The victors in World War II split into two camps, one in the East led by the Soviet Union at the head of the Warsaw Pact, and the other in the West led by the US at the head of NATO.
By the end of the 1940s, the two sides began to face off in the Cold War which only heated up in those remote Third World countries that won their independence in the 1950s and 1960s and then were unsure what to do with it, such as whether they should attach themselves to the Western camp or to the Eastern camp or play both ends against the middle beneath the banner of “nonalignment”.
The planet was thus divided into three “quarters”, the Eastern and Western quarters in the north and the Southern quarter.
Each of these neighbourhoods had its own traditions, cultures and forms of government. The nuclear arms race kept the two northern quarters from making war against each other.But their rivalry remained intense, on the knife edge of the balance of nuclear terror.
Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact whose member countries turned westward and began to join NATO and the EU.
Even the Soviet Union split apart into 15 republics, most of which also joined NATO in the Western quarter which had expanded so much that some proclaimed “the end of history”. Indeed, the world seemed essentially divisible into two: “The West” and “The Rest”.
Of course, history had not ended, neither literally or dialectically. China stepped in to furnish an antithesis with a different model for governance, development and economic growth.
Just a quarter of a century after the collapse of the Eastern quarter and the end of the Cold War it was possible to speak of a superpower with an authoritarian political system and a capitalist economic system on its way to gaining ascendancy over the US.
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was basically meant to keep the monopoly over nuclear weapons security in the hands of the two northern camps, began to face a challenge.
India and Pakistan became nuclear powers. So, too, did Israel, even if it refused to acknowledge this publicly. Iraq tried, but failed, and Iran is still trying.
As for Russia, which emerged from the Cold War with its honour bruised, it began to recover. It intervened in Georgia militarily, annexed the Crimea, intervened in Ukraine with weapons and in Syria with military forces.
In sum, the Western quarter is facing a huge and multifaceted challenge, and it is no longer possible to speak of a “Pax Americana”.
But the pressures on the Western quarter are not just coming from outside. It is beginning to crack from within, as though to mirror what led to the collapse of the Soviet camp before. But history never really repeats itself. Each era comes with its own circumstances, variables and balances.
For example, analysts and observers agree that Western liberal democratic philosophy no longer exists in three NATO members: Turkey, Poland and Hungary.
The political systems there have come to blend ultranationalist ideology with political authoritarianism, economic insularism and social xenophobia. That is one crack.
An extension is to be found in the fact that the types of parties and movements that have caused the changes in the three aforementioned countries are on the march to power in other countries and are pressing for legislation aimed at achieving similar types of changes. Another fissure has opened within the most important Western invention in international political engineering: the EU.
Brexit turned out to be about more than just leaving the EU. Even a “soft” exit stirred the ire of certain segments of the British people and triggered the resignation of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and EU Negotiations Minister David Davies. They do not want separation; they want total and final divorce.
Another major fault line in the Western quarter has arisen because the neighbourhood boss and chief sponsor of NATO has lost heart in leadership.
The election of Donald Trump inaugurated the US school that teaches that America’s allies cheat and get security without paying a fair price for it and get access to US markets without reciprocating.
In last week’s NATO summit, Trump voiced his amazement at how Germany paid less than two per cent of its GDP on NATO while paying billions to Russia for natural gas, enriching the very source of threat that the Americans had come to Europe to ward off.
The result is nearly daily friction between the two sides of the Atlantic. If last week’s wrangling was about security, a previous set-to revolved around trade and Trump’s decision to heap tariffs not just on products from China in the East, but also products from US allies in the West.
At the time of writing, Trump had not yet set off for Helsinki to meet with his Russian counterpart on 16 July.
However, whatever the direct results of that summit may be, its indirect fallout has already begun to be felt by throwing into relief the huge confidence deficit between allies and fellow NATO members.
Washington’s lack of confidence in its allies stems from the feeling that political liberalism has spoilt European states and societies, rendering them too stingy and lax when it comes to defending the higher interests of the alliance, too soft on immigration and amnesty, too indulgent towards Third World countries because of post-colonialist guilt complexes and other such sentiments and behaviours that have no place in international politics today.
The distrust is reciprocated. To the US’s allies in NATO, Trump epitomises everything that is antithetical and hostile to the Western liberal heritage. Meanwhile, everything in the US media about the Trump-Putin connection adds fuel to the flames in the Western quarter.
What does all this mean? Will all these cracks cause the Western alliance to crumble as the Eastern one had collapsed a few decades ago? Or are we looking at a hiccup caused by Trump’s entry into the Oval Office and the changes in a number of European countries, after which things will return to normal? Or could it be that the world has changed, that there is no such thing as “Eastern, Western and Southern quarters” anymore, and that we now have to wait and see until the new international equations coalesce?
In all events, what is certain is that world is changing very fast. The Cold War order lasted four decades. The US’s sole hegemony over the West and the Rest lasted only a quarter of a century. Whatever the next phase holds in store, it is bound to be shorter!
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Cracks in the Western quarter