The West Is Discovering the Fragility of Its Leaders

The general feeling is that Italy’s crisis is part of a more worrying overall decline.

“The Future Is Italy, and It’s Bleak.” That was the headline on a New York Times opinion piece published after Mario Draghi resigned. Americans’ analysis of Italy is not always reliable. However, they betray a widespread feeling that the Italian political crisis is part of an overall decline of leadership, even more worrying because it is occurring against a background of troubling issues: a war in the heart of Europe already somewhat forgotten; an economy sliding toward recession; challenges from authoritarian empires with hegemonic ambitions.

All we needed was Joe Biden’s bout of COVID-19 to add a personal touch to the West’s feeling of unease. Draghi’s farewell will be seen in this overall context. Italy is always under special watch because of its vulnerabilities, beginning with the public debt. The instability of its governments is nothing new; however, this time, the uncertainty afflicting its most important allies and partners aggravated its political crisis.

America has a president who is fragile in every sense. Apart from his health, his popularity is plummeting even lower than the depths in which Donald Trump found himself at the same time in his own term. Biden’s own side distrusts him. The majority of Democratic voters do not consider him fit for a second term. The left wing of his party — which dominates the media — considers him a traitor for concessions on the Green New Deal and immigration; however, it is the moderate center that counts the most, because that’s where November midterm elections will be fought. The silent majority of the Democratic Party warns of a drift toward more radical positions, and a hemorrhaging of votes to the Republican Party is almost a given. Those who read only the progressive establishment media believe the congressional hearings on the “attempted coup” of Jan. 6, 2021 is monopolizing the American public’s attention. That is not true. The majority of Americans judge their government on inflation, the loss of purchasing power and general insecurity, including rising crime rates. As a result, foreign ministries have already begun to lay wagers as to what American foreign policy will be after Biden.

Western Europe fares no better. Few mourn Boris Johnson, but Volodymyr Zelenskyy may be among those who do, as Zelenskyy was able to count on Johnson’s unconditional support. Emmanuel Macron has formed a government without a parliamentary majority and must focus on economic woes, making his ambitions for European leadership and heady aspirations for direct negotiations with Vladimir Putin of second importance. The most worrisome ailing party is Germany. The ”second German miracle,” which took place in the 1990s, enabled the most important European nation to recover from a crisis — the initial costs of reunification — thanks to a series of factors. Two of these stand out from the others: cheap and plentiful Russian gas; and wide open Eastern markets, with China at the fore, hungry for “made in Germany.” Both of these factors now belong to the past; the German model will have to be reinvented.

This identity crisis is taking place in a troubling leadership vacuum. Olaf Scholz is a shadow of a chancellor. The only notable decision he has made thus far concerns the fall-winter electric energy rationing program, involving factory closures on a rotating basis. What we would all like to know is what Germany’s long-term strategy is; Berlin’s proposal for Europe; initiatives in the face of strategic rivals and adversaries in Moscow and Beijing. Draghi’s exit is proving to be a link in a long chain of weaknesses. For now, the West is clinging to unity; no one is defecting from the line of help to Ukraine or from economic sanctions. But with time, who knows. Zelenskyy betrayed his legitimate concerns about the coming months in his urgent phone call asking Draghi to retract his resignation.

Putin responds to our fragility by describing the West as “the golden billion.” The expression has a long history in Russian nationalist propaganda and is linked to the jargon that Communist leaders used against the imperialism and neocolonialism of capitalist countries. Dusting off these Cold War tropes bears a whiff of cynicism and hypocrisy now that China is the true ruler of Africa and the Wagner Division of Russian mercenaries is a substitute for French units propping up new military regimes in the south of the Sahel. Be that as it may, the image of the “golden billion” has gained certain traction among the vast number of countries that have resuscitated the “Non-Aligned Movement” (born in 1955, in the heart of the Cold War). This majority of Asian, African and Latin American governments that refuse to adhere to our sanctions on Russia, which are neither on this side or that, feature leaders who have studied at Western universities that teach — as in Chinese or Russian universities — that the only bad empire is the United States, and the only aggressive society is the West. The fact that China and Russia are currently true colonial empires engaged in a rebirth of regional imperialism, just like the Ottomans, Arabs and Persians of yore, is irrelevant when placed up against the image of “the golden billion.” In reality, the standard of living in the Persian Gulf, which welcomes Russian oligarchs with open arms, is far more golden than ours. But even petroleum sheiks enjoy manipulating anti-colonialist propaganda when it works in their interests.

The West’s response is vague, in the image and likeness of its leaders. Biden is even wavering on Taiwan, the next proving ground for world order after Ukraine. The American president promised to defend the island in case of a Chinese military attack. However, he is now seeking to dissuade House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi from visiting Taipei for fear of Beijing’s reaction. The European Union does not have a clear strategy in its own sphere of influence in the south Mediterranean, where Putin, Xi Jinping, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not to mention the Iranian ayatollahs) are leading a growing number of military and geopolitical incursions. Even the emergency grain deal — still to be confirmed after the missile strike on Odesa — was created within a Russian-Ukrainian-Turkish triangle, without a strong role for either the United States or the European Union.

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