For Westerners, living in a consumerist and peaceful world is a natural given, which they receive as soon as they are born. The world order, which in many respects allowed to create such lives, is becoming dated. The system, which was created to facilitate global (initially Western) capital flows and manufacturing moved to other countries, and finally awakened the sleeping giant in the East.

Tectonic fractures are beginning to demolish the long-standing world order, and the world’s centre of power is rapidly shifting to the other side of the planet. It is undisputable this is happening, and it is only a matter of time until the sun from the East will engulf the entire world and fry it a good bit.

Such and similar claims were filling headlines and they appeared in discussions among politicians and academics even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, this discussion is gaining even more momentum.

How is this happening and is the West truly doomed to burn in the rays of the Eastern sun?

Choir of dissatisfied

The 21st century is quite an odd century. Statistical data indicates that the world has never lived better: more people are dying from diseases related to obesity than die from wars or famine. However, the choir of those dissatisfied with this world order is growing in strength in both the parts of the world that have long not seen any famine and those, who are ceasing to face it. Third world countries are rapidly becoming a part of the second world and as fast as never before catching up to developed countries.

However, once again, there are ever more discontented people. Discontent in the West can be understood, but there is also no lack of discontent in the rapidly developing other parts of the world.

And when you throw the pandemic into the mix, there is no lack of those complaining over lost jobs, but there are also many being driven out of their minds by boredom or even more rapidly growing obesity. Perhaps there is something we fail to understand.

Another paradox is in that increasingly many of those, who should be thankful to fate for being born in the West, are voting for populists, who mingle with the leaders of authoritarian regimes. Some of these elected would even like to implement the forms of government used by the latter.

What is even more interesting is that those populists want to dismantle the West. This is very difficult to understand for the rest of the unfortunate, who live under the sun of authoritarian regimes. Many of them would gladly leave their sunny “paradises” and move to live in the West, whose own citizens are voting for politicians who would like to demolish all of it.

Perhaps we, the people of the world, do not understand something.

Demolishing the foundations of the West

The world and even the powerful rising Eastern sun struggle to understand how the most powerful country in the world is voluntarily letting go of the status of being the most powerful, one that so many lives and so much energy have been sacrificed for.

One could argue that this order still helps the United States remain the most powerful and wealthiest since the end of the Cold War.

Having elected a president, who is demolishing the foundations of this order, breaking down trust in the country, its citizens are prepared to elect the same president for a second term. Because those who are using their energy protesting in the streets, demanding their rights be respected and outraged with the government often tend to lack the energy to go and vote.

Perhaps this is something we Europeans fail to understand.

Why talk of distant countries, when there is no lack of incomprehensible and paradoxical events right in our own vicinity? It is still incomprehensible how a country viewed as the cradle of democracy, even over a few years, allowed itself to vote for Brexit twice in a row.

Once – perhaps something went wrong. But doing so twice? Perhaps continental Europeans have failed to understand something.

While visiting Naples in Italy (I have not been further South in Italy), as a newcomer to the European Union, it was incomprehensible that this city and Italy alongside it have been in the European Union since its inception.

After looking around, you are left wonder, where did all the structural aid offered by the EU “land”? How could it be that the economy of one of the EU’s founding countries, having not recovered from the 2009 crisis, has rolled back to levels not seen since 1995?

It is remarkable that in a country, which is risking a financial and economic catastrophe, the number of that intent on exiting the EU is almost tied with those wishing to remain.

Perhaps newcomers to the EU have also failed to understand something.

Undisputable achievements

That said, one must admit that the twenty-first century has been rather successful to those of us escaped from the sway of the Soviet Union. By wisely employing and synchronising our desire to “return to Europe”, thanks to our talents, hard work and tenacity, we are “returning to Europe” at an impressive pace.

While nothing is perfect, the Baltic States have become full-fledged members of the Western world, even leading in many an area. These undisputable achievements were possible thanks to hard and tenacious work, as well as revolutionary reforms. But Freedom House’s latest Nations in Transit report, published on May 6, sharply criticises Serbia, Montenegro and Hungary for falling democratic standards and classifies all three countries for the first time as “hybrid regimes.”

“Hungary’s decline has been the most precipitous ever tracked in Nations in Transit; it was one of the three democratic frontrunners as of 2005, but in 2020, it became the first country to descend by two regime categories and leave the group of democracies entirely,” the report says.

