The current drift of Western statecraft is not sustainable. Free and open countries, across their various alliances and pacts, still enjoy a position of primacy in the international system on account of their collective assets, capabilities and sheer power.
Revisionist and rogue nations like China, Russia or Iran, the adversaries of freedom and democracy, may yet be contained, their ambitions kept at bay, and their own authoritarian regimes eventually forced to reform or change tack.
We still have the means to “win” the geostrategic confrontation of the 21st century, in the sense of securing a stable, prosperous future for freedom in our time. But this outcome is not a given.
The tide of world affairs has been turning against us with the resumption of great power competition and the failure of deterrence in Ukraine. On current trends – if nothing changes, if our statecraft does not improve – our problems are growing, not easing, with the escalating instability in the international system.
This is a predicament entirely of our own making. A position of primacy in the world after the Cold War – a vast comparative advantage over our nearest rivals – has been squandered in just a few decades by inept policy-making and so-called “leadership” across Western capitals.
No amount of material wealth can insulate you, in the long term, from bad political decisions stemming from inadequate ideas about how the world works. It is high time for reconsidering the foundations of contemporary Western statecraft – because it’s failing.
Today, particularly in Europe, we need a strategic conversation and mindset that challenges the narrative of inevitable Western decline, champions NATO and the transatlantic relationship and recognises the enduring primacy of the sovereign nation-state in world politics. Crucially, it must engage head-on with first-order questions of military power, and explore the opportunities (not just the risks) presented by Britain’s renewed global role, Europe’s power-potential, and America’s focus on China – both from a Western and non-Western angle.
A reinvigorated approach to statecraft in this era must rest on the belief that, on balance, the basic principles and structures of the post-war international system created primarily by the United States and Britain in the 1940s have served the West well – but reform is needed.
The systemic realities of global power and the cultural-political outlook of society (particularly in the West) have changed so much over the past two generations that they are now out of kilter with current grand-strategic assumptions and operating concepts.
But it would be a mistake to believe that radical change or revolutionary approaches in foreign and defence policy are likely to lead to enduring solutions to current strategic challenges.
Leaders and the makers of strategy should rather focus, in a conservative fashion, on preserving what works and prudently adapting the rest to what is required today. This includes recovering some of the clarity of analysis and robust pragmatism that used to be part of Western statecraft but have fallen into disuse or disgrace in our highly ideological age.
The starting point for reforming our strategic mindset should be a full recognition that the West’s post-Cold War strategic record is very poor. It consists of a long list of naïve illusions, ideological delusions, hubristic mistakes and sheer incompetence. From the “end of history”, through the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles, to the “surprising” resurgence of Russia from 2014 followed by the utter failure of Western deterrence in 2022 when Putin re-invaded Ukraine, the disaster in Syria together with the rise of Iran, or to the self-defeating mantra of “more Europe”, establishment thinking has consistently failed on all key questions of strategy over the past thirty years.
A rich and strong West has long been able to absorb such failures with negligible impact on its collective prosperity and security. Now that cushion has worn out, and strategic errors are becoming unaffordable. There are in fact mounting concerns that, at least as far as Europe is concerned, the long-term damage from the twin challenge of Russia’s war and China’s rise might be far greater than commonly understood.
Will the same political and expert elites who brought us to this low-point deliver a markedly different performance over the next thirty years? They have much to answer for. Avoiding the same kind of mistakes requires a re-booting of transatlantic strategic thinking. There is an urgent need to root out untested assumptions and to recover some of the hard-nosed competitive instincts and modes of statecraft that have worked well in the past.
Too much of the Western foreign policy and defence conversation has long been disconnected from the hard realities of relative power balances in the 21st century, focusing on form over substance and taking an elite Davos view of global affairs.
This inability to discern what matters creates space for confusion, especially when paired with an incomplete or incorrect reading of history. Globalism is therefore often mistaken for internationalism, appeasement for détente, risks for threats, values for principles, adversaries for competitors, and even war for peace.
More worrying still is the failure to establish coherence between our foreign policy and our domestic situation. This requires shared values but, if anything, the view of establishment elites is increasingly out of touch with that of ordinary voters.
Nothing illustrates this better than the official report of the 2018 Munich Security Conference (the “Davos” of the foreign policy community). Now half a decade old, this document still stands as a monument – perhaps the peak – of the hubris and disconnect defining the governing classes. The report denounced the “illiberal understanding of Western civilisation, based on history, culture, and religion instead of liberal values and democratic achievements.”
Such radical new re-definitions of the very meaning of Western civilisation – where an emphasis on history, culture and religion is now increasingly taken as a sign of extremism – are not part of a separate “culture war” taking place elsewhere in society and thus able to be safely ignored in strategic debates. On the contrary, they set the terms for top-level assessments of Western interests and go to the very heart of foreign policy-making.
Finding a way to bridge the cultural gap between elite thinking and the wider national feeling and principles is one of the great challenges facing the foreign policy community today.
In their turn, many contemporary critics of Davos Man are all too often willing to embrace some of the more extreme and unprincipled versions of realpolitik which run counter to the wiser and nobler traditions of Western statecraft. They scoff at notions such as human rights, responsibility to protect, and “liberal values” in general, failing to see how championing them serves the national – or indeed Western multi-national – interest.
Such foreign policy revolutionaries are unafraid of chaos. They put so little stock in the current political and strategic architecture of the West – with its alliances, assumptions, principles and policies – that they would even welcome its collapse.
And they would certainly be willing to upend it in pursuit of their favourite radical “realist” projects, whether isolationism or, on the contrary, rushed and enthusiastic engagement with old, implacable foes. Such visions of grand, sudden solutions to complex, long-running problems betray a kind of magical thinking that is the very opposite of realism.
The best path forward, therefore, is that which navigates between liberal conceit and radical disruption while keeping the shore of reality firmly in view. Achieving this might take a fair amount of advocacy – and political struggle.
Gabriel Elefteriu is deputy director at the Council on Geostrategy in London and a fellow at the Yorktown Institute in Washington, D.C.