The West and Russia are locked in a fundamental paradigmatic disagreement, says analyst Kadri Liik. But that standoff is not centered around a competition between domestic political or economic models. Nor is it primarily focused on control over territory, she writes for the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Russia’s true challenge, the issue on which it really is revisionist, has to do with the questions of the post-Cold War international order: the rules and taboos of international relations,” she contends. “Moscow wants the West to give up on its vision of liberal international order and to return to conducting international affairs based on realpolitik.”
In that respect, Russia will be pleased that transatlantic tensions between the world’s leading democracies following the recent NATO and G7 summits appear to be undermining a trans-Atlantic bond that is the bedrock of U.S.-European relations and prompting some commentators to talk of the end of the West.
The Kremlin will be reassured that “something tough” wasn’t said about Russia at Nato,” said Michael McFaul (right), Washington’s former ambassador to Moscow.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s assertion that it was time for Europe to “take our fate into our own hands” reportedly caused shock in Washington. “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” Merkel added.
“Merkel saying Europe cannot rely on others & needs to take matters into its own hands is a watershed — & what US has sought to avoid since WW2,” tweeted Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But “what at first listen may sound like a major departure from Germany’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance is, in fact, consistent with Merkel’s rhetoric,” notes one observer, and “in keeping with her agenda to push European integration forward.”
Contempt for core Western values?
We should not harbor any illusions, argues Joschka Fischer, German Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998-2005. “Europe is far too weak and divided to stand in for the US strategically; and, without US leadership, the West cannot survive. Thus, the Western world as virtually everyone alive today has known it will almost certainly perish before our eyes.”
Many Europeans are anxious about their transatlantic ally’s perceived shift from supporting liberal democratic ideals to “contempt for core Western values — from freedom of the press to the prohibition on torture and the support of democracies around the world” and the emergence of “a destroyer of Western values such as we have never before experienced in this form.”
Germans wonder why the leader of Germany’s most influential international ally seems more willing to criticize their country than nations with questionable human rights records, The Washington Post reports.
“Europeans think they are now being treated worse … than countries like Russia or Saudi Arabia,” said Stephan Bierling, an expert on transatlantic relations at the University of Regensburg in Germany.
Applause for autocrats, disdain for democrats
Europeans are also perplexed at the double standards of applause for autocrats and disdain for democrats, said Joerg Wolf, the editor in chief at the Atlantic Initiative research center in Berlin.
An approach which relegates issues of human rights and decent governance to the rank of tertiary concerns cannot be defended as a form of foreign policy realism, says Eliot A. Cohen, the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and author of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.
“This… is anything but realistic, because without necessary reforms those Arab authoritarian regimes will blow up sooner or later,” he adds. ‘”Meanwhile, walking away from American values in the Middle East and Europe also diminishes what the United States is, has been, and should be.”
Distinguishing between unchanging “American values” and ever-changing “policies” goes beyond Kissingerian realism, argues Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).
But, practically, it strongly mirrors Barack Obama’s seemingly more anguished distinction between “values” and “interests”, most clearly articulated in his March 2011 speech on Libya, which he suggested was a rare instance when American values and interests coincided, Ibish adds.
Summoning from the Europeans a greater collective effort for their common defense is all the more difficult today because NATO’s European members are divided in important ways, argues Michael Mandelbaum, the author, most recently, of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era:
The eastern members, such as Poland and the Baltic states, take the Russian threat more seriously than western members, several of which, such as Germany, rely on Russia for supplies of natural gas. In addition, many European countries are now divided internally, harboring populist movements that have little interest in collective defense against Russia and in some cases admire (and are even subsidized by) Putin’s regime.
“As during the Cold War, only the US is able to take the initiative in overcoming these divisions sufficiently to forge transatlantic policies that serve the interests of the alliance as a whole,” he adds.
The reality is that words matter in international relations, as they do most everywhere else, notes The German Marshall Fund’s Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff. “The credibility of alliances is not solely based on treaties and military hardware, but on trust and the belief of others that an alliance will actually do what it has set out and is sworn to do,” he writes for The American Interest, adding that Vladimir Putin will be doing cartwheels in the Kremlin upon hearing that the U.S. is now actively avoiding recommitting to NATO’s common defense clause.