The return of History has also meant the return of the United States to the European stage. Without America’s self-absorption, and without its previous withdrawal that left behind a power vacuum, Europe would not have fallen -once again- into war. Bruno Maçaes has recently written luminous pages on that. Russia dared to invade Ukraine after a decade of groping our strength and after noting European weakness and American disinterest. It was Obama and it was not Obama, it was Trump and it was not Trump either, -their strategic mistakes, I mean, their geopolitical disinterest in our continent when politics in Europe were clearly not going well- which explains the quick deterioration that followed the end of the Cold War, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Three summers ago, having lunch at Mount Vernon, a former librarian at the Library Of Congress was explaining to me the project she directed, back in the 1990s, aimed at educating the leaders of what had been the Eastern Bloc in democratic institutions. The world that was being inaugurated at that time seemed called for moral leadership under the umbrella of a prudent and reasonable pluralism. Little remains of that optimism – perhaps in vain – but even less remains of the weight we had and the light we could have expected the West to project on the rest of the world. The initial optimism was followed by a slow retreat that had much to do with the economic problems caused by the imbalances of globalization: social fracture, massive indebtedness, falling wages, loss of industrial fabric… If Europe had to face the challenge caused by the advent of the single currency, the United States began to look askance at radical Islamism and the strength of China. The West’s retreat extended not only to Russia, but also to Africa and Latin America. Some will say it was the economy, but it was not just the economy. Fear, political and cultural divisions, populism and disinterest in international vectors all contributed to a new and increasingly pessimistic mood. Playing defensively, there is no longer much room for long-term thinking.
The return of History has meant the return of the United States, Europe and the Atlantic Alliance: I do not know in what order or with what concrete agenda. The Pacific can wait, to the delight of Beijing, which sees Washington’s attention being divided once again. There is no longer a single empire in the world; there is no longer a single narrative – like the liberal democrat one that emerged from the end of the Cold War – to explain the logic of globalization; there is no longer a single hegemon that stabilizes international geopolitics. The return of the West is, therefore, a sign of weakness (only those who left will return) and of strength (only those who left can return), a message that the Chinese and Russian chancelleries will know how to read. The question, of course, is directed towards the will, because it is not merely a question of budget: are we willing to assume the human and moral costs of leadership? Do we still have that moral courage that is more about principles than ideology? And do we have enough intelligence – in its broadest sense – to understand a world that is no longer written merely with the grammar and vocabulary of the West? I lack valid answers.
We still have relative technological superiority, as well as the seduction that emanates from our lives and cultural icons – what the Americans call soft power. The limits of Russian military power have been evident throughout these weeks, faced with the noble resistance of the Ukrainians. There is something very ancient in this, as the Spanish writer José Carlos Llop pointed out a few weeks ago in an article where he reminded us that war takes us back to the past. That is to say, it leads us to the encounter with the very foundations of humanity. In war, power is stripped naked and so are we. We discover that, in addition to flesh, we are reasonable, loving and courageous people. We are all that and also horror and hate, cruelty and destiny. The question then becomes one: are we willing to assume the cost of leadership, the authentic weight of naked life?