Leadership vacuum in world's wealthy democracies has grown suddenly acute

The old conundrum of who to call if you want to speak to “Europe” now applies to “the West” as a whole.

With lame-duck leaders in the U.K. and Germany, President Emmanuel Macron humbled by the Gilets Jaunes revolt in France and the U.S. profoundly divided over its role in the world, an emerging leadership vacuum in the world’s wealthy democracies has grown suddenly acute.

“There is no leadership in Europe” or from the U.S., former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who ran the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as secretary general from 2009 to 2014, said in a phone interview on Saturday.

That allows Russian President Vladimir Putin or China’s President Xi Jinping “room for maneuver,” he said. It also raises the question of whether “the West” is still a meaningful entity.

The response to last month’s clash in the Sea of Azov, where Russian forces fired on and seized three naval Ukrainian vessels on their way to Ukrainian ports, showed the potential impact of the current leadership vacuum. Rasmussen believes Putin was testing Western resolve, prior to further actions to come ahead of Ukraine’s presidential and parliamentary elections, in March and October. If so, the West failed the test.

No allied ships sailed into the sea on freedom of navigation patrols, as they’ve done to challenge China’s claims to territorial waters in the South China Sea. Nor were any new sanctions on Russia announced. The toughest international response to the Nov. 25 clash came from President Donald Trump; he canceled a planned meeting with Putin on the margins of the Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

Macron, a self-styled champion of the Western liberal order, was fighting at the time for his political survival against domestic fuel-tax protesters. So was Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May, struggling to sell a deal aimed at satisfying a 2016 U.K. vote to leave the EU. Meanwhile, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, once touted as the leader of the free world, was busy handing over control of her ruling Christian Democratic Union party to a successor.

No Grownups

“There are no grownups to sit at the table anymore,” said Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who served as Ukraine’s intelligence chief from 2006-2010, and as head of its security services from 2014-2015. “There’s a real danger that we will be left alone with Russia.”

Russia says it merely responded to a provocation by Ukrainian vessels that trespassed into its waters off Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. In the days that followed, European leaders said they were still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

For the last six months, Russia had also restricted commercial shipping on its way to two major Ukrainian ports in the Sea of Azov, asserting de facto control over shared waters.

Again there was no response from the West, said Nalyvaichenko, interviewed Dec. 12 while on the first leg of a U.K.-U.S. tour to drum up support for a new sanctions strategy. Now an opposition politician, 

Nalyvaichenko acknowledges Kiev’s own failures have contributed to fatigue among allies and dismisses President Petro Poroshenko’s warnings that a full-scale Russian invasion is imminent. Still, he fears the glue that held the West together in support of Ukraine could be dissolving.

Painful Transitions

“I don’t think the West as a concept exists anymore,” said Claire Spencer, senior consulting fellow on the Middle East at Chatham House, a think tank.

Addressing an audience in London this week, Spencer described a process that began before the election of Trump in the U.S., and underlies painful transitions under way around the world. The results include divisions between the U.S. and Europe over how to deal with Iran, among the Arab Gulf States over how respond to political Islam, and between Turkey and its traditional Western allies over the Kurdish issue and others, she said.

The move away from a world order that for centuries was defined by the West is proving messy. But in the longer term, it also brings opportunities as nations chart their own fates, according to Spencer.

To be sure, “the West” still works in very concrete ways. NATO continues to operate in Afghanistan and has been shoring up defenses for its easternmost members. Military ties between the U.S. and its partners in Australasia also remain deep.

Shared Values

Yet the lack of a shared Western vision on fundamental issues from trade, to the environment, to the Middle East and multilateralism suggests many of the values that once underpinned the relationship are no longer shared.

“Of course the West is changing. It’s undergoing a transformation, just like the rest of the world,” said Kadri Liik, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, citing shifts in demography, wealth distribution and technology. That’s no bad thing, because the West had overreached, she added.

The U.S., Europe and their allies in Asia will still cooperate in many areas, because they have genuine interests in common. It just can’t be the West of the 1980s and 90s.

“How,” Liik asked, “can it be over?”

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