Will America turn its back on the liberal West?
Bruno Maçães says with the global order tilting East, the US will have no qualms about abandoning the fading Western alliance – and its liberal principles – if it believes them to be a hindrance to its hold on power
We live in one of those rare moments in history when the political and economic axis of the world is shifting. Four or five centuries ago, it shifted West. Europe, for so much of its history a quiet backwater, came to rule practically the whole globe. Now this axis is shifting East. We know what this means for Asia. We have seen the majestic skylines and the bullet trains and stations quickly replacing the old camel routes and caravanserai. But what does it mean for the West? Might the colossus that used to bring change upon others be now forced to change in response to the new political and economic winds blowing from the East? Suddenly what happens almost anywhere in Asia affects us more profoundly than we would like to think, especially since we now feel these influences are in some important respect beyond our control. Our world has expanded, but expansion of this sort is not always welcome.
In just a decade or two, three of the five largest economies in the world will be in Asia: China, which most likely has already overcome the US; Japan; and India. And, yet, if you talk to people in Asia, they are less ebullient. They know their societies are still – with the exception of Japan – pursuing the hard path of modernisation, and they lag behind the West in a number of crucial dimensions: the innovation edge, soft power and, of course, military might.
Let us forgo the more spectacular pronouncements and settle on a compromise: this century will not be Asian, but neither will it be Western, as the previous 500 years so clearly were. I suggest calling it Eurasian, as a way of signalling this new balance between the two poles.
When it comes to the history of such terms, one can point to an earlier one when European hegemony came to be replaced by the concept of a “Western” alliance encompassing Europe, the US and a number of former European colonies, but effectively under American leadership. How the new hybrid affects the previous one forces us to ask what role the US will occupy in a Eurasian world.
The country of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson never had many qualms about its ambitions. It knew that the world was ruled by Europe and according to European ideas and quickly made them its own. We need a particularly sharp eye to understand that the US was never really European. It was a child of the Enlightenment and it would embrace the most universal and advanced principles available, no doubt as a way to ride the crest of history and grow into the role of a powerful nation, in time the most powerful nation on earth. At the time, those principles happened to be European. Does this mean that Americans will tend to mirror the global order and, therefore, that at a time when the global order is no longer infused with European values, we shall see the US become increasingly less European, less Western? I am afraid that is exactly what it means.
The secret of American history is that the US is a shapeshifter. This prodigious child of the Enlightenment will not hesitate to shed Western, liberal principles if it becomes convinced they have been refuted by time and experience. If ever the US becomes convinced the West belongs to the past, it will leave Europe living in that past, but will not be inclined to do so itself, especially if that would entail sacrificing the thing to which it is most addicted: global primacy. If the West ever falters, America will want to become less Western. As the fulcrum of world power moves away from the West, so does America. Is this a Faustian bargain by which one trades his soul for power and prestige? That would be an exaggeration. When a country attempts to shift away from the core principles upon which it is based, the process is bound to be traumatic, but it will certainly be possible to interpret the change as being made necessary by the realisation that those principles need to be improved.
In the current presidential campaign and notwithstanding her role in launching the “pivot to Asia”, Hillary Clinton represents the preservation with little or no change of the existing Western order. She had defended with no qualifications the existing transatlantic alliance, while reinforcing an interventionist tradition that had been diluted under Barack Obama. She no longer seems willing to pay any kind of political price to defend the Trans-Pacific Partnership, once the crown jewel of the pivot to Asia. In part, this is due to electoral positioning and the attempt to fully exploit the weaknesses revealed by her opponent.
Donald Trump has indeed come to symbolise a precipitous retreat from the previous American foreign policy consensus. At times, he seems to want to jettison the existing liberal world order and replace it with something else, defined around a national idea and appealing to a world of cutthroat competition. He seems to regard a firm commitment to liberal values as a hindrance to American power. This has become an election about the West and how the US will be positioning itself in relation to the liberal world order. It is nothing short of remarkable that the question has been opened. Will America be drifting away from the West? Certainly not in the terms defended by Trump, but the quietism Clinton adopted for the duration of the campaign is equally unlikely to survive beyond it.
Bruno Maçães, a former deputy foreign minister in Portugal, is a non-resident associate at Carnegie Europe and author of the forthcoming book “The New Eurasian Supercontinent”