The status quo cannot hold

Can the West defend itself? On the face of it, the question answers itself: of course we can. And yet Donald Trump has called into question its very survival.

Daniel Johnson

Can the West defend itself? On the face of it, the question answers itself: of course we can. The United States remains by far the world’s strongest military, technological and economic power, even if by some measures its superiority in these fields has been eroding ever since the zenith of American power — whether you locate that zenith during the glory days of the immediate post-war era, or more recently during the “unipolar” period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. No other alliance begins to compare in strength to Nato, not to mention other powerful non-Western allies around the globe, from Saudi Arabia to Japan. The West, moreover, is more than just the sum of its parts. Western civilisation continues to enjoy incomparable prestige, underpinned by scientific, artistic and humanitarian achievements that make the West even more dominant in soft power than in its harder forms. However we may choose to define “the West”, it remains by far the most influential constellation of states in the world, as it has been for centuries. Morally, if not militarily, the West is more dominant than ever.

And yet Donald Trump has called into question the very survival of the West. In his Warsaw speech last July, he declared: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” One does not have to admire Mr Trump in the least to concede that these are good questions, to which the answers are by no means obvious.

The heart of the problem is visible in Germany, one of the most prosperous and powerful members of the Western alliance. It is considered impolite in Berlin to point out that, while the rest of Europe proposes, the German Chancellor disposes. Europe relies on Angela Merkel to resist bullies such as Putin or Erdogan. This means that the German interest prevails, as the Mediterranean economies rendered uncompetitive by the euro, or the Hungarians and Poles punished for refusing refugee quotas have learned to their cost. At the time of writing she was on course to win a fourth term, and in the next year she is due to exceed the 12 years in office of a predecessor who for today’s Germans is as unmentionable as he is unforgettable: Adolf Hitler.

Such stable leadership is of course reassuring for Germans, but also carries the risk of detachment, complacency and even arrogance. One of Mrs Merkel’s most controversial decisions was to welcome more than a million refugees into Germany two years ago. Although her policy has changed since then, she is unrepentant. When a voter challenged her during a TV debate to justify the security risk of allowing large numbers of undocumented migrants from the Muslim world to “infiltrate”, she replied: “No one in Germany is any worse off because of the refugees.” Not only the victims of terrorism and mass rape, but the many Germans who feel that their way of life is threatened by mass migration might disagree. The French journalist Natalie Nougayrède reported that the Germans she spoke to were reluctant to discuss the influx; many expressed pride in Germany’s “welcome culture”, but added: “It mustn’t happen again.”

The most striking fact about the Germans of today is their desire to preserve the status quo. They are so risk-averse that they react angrily to any demand for change, even from friendly European states such as Britain or Greece. As for the Trump presidency, they fear and loathe it, but any suggestion that Germany might take up a leadership role terrifies them. They embrace the idea of Europe because it enables them to escape from their history, but for the same reason they need the project to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary — even though the realisation of a European superstate would require a revolution. Because the Germans deny themselves nostalgia, they are wary of idealism. The poison cloud of the German past occludes the European future.

Brexit alarms and infuriates Germans because it seems to them a rash gamble by the British, whom they see as fixated by the past and careless of the future. They refuse to see that the British are returning to their historical destiny as an island nation, baling out of the utopian and dangerous experiment to which the Germans, dismissive of history, have committed their continent.

Germany, in short, is a classic example of a status quo power. Germans believe they have everything to lose and nothing to gain by change. This is in stark contrast to the British, most of whom have come to believe that they have more to gain by change. After a long period of defending the status quo, the United Kingdom is thus once more becoming a radical power, a force for change, for freedom of speech and the rule of law, as it was for most of its history. The United States has likewise behaved like a status quo power since the end of the Cold War, but historically it too has been a radical one, urging the world to embrace life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If the West is to defend itself, it will be thanks to the Anglosphere. The English-speaking nations are still the only possible leaders of the free world, because they alone have the ambition to play such an arduous role. The status quo is untenable. Most immediately, the free world is menaced by North Korea’s nuclear blackmail — a menace that only the United States has the means to defeat. Other, more fundamental threats to the democracies (from Russia, China, radical Islam) will oblige Europe to reply to President Trump’s questions in the affirmative — even if through gritted teeth. Otherwise, the future of the West is bleak.

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