point. One could approach it, but it would always recede the closer one seemed to get to the goal. For a century at least, American foreign policy has been based on a “double world” view. The world is divided in two halves, separated by a civilizational barrier; one of the halves is continuously expanding and is meant, in the ripeness of time and perhaps after a great battle, to subsume the other and become universal. The United States saw itself as leading this process, leading the West in its expansive movement. Relations with the other half—the dark side—were always relations with a civilizational “other,” even when relations were stable and peaceful.
What we have now is different. The expansive movement came to a sudden halt, disappeared. The two halves are combined, and the barrier between them has collapsed. American foreign policy now deals with Europe, Russia, China, and India as all part of the same system, defending its interests in a system of relations where it strives to occupy the center. The critical difference is that the system is no longer dynamic; it is not in the process of approaching an ideal state.
Like Europeans after 1815, we need a word to refer to the world as it is rather than the world as it aspires to be. And there is a word which promises to do that for us—what “Europe” did for Europeans after 1815. That word is “Eurasia,” the vast supercontinent where economic, political, and cultural power is concentrated. It is a place of conflict and contradictions, divided between different cultures and offering the biggest prizes to those that manage to assert control over it. Curiously, just as Europe in the nineteenth century lived in a precarious relation of distance and proximity to a powerful island-kingdom on its shores, so does Eurasia exert its appeal and attraction over the United States, a powerful state just across the sea from Greenland or Siberia. American foreign policy now exists in relation, and by reference to, Eurasia, which in this sense at least has replaced the ideal concept of “the West.”
A pithier way way to put it is that the United States is becoming a realist power in a world of many idealisms: EU values, Belt-and-Road, Hindutva, Russian “spirituality,” and so on.
The collective sense in Washington—by no means limited to Trump—is that Western idealism has become unmanageable. From the Left comes the admonition against trying to export a Western model to the rest of the world, often by means of war. On the Right (or most often on the Right), the desire for a world where the United States can free itself from the shackles of a rules-based order and genuinely exercise its rights as the most powerful country in the world still exerts a pull. Even those of a more cautious and objective temperament, who note that a “liberal world order” would no doubt be in America’s interest, wonder if there really is such a thing. Mahatma Gandhi, on being asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?” was reported to have answered, “I think it would be a good idea.” Many liberals today nod their assent. A liberal world order would be a good idea, but what we have today is a shadow play: the United States accepts the restrictions implied by a rules-based order, while China, Russia, and Iran break all the rules. In such a game, the player who voluntarily ties his own hands is destined to lose. No surprise that many in Washington want to put an end to what they see as a charade.
Trump heads to the G7 summit in Quebec as tensions—economic and political—between the Western partners rise to a crescendo. The conflict reminds me of the dynamics leading to Brexit. Just as Britain grew convinced that the European Union could no longer work in its present form and called for deep reforms, the United States is at the very least convinced that the West—as an idea and as a set of agreements and institutions—needs to be changed in order to face a radically new world, a world where China poses a distinct and growing threat. Business as usual will not do, particularly in the economic sphere.
On both occasions, the European Union has reacted with shock, showing itself unable to countenance any debate on fundamentals and, if anything, becoming ever more rigid and dogmatic in how it sees its own political model and the future of the West.
None of this bodes well for the future of Transatlantic relations. As they get embroiled in a serious discussion on the future of the West, the United States and Europe are bound to expose vast differences in their respective visions of the world order. The European Union continues to believe in some version of the myth of convergence: The world is moving in a certain direction, as more and more regions and countries embrace Western values and common institutions. The United States, by contrast, is returning to a world where balance of power, not convergence, is responsible for guaranteeing order, and it sees itself as the holder of the balance. In such a system, the holder of the balance is by necessity alone, but it is a splendid isolation, born of power and promising many degrees of freedom.
The world order is increasingly one where the critical division is not that between the West and the rest, but rather that between the idealist powers, trying to change the world in their image—Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, and increasingly Delhi—and the realist power across the seas, whose main goal is to hold them all back, while preserving the sources of its own power.
There is balance too in the relations between the United States and each of the idealist powers. Needless to say, the United States has much to lose in its relationship with China, where differences in the respective political concepts and increasing parity in economic power pose distinct threats. But then there is also much to gain, as shifts in position from Beijing can help the United States solve many of its security and economic challenges. With Europe, there is little to lose and little to gain.
Each day the United States is being asked to choose between the West as an ideal and its position as the most powerful country in the world. To enjoy that status was entirely compatible with defending Western values and institutions. To fight for it—to fight tooth and nail—might not be. There is much in this choice that deserves to be called a Faustian bargain, but there is also very little doubt what the final decision will be.