Europe and the United States are faced with a number of challenges that originate from within, unlike during the Cold War. Belief in economic progress is faltering and fear of a loss of identity, linked to immigration, is worsening.
Just less than six months ago, Robert Kaplan published an essay entitled “Europe’s New Medieval Map,” in which he analyzed the rise of populist forces in opposition to European integration, among other things. He ended his essay by warning against the risk of fragmentation in a continent that has become a “profound problem” for the U.S. The gravity of this analysis was confirmed just a few months later with the results from the U.K.’s Brexit vote.
However, Kaplan, as lucid as he was in describing Europe’s ills, failed to see the emergence of the populist outbreak brewing in his own country until the evidence was overwhelming. In other words, what Kaplan had exclusively identified as a European problem was also largely a U.S. one. And if it’s both a European and a U.S. problem at the same time, we undoubtedly are facing a phenomenon that can only be understood as a Western problem.
What is certain though is that the term “West” has fallen out of use since the end of the Cold War, when the existence of a foreign enemy created strong ties between both sides of the Atlantic. Later on, neither the thesis of the clash of civilizations nor the resurgence of Asia led to the reclaiming of a Western vision that could unite to face other rivals. For decades, the EU concentrated on itself while the United States disconnected from Europe to pay increasingly more attention to Asia. But now, unexpectedly, we find ourselves facing greater challenges that are more or less similar and which originate not from outside but rather from within our own countries. By sharing our family demons, we have once again become aware of the fact that we function as a true community of destiny.
Does the rise of populist forces respond to the same causes in Europe as in the U.S.? It would seem in substance, yes, although in Europe there are also centrifugal trends that threaten the process of integration that cannot be applied to the USA. But there are two ingrained patterns repeating themselves in both cases. First, a yet-to-be-defined belief in economic progress is faltering, and the feeling among large parts of the population that future generations will have lower standards of living than previous generations is taking hold. Second, there is an acute fear that immigration and the resulting cultural changes will lead to a loss of identity.
These feelings translate into political rhetoric as a strong criticism against elites, an opposition to free trade agreements, an anti-immigration platform and a nationalistic ploy. Of course, these factors come together in different ways depending on whether a left or a right-wing movement is involved. However, there is common ground between them: a rejection of globalization and of the cosmopolitans who defend its beneficial effects and irreversible nature. The ferocity of the reaction against elites can only be understood fully if discussed in religious terms, since the revolt against a broken promise, or the certainty of progress that was believed with such gusto, has now been mostly replaced by age-old beliefs. This is coupled with a rejection of what was perceived to be an erosion of national sentiment as the supplier of a sense of belonging and community.
These two factors make up a decidedly pessimistic story of our future possibilities. This is not a lucid or sceptical pessimism from those who delude themselves about the limitations of the human condition, but rather the contrary; we are faced with a collective feeling of resentment against what is perceived as a wrong and unfair turn in the course of history. Against this state of mind, it is worth remembering that globalization was a Western creation, from which Europe and the USA benefited enormously before they started to help others.
The optimism that has faded in the West has moved to the East, where hundreds of millions of people have risen out of poverty into middle-classdom within a short space of time. One of the most striking impacts of globalization has been a return to the economic weight of demographics of the past. We can only wonder why, 10 years ago, India had a smaller economy than that of Spain, with a population that was 30 times greater. Today, the Indian GDP is already twice as high as Spain’s GDP, with very high expectations for growth in the coming years. It’s easy to see that the anomalous situation is the former and not the latter.
But Asia’s rise and the relative decline of the West are inscribed in a long cycle of history that is still to be written. There are factors that could derail this remarkable rise for Asia if a cautious view of national interest doesn’t prevail. The main issue is a very rash form of nationalism, a prideful product from the recent return to the first division of global power, which, when put on show against similarly powerful neighboring countries, as happened in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, can have catastrophic effects.
Meanwhile, Europe and the United States remain politically, economically and militarily active, allowing them to exert a fundamental influence in international affairs for the foreseeable future. However, the main risk for both Europe and the USA is now at the domestic level. The most persuasive power of Western societies is their civic health and the force of leading by example, as President Obama likes to recall. This power is their greatest strength. As a result, the political and social sectors that support an inclusive identity and an open and liberal order will have to go all out to win the battle of ideas and affections.
The big questions that are always sidestepped, therefore, need to be addressed with intellectual courage: How do we relaunch the European project to remedy its already chronic democratic deficit? How do we combine an openness to the world with a social ladder that benefits those in our countries? How do we select immigrants to attract those with talent and, at the same time, those who are more willing to integrate? Ultimately though, how do we go about regaining confidence in ourselves and in our future?