Great power narratives: a battle of narratives or making the world safe for diversity
Column by Ties Dams, Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute
Last week, Christoph Heusgen – Merkel’s top foreign policy advisor for 12 years, and before that Solano’s – was asked by Der Spiegel whether Afghanistan was a defeat for ‘The West’.
His answer was most telling: “I have actually”, he said “eliminated the term ‘The West’ from my vocabulary.”
‘The West’ has been our hero, one that promises the victory of a universal normative order over the chaos of ideological division. In Heusgen’s eyes, Afghanistan isn’t just a battle lost or a treasure stolen. Rather, it is one event in a series of disenchantments that have, in his eyes, invalidated the very character of our hero the West.
The West in this story is a Yester-world, a civilization in decay, hubristic and lazy
His analysis isn’t wrong. He provides three reasons for giving up on the West: one from the East, one from the West, and one from Europe an sich. Let’s consider them in that order.
Heusgen argues that, nowadays, The West is merely a strategic fiction most potently put to use by our Eastern adversaries: Russia and China.
‘The West’, he argues, serves as a battle cry of resistance for ‘the Rest’.
He is perfectly right: China and Russia use ‘the West’ as a useful adversary to rally against; ‘countries of The Rest unite against The West’.
The West in this story is a Yester-world, a civilization in decay, hubristic and lazy. This particular story of the West is deployed successfully in, for instance, China’s strategic communications to Africa, and Russia’s to the European neighborhood. More troublingly, it resonates with some European leaders – Orban comes to mind – and with the left and right extremes of some European electorates.
This is the real punch of Russian and Chinese disinformation campaigns: to fortify the false prophets of Western division and decay. Its real power lies in amplifying the already existing vulnerabilities in the image of the West – both abroad and at home.
If this is the challenge, the question becomes: what narrative may meet it? Factchecking pieces of disinformation won’t do much to counter Russia and China.
But is giving up on our hero ‘The West’ any better?
Although the transatlantic agendas converge on many issues related to China, European and American views of what kind of character China is in their respective stories are utterly different
Biden, for one, seems to have his answer ready.
He’s doubling down on American leadership. This too makes for an ambiguous relation to our hero, the West.
Biden reclaims American global leadership, but in a particular way. There are two worlds: democratic and authoritarian, and only one can survive. Under American leadership, not Western mind you, the democratic world has a fighting chance.
Although the transatlantic agendas converge on many issues related to China, European and American views of what kind of character China is in their respective stories are utterly different.
To US elites, China is an existential threat. To European elites, it’s a fact in a flawed world.
A question lingers in European capitals: has Biden maybe also given up on The West? And if not Biden, what will become of The West after a coming election? What will become of it when tensions across the Indo-Pacific heat up?
If Europe is to save the liberal international order, it needs a when, a where and a why – it need a story and it needs a Hero
Animosity in the East, ambiguity in the West: these are two of the reasons to give up on our hero. The third comes from Europe itself.
Heusgen argues Europe does not need ‘The West’. Our values, he argues, are universal, and ought never be constrained by spheres of influence. The liberal international order should stand proud of its universal claim.
Although comfortable, his response does not seem adequate in real life.
In fact, as he himself argues, it is exactly the universality of values that China successfully undermines, more than the values themselves; it’s the gap between what The West promises – universal - and the reality of its geopolitics – contested – that China exploits.
This too, is the source of American ambiguity – the constant struggle in Washington between realism and idealism. Biden’s Afghanistan-policy, if anything, has proven that American realism is stronger than ever, despite his Manichean rhetoric.
More fundamentally, Heusgen fails to appreciate the fundamental power of narrative in our politics. Narrative is not what we do – its who we are.
Necessarily, narratives only function within a unity of time, place and action – as Aristotle already pointed out. Universalism – transcending time, place and action – is a poor narrative backbone.
If Europe is to save the liberal international order, it needs a when, a where and a why – it need a story and it needs a Hero.
Interestingly, as surveys show, this is exactly what European electorates are calling for: Europe as a power block to temper Sino-US rivalry and protect European values in Europe.
Scrapping words from our dictionary isn’t good enough anymore. Giving up on our hero isn’t good enough either. We need new ones.
Autonomy isn’t enough: history, identity and diversity should be central to the stories we tell to other great powers
Hearing the contributions of the speakers before me, I draw a number of lessons that the poets of European politics, the poets that will take Heusgen’s place in months to come, should heed.
One. The very fact of China’s ascent undermines the universalism it takes offence with. American ambiguity towards the West makes for a undependable defense.
Two. The geopolitical playing field will be thus: a number of great powers will vie for influence by telling their stories to the world. The battle of narratives will be a fact of life for decades to come.
Three. Others will tell Europe’s story for it, if it doesn’t tell it itself; and given the current escalation between China and the US, this will become an increasingly risky outlook.
Four. Europe must simultaneously relearn the grammar of geopolitics and the power of narrative – abroad and at home. We must speak of what Europe has been, what it will be, and to what end.
Autonomy isn’t enough: history, identity and diversity should be central to the stories we tell to other great powers.
Five. The return of Manichean narratives – of a world of good and evil, with absolute divisions and loyalties – is a fiction and a threat.
European civilization was forged out of the catastrophes of great power conflict
Actually, it is exactly the kind of threat, that European leaders could recognize as a call to adventure, as the start of a hero’s journey.
If anything, European civilization was forged out of the catastrophes of great power conflict – the very existence of Europe proves it is possible to overcome it.
The Europe that defends its values from the ultimate consequences of hegemonic strife. If not the West, let that be our hero.