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The West’s decline is of its own making

A park close to the European Parliament in Brussels has been given a face-lift, if that is the right term writes Judy Dempsey. Apart from being spruced up, the area now contains new sculptures in the form of twelve ostriches. And yes, the ostriches have their heads stuck in the sand. If Europe as well as the United States weren’t suffering such a malaise as they are today, the symbolism of these birds wouldn’t matter.

But three recent events only confirm how the West continues to duck fundamental issues in ways that will leave it weaker and increasingly unable to project itself politically, socially, and economically.

The first event was the decision by the United States to cut off talks with Russia on trying to end the war in Syria. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, who was in Brussels on October 4, tried to defend his country’s role in Syria. In a speech hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, he decried Russia’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s relentless bombing of civilian targets, and the way Syrian government forces were using barrel bombs and chlorine gas against their opponents.

What Kerry omitted, hardly surprisingly, was how the United States in particular had crossed its own so-called redlines when it came to Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene, despite saying in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons would be a redline the United States would not tolerate, gave Russia and other players a free hand to play out their cynical geostrategic interests in that wretched country.

Belatedly, Manfred Weber, the chairman of the conservative European Peoples’ Party group in the European Parliament, called on EU leaders to come up with a real solution to the Syrian war. As if his words will make any difference. Ever since the war began over five years ago, the EU has lacked the political courage to play even a diplomatic role. The union is now paying the price in terms of dealing with the refugee crisis, which in turn is being exploited by populist movements across Europe.

Europe’s ignominious policy on Syria is a symptom of the West’s decline. It is a decline that Moscow has been able to exploit. Apart from imposing sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and subsequently invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, Europe and the United States have exercised little leverage over Russia. The West has been unable to exert influence because it lacks the political leadership and a common sense of purpose to stop atrocities. This is not about imposing values. It is about trying to protect civilians.

The second recent event was a plan by the British government to curb the number of foreign workers employed by British companies. “I want us to look again at whether our immigration system provides the right incentives for businesses to invest in British workers,” Amber Rudd, Britain’s home secretary, told the annual Conservative Party conference on October 4.

Rudd proposed a system of fines and new regulations to stop the inflow of migrants—or, to be more precise, the hundreds of thousands of EU nationals who work in Britain. How British Prime Minister Theresa May intends to implement such measures is not yet clear.

What is certain is that the decision by Britain to leave the EU is turning the country into a parochial outpost of Europe. Unless there is a major rethink among other EU leaders, Brexit will leave the UK and Europe even weaker. Indeed, the Brexit negotiations, when they begin, could serve to distract the EU from trying to restore its credibility and sense of confidence. No tears will be shed in Russia, which relishes an ever weaker and more divided Europe.

The third event was a statement given on October 4 in Vienna by Kate Byrnes, the U.S. chargé d’affaires to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Byrnes criticized Russia for continuing to block the expansion of the geographic scope of the OSCE’s special observer mission in eastern Ukraine. The mission is tasked with monitoring the ceasefire set out in the Minsk II agreement signed in early 2015 with the aim of ending the fighting in the region.

Byrnes was referring to the fact that the mission can only cover two border checkpoints, which together account for “only a few hundred meters of the 2,300 kilometer Ukrainian-Russian border, much of which Ukraine does not control.” In practice, she explained, this arrangement meant that the OSCE was unable to establish the full extent to which Russia was facilitating the flow of arms, funding, and personnel to support the separatists in eastern Ukraine.

As if that were not enough, the mission’s most recent report stated that monitoring and freedom of movement were restricted by security hazards and threats, including risks posed by mines, unexploded ordnance, and other impediments. Again, the European members of the OSCE have been unable to exert influence or pressure on Russia to allow the mission in Ukraine to properly monitor the ceasefire.

The thread linking these three events—Kerry’s speech, Rudd’s admonishment of foreign workers, and the apparent helplessness of the OSCE in Ukraine—is a West that lacks any clear strategy for how to deal with crises. Waiting for the next U.S. president to enter the White House is not an option, either for Americans or for Europeans. What option there is depends on leaders on both sides of the Atlantic recognizing their contribution to the West’s decline. Failing that, they will be akin to the ostriches outside the European Parliament.

Judy Dempsey is a non-resident senior associate at Carnegie Europe and is also editor-in-chief of Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe’, which is published under the auspices of Carnegie Europe. This article was first published by Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe. More information can be found at

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