Other Visegrad countries, having previously been frontrunners in democratic reform, are also accelerating in the reverse direction. Why are a democracy and the rights we fought for so hard being handed over not to invading tyrants from the East, but to our own populists?

To us, Lithuanians, who continue to hold upright the flag of liberal democracy, it is even more difficult to understand.

Perhaps even Lithuanians have failed to understand something.

Dated world order

But is it truly all that incomprehensible, why so many are surprised that the world order changing? Three generations have grown up rather affluently in the West since the most tragic war in human history.

For Westerners, living in a consumerist and peaceful world is a natural given, which they receive as soon as they are born. The world order, which in many respects allowed to create such lives, is becoming dated because we will live in our own comfortable worlds anyway because this right was given to us by birth. Unfortunately, this privilege could become distant.

The pursuit of ever-greater profit and greed have blinded eyes and minds in Western societies, their political and business leaders. The system, which was created to facilitate global (initially Western) capital flows and manufacturing moved to other countries, and finally awakened the sleeping giant in the East.

Napoleon once said, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” The problem is not in that the giant has awakened, but that it took the COVID-19 pandemic for not only North America but also Europe to wake up.

There is nothing terrible in that the rest of the world is rapidly developing; it benefits everyone. The reality is that the world order created by the West has for a time now served authoritarian regimes better than the West.

Even before President Trump was elected, there was an understanding in Washington that if this continues, we will quickly be proceeding toward a threshold, which when surpassed, will make it impossible to catch up with China. It is possible that in certain areas, particularly artificial intelligence development, teaching which demand vast quantities of data, China is already beyond catching.

Washington also understands that if all this continues, the economic potential of the US will continue waning and might even already be too weak to pay the bills for the self-ascribed office of world police.

It comes as no surprise that China wishes to maintain the current world order because it benefits it more than the West. This is gradually being understood in London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels. And you definitely cannot accuse the French president or German chancellor for pandering to yet another US president.

The time is coming when Rome and Budapest will also have to decide.

Need to run

We are entering a new stage of global development, and the West will struggle to get used to it. For the West to maintain its influence in the world, it will be necessary to take off from the comfortable couch and go to the gym.

A time is coming when it no longer suffices to stand on your feet – to retain your positions firmly, you need to run. Exercise is healthy and particularly so for the West. An excellent piece of evidence of this was the Cold War.

It was a long-distance run, it demanded much effort, but the West won, and the muscles built sufficed for a generation.

Some think that namely, the overwhelming victory in the Cold War proved detrimental to the West. The West slacked, began to break apart, no longer has a common goal, and in some areas (weaponry, religion, social security, climate change just to mention a few) there are increasing value differences.

Or, perhaps there no longer is a common enemy with whom to compete. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union held this role. Now Russia is in a wholly different league and might itself rethink its choice of allies. Furthermore, Russia can only threaten Europe.

When analysing events, it is increasingly becoming evident that a second Cold War is beginning and the US is taking China very seriously. The European Union has yet to decide; however, the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s actions in Hong Kong have seriously irked the Europeans.

After evaluating this reality, Europe will have to choose which side to support. And to obtain sufficient weight in the global arena, Europe will have to get used to paying for its own safety, something that will only benefit it.

The US will also have to restore the now limping Western alliance, perhaps even including more members (India, Japan, South Korea, Australia). The US cannot withstand the second Cold War on its own. Just as a Europe on its own would eventually evaporate in the hot rays of the Eastern sun.

New bubbles

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has yet to be overcome and for now seems unstoppable, has hammered another nail into the coffin of contemporary globalisation. Travel bubbles are forming; eventually, economic, digital and IT bubbles will form. In the short and intermediate-term, the European Union will have no other recourse than to strengthen its bubble.

However, in order to survive in this Cold War, Europe and the US will have to form a single economic bubble. The military bubble will endure if Europe will through actions, and not just words continue to reinforce its military capacities.

In order to retain the EU bubble, it will be necessary to act in solidarity and make some sacrifices. The British benefit from having the European Union next to them, thus they will have to make the sacrifice of being a living example of how it is possible to leave the EU, but also how the departing country shouldn’t expect exceptionally favourable conditions.

