The West is currently suffering from collective geopolitical hyperfocus. It has become unable to concentrate on more than one issue at a time. This international malaise puts the established world order under threat, preventing the West from acting as the front-line defender of liberal values, national self-determination, and the rule of law.
One need only look at several notable and recent examples of the West’s dereliction of duty in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Caucasus, and Bolivia.
Perhaps the most striking of the set is the ongoing political and economic crisis unfolding in Sri Lanka, which has so far resulted in the resignation and flight of the Prime Minister, the shooting of protestors, and the declaration of national lockdown by the President.
This crisis is a textbook case of where the political West could have stepped in to prevent tragedy and has instead opted to turn a blind eye – with headlines about the crisis not making it past the regional pages on online news outlets.
The financial crisis that triggered the unrest came as the result of unfavourable loans and unbalanced investment from China – a situation often used as a case study in warning about China’s colonial ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region.
China had offered up a loan to help pay for infrastructure projects such as the Hambantota International Port. When Sri Lanka struggled to repay the loans, China and Chinese banks on the market, swooped in to offer other structured loans to help with repayment, taking as collateral several key infrastructure projects, including the Port. This was in 2017 – and yet the West seemed uninterested in offering a financial lifeline to end dependence.
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The more recent inflation crisis in Sri Lanka of the last few weeks has put the country in an even more precarious position. As Sri Lanka fails to repay its foreign debts – 10 per cent of which is owed to China – the people of the island now find themselves facing rising food and fuel costs.
The human tragedy of what is happening on the island is generating a political crisis in a country whose civil war concluded just over a decade ago. Already the Prime Minister has been forced to resign and take refuge at a naval base, whilst the President remains entrenched in his Palace.
Why did the West not intervene at any juncture? Especially given the strategic importance of Sri Lanka to maritime trade. Were no Western powers looking at how they could have offered a lifeline to the embattled government? At no point was it considered that an international loan might be better for the people of Sri Lanka? The only possible winner in the event of political turmoil in the region is China.
Sri Lanka is far from an isolated incident. Russian economic meddling in Moldova and the Western Balkans has caused just as much damage. It has created a false sense that it is a partner country that can get things done, all the while the EU and other western actors are tied up in conditionality and undesirable red tape.
A similar question could be asked of where the West has been as a diplomatic player. In 2020 a full-scale war was fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan over disputed borders drawn in the 1990s. The conflict lasted a month and resulted in a mediated peace – but rather than the United States or a European actor stepping in as a guarantor, Turkey and Russia each opted to enforce the peace from opposite sides. Scarcely a headline was written about the whole affair – and yet it marked a turning point in which it demonstrated that the West is AWOL.
Equally, in Bosnia Herzegovina, the old peace agreements brokered by the West in the 1990s – the Dayton Accords – risk being undone by Russian and Serbian interference in the political processes in the ethnically Serb Republic of Srpska. Many in the region fear that this year’s elections could destabilise the country, and perhaps the wider region. Little has been made of this fact by the West.
At The Defence of Europe conference organised by Reaction in London last week, Professor Niall Ferguson warned of the world having entered a second Cold War. A major arena in this new conflict is the economic sphere. Just as in the first Cold War, the East and West are competing against each other with investment. It already looks as though the West is far behind.
Whilst the West has done little to reform the way in which it carries out economic development around the world – opting for archaic models of cash deliveries to governments, on projects that don’t fit in with any greater strategy – China has made sure to build things that send a message. Major highways and rail networks, government buildings, and civil society projects are all funded by the Chinese Communist state.
At the heart of Professor Ferguson’s argument was that the domestic underpinnings of the West, required to maintain cohesion and win a Cold War, are missing. In other words, at home societies are too divided and distracted to be able to carry out their role on the international stage.
This distraction is not only dangerous for those global events that the West is missing, but those that it is currently involved in. In August 2021 the world watched as the US-led mission in Afghanistan collapsed – undoing two decades of nation-building and sending women’s rights back to the dark ages.
The failed intervention in Libya poses another example of this – once Gaddafi was removed from power the coalition of France, Italy, and the United Kingdom simply walked away with no thought to the future. Little discussion seemed to exist as to how the West would rebuild the nation destroyed by war.
A degree of focus is needed to see things through to the end. That includes Ukraine, where serious consideration must be given to what sort of nation will exist once the war with Russia has been won. Too much is at stake for the forces of liberal democracy to drop the ball and walk away, giving into the impulses of their blinkered geopolitical outlook.
Robert Tyler is a senior policy adviser at New Direction, a Brussels-based think tank.