In the early 1990s, my friend Owen Harries made a startling observation: that the collapse of Soviet Communism would mean the “collapse of the West“. The West, he explained in Foreign Affairs, has been and would remain a culture defined by representative democracy, the rule of law, the market economy and so on. But a common civilisation is one thing; political unity is another.
* »The West,” Harries pointed out, has been usually divided politically: think of Europe’s wars. “It took the presence of a life-threatening overtly hostile ‘East’ to bring [the ‘West’] into existence” as a strategic entity. “It is extremely doubtful whether it can now survive the disappearance of that enemy.” The political unity of the Cold War would give away to differences of national interests and strategies.
Trump’s climate call
US President Donald Trump has withdrawn America from the Paris climate change agreement, but Australia will not follow according to the energy minister.
It has taken a quarter century, but Harries’ prediction has come true. The clash between the Europeans and the Americans over NATO and the Paris climate treaty could prove to be breaking points in the political West. True, there have been earlier rifts: Suez, Vietnam, Iraq come to mind.
But this time the West really is divided, probably irrevocably. This is not just because of Donald Trump’s boorish behaviour. It is also because of broad historical forces, as Harries set out in his landmark essay.
President Trump announced the US would withdraw from the Paris climate pact. Photo: Bloomberg
Take NATO. The Atlantic alliance was a magnificent achievement in containing Soviet power. But the Soviet Union has not existed for more than 25 years and there was never any clear and present danger to justify NATO expansion.
Russia is not a global threat: its economy is in serious decline and it’s not capable of purposeful military action beyond eastern Ukraine and western Syria. As George Kennan warned two decades ago, NATO enlargement was a big mistake. It just provoked a nuclear Russia into using force to protect its sphere of influence.
Trump is surely right when he complains that 23 of NATO’s 28 members are free riders on US military spending. Angela Merkel has caught on. According to the German Chancellor, “the times in which we could rely fully on others ‒ they are somewhat over” which means that “we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands».
Moreover, the US was never serious about defending regions that Americans were not prepared to fight for even at the height of the Cold War. And there is little public support for extending security commitments that cannot be clearly justified in terms of vital national interests.
“America First” may aggravate European sophisticates, but it resonates with ordinary, war-weary Americans.
Then there’s climate change. When Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Paris deal, he unleashed a mass hysteria in Europe unmatched even by the Brussels backlash against his failure to reaffirm Article V (NATO’s mutual defence clause).
In Europe, climate change has become a fundamentalist religion, with Paris as its article of faith. The adherents of this new faith want the Americans on trial because their leader has blasphemed.
Yet Trump is simply keeping a key election pledge: he wants to roll back excessive and harmful rules that cost jobs and increase energy prices. Domestic energy production, especially natural gas and oil, is imperative to reviving growth and lifting wages, especially in energy states.
In the US, the Senate is required to ratify international treaties by a two-thirds majority. Yet Obama joined Paris without its consent. Why? Because he knew the pact would be overwhelmingly defeated. (In 1997, the Senate voted 95-0 to reject Kyoto.)
In any case, Paris is weak and futile: even green activists lament it’s neither binding nor enforceable. Still, many US lawmakers believe US courts would have used the deal to provide legal justification for Obama-era regulations. In scrapping Paris, Trump made good political and economic sense.
Moreover, Trump’s decision could have the salutary effect of getting politicians to craft more sensible proposals. Growth and innovation – not carbon taxes and regulations – are the best way to deal with climate change.
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