The incomprehensible Brexit drama must show the other members of the EU and their voters that exiting this club brings no benefits. Brussels and other EU capitals are currently in a thankless situation: dear British people, we really do love you, but your victory could turn into a loss for all of us in the EU, if not the beginning of the end for the union.

Your success would be the wind in the sails of politicians like Marine Le Pen and parties such as Alternative für Deutschland, Sverigedemokraterna or Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.

If Brexit proved successful, political parties and populists would always be able to argue that it is possible to leave the EU because the British negotiated a successful departure, still make use of EU privileges and also pay no contributions!

In order to safeguard the EU, London will have to accede to the demands of the European Union.

For the Germans, the European Union is necessary to facilitate the sales of their goods. As ignoble as this may sound, but so it is. The European Union is a mechanism, which excellently regulates the European Union’s metabolism: those, who need more, are given and from those with too much are taken from. Without the European Union, Germany would become too big and strong for Europe, but still too small for the world.

And what this ends with, we know well from the history of the twentieth century. You could even say that the European Union’s foundations were laid by the European Coal and Steel Community, which namely was created to “rein in” the German horses in the future. One must say that the Germans, in understanding they would struggle to cope with their powers, are very fairly paying Southern Europeans and later also Eastern Europeans.

Unfortunately, this cannot continue forever because other than the Germans, there are also other ‘thrifty’ members of the EU, who do not hold guilt over the Second World War. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz recently mentioned in an interview with the German Der Spiegel that he understands well the desire of Italy, Spain and France to receive more funding from the thrifty Swedes, Austrians, Danes and Dutch.

But the chancellor very accurately noted that “Nevertheless, I believe that our task is also to represent our own taxpayers. A decision must be found, but without losing a sense of satiety.”

Solidarity is needed, but it is required on both sides. Living La Dolce Vita is my right, but arranging my finances based on the Northern European model – that’s not for us! Unfortunately, the members of Club Med do not want to reform despite wanting to live as well off as the Germans.

This model is not sustainable and cannot last. I was convinced of this while strolling through the third-largest city in Italy – Naples. Italian voters unwilling to change this model could elect Eurosceptics and launch an “ItalExit.”

But the frustrated German voters could also choose the AfD and organise a “GerExit.” Europe could survive without Italy (yes, it is the third-largest economy and also the French and German bankers would disagree). But without Germany, the European Union is doomed to fall.

Common values

Sustainable economic solidarity is one of the core conditions for the survival and thriving of the EU. However, common values are no less important for a sustainable future for the European Union. The European Union, perhaps the most successful union of countries in all of history, was created by countries, which held common values of Western liberal democracy.

This union gained such success because the values were maintained, and the union was created on the basis of these liberal democratic values. New or old liberal democracies adhered to this union’s rules and norms. Turkey sought to become a member of the EU since 1964. Still, it is very dubious whether it will happen because Turkey while being an important country in terms of economy, is not a liberal democracy.

The Baltic States and most of the former Warsaw Pact countries successfully became liberal democracies and were accepted into the EU. The prospect of being accepted into one of the most successful clubs in the world encouraged the Baltic, Central, and Eastern European states to transform. The prospect of losing membership in the EU could also encourage countries to nurture liberal democracy and could deter countries from veering off to illiberal democracy.

A few bad apples could spoil the whole bag of apples.

Governments and countries turning into illiberal democracies should develop these without making use of the fruits of liberal democracy. Mechanisms should be created to bar such countries from the EU’s structural funds and voting rights. If this fails to encourage everyone to adhere to common liberal democratic norms, such countries should be expelled from the union.

What we failed to understand

Changes are already visible and felt, thus a time for big decisions is nearing. The established world order is changing and storm clouds are forming on the horizon. Even under current troubles in the US, it is likely that President Donald Trump will be re-elected for a second term.

If this were to happen, the deterioration of the current global order would accelerate further and the notion of “Perhaps we failed to understand something” will emerge increasingly often.

However, this process would proceed regardless of who wins the elections in Washington.  Everyone knows that when making an omelette, eggs will have to be broken. Lithuania is fortunate to have become a member of two of the most powerful alliances.

We must strive for these alliances to gain strength and where needed – to further integrate. We will have to sacrifice much, but only together do we stand a chance at surviving. Failing to understand this will bring an end to the West as we know it.

 

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. A Lithuanian version is available on 15min.lt.

Visegrad Insight Associate. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Lithuania Tribune news portal


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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