The West is exhausted, and the worst is yet to come
Anyone who works with their brain is used to decision fatigue. Toward the end of a long day, we struggle to make good choices. Its wise to postpone difficult decisions to the morning, or to hand them on to a colleague.
The onslaught of bad news in recent weeks is giving us decision fatigue. We have to cope with Brexit, the latest terrorist attack in France, the failed coup in Turkey and racial violence in America. Looming on the horizon is a banking meltdown in Italy and a perilous confrontation in the South China Seaplus the continuing migration crisis and the prospect of a Trump presidency.
There are no colleagues to hand over to. And everything will look just as bad tomorrow.
I am not arguing that Vladimir Putin is behind all these crises, or indeed any of them. But this situation suits Russia very well. The best argument against the bombastic, disruptive approach epitomized by Putins rule is that normality is actually fine. The Wests values of rule of law, democracy and capitalism form the best combination of political and economic arrangements the world has ever seen. So we dont need "sovereign democracy" because our own system works fine. Nor do we need a "new European security architecture" (code for giving Russia the right to meddle in its neighbors affairs) because the existing setupbased on the Paris Charter and the OSCEworks perfectly well.
This argument can sound complacent, but it is in fact the opposite. We assume that things go wrong in our system. The issue is how we deal with them when they do. The Western system, in essence, is a means for settling disputes peacefully and fairlyin elections, in courts, or by negotiation. We dont need "power verticals" or semi-mystical talk of birthrights and national destiny.
But the foundations of that system are under strain. We dont have an answer to mass migration. We dont know how to deal with terrorism. We dont have an answer to politicians such as Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who uses a democratic mandate to crush opposition. Our economies are doing an increasingly bad job in distributing the fruits of prosperity.
None of this means Putinism is the answer. Just as it is odd for Americans to show their disgust with a crooked elite by voting for a dodgy property developer, so it would be perverse to adopt Putins approach to politics, economics or ethnic relationsa personality cult built on a petro-statebecause our own system isnt working.
But the storm of events does give Putin opportunities. Faced with so many other big crises, we may have little appetite for dealing with what may seem like small ones. What would happen if, say, Belarus (with Russian backing) starts a row later this summer with Latvia or Lithuania over some obscure border issue? This would actually be an existential challenge to NATO. But would the rest of the alliance see it like this?
And even if our decision-makers do perceive the problems accurately, can they carry their countries with them? Public confidence in the elites has taken a batteringa situation that, I would argue, really dates back to the financial crisis of 2008. It is bad enough that these elites are self-interested and out of touch. They also seem to be downright incompetent. They cant keep us safe, and they cant run the economy. Why should we trust them if they say we face an existential threat?
In short, the West seems exhausted from top to bottom, even before the real storm has even broken. Brace yourselves.
Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
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