Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.1 (Spring 2009): Book Reviews: "The End of the West? Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order" by Jeffrey Anderson G. John Ikenberry and Thomas Risse [Full Text]

Mar 26, 2009

The End of the West? Crisis and Change in the Atlantic Order, Jeffrey Anderson, G. John Ikenberry, and Thomas Risse, eds. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2008), 312 pp., $60 cloth, $21 paper.

John McCormick (Reviewer)

Few topics within the world of international relations scholarship have attracted as much attention in recent years as the troubled state of U.S.-European relations. Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was largely taken for granted that the closeness of those relationships would endure, the Americans maintaining their leadership and the Europeans following along, albeit sometimes reluctantly. But Iraq heaved a large boulder into the millpond of our assumptions, and analyses of the splash and its ensuing ripples have been numerous. Some hold that the Atlantic order will emerge just as strong, others that it can never be the same, others that it was never all that strong to begin with, and yet others that we must now seriously question its underlying viability.

This edited collection—with contributions primarily from U.S. and German-based academics—is one of the latest additions to the debate. In the words of the editors, it takes stock of the state of the Western alliance (p. 264), with three particular goals in mind: to improve our theoretical understanding of the logic of conflict and crisis within the Western and international orders; to ask what academia has to offer to the interdisciplinary research agenda on Atlantic relations; and to use the Atlantic crisis to examine the relevance of theories of politics and international relations (pp. 3–4). Individual chapters look at the history of the transatlantic relationship, at issues of power and security, at the role of trade and economic relations, at the impact of international institutions and law, and at differences in values and political identity. Several contributors have a strong track record in these areas, including John Ikenberry, William Hitchcock, Charles Kupchan, and Thomas Risse.

The ‘‘West’’ is defined rather narrowly by the editors, referring to it as ‘‘the transatlantic order or security community’’ (p. 5); and when they contemplate the end of the West they are specifically thinking about ‘‘an end of the old grand strategic partnership’’ (p. 5) between the U.S. and Europe, and its transformation into something new. Their overall conclusion is that while the West has suffered a serious crisis, it survives nonetheless. Of course, how one views the condition of the West depends on the evidence that one considers. If we look at security and politics, then clearly both sides have a vested interest in putting aside their differences to deal with shared threats. But does that necessarily mean that the underlying indicators of the health of the Atlantic order remain positive?

If the recent debate over the different perceptions that Americans and Europeans bring to their attempts to define and address international problems is any measure, then the answer is no. The Kantian/ Hobbesian dichotomy reviewed by Robert Kagan is only one small part of that debate, which has since grown to incorporate transatlantic differences over realism vs. liberalism, modernism vs. post-modernism, military power vs. civilian power, hard power vs. soft power, unilateralism vs. multilateralism, engagement vs. isolation, and much more. Curiously, there is almost no reference in The End of the West? to any of these debates, in spite of their clear centrality to questions about the health of the Atlantic order, and in spite of this book’s claim to investigate the prospects for the scholarly research agenda, and to tie theory to the Atlantic crisis.

A debatable assumption made by the editors is that the U.S. is the world’s only remaining superpower, which view (they claim) helps explain how it is more inclined to act outside multilateral rules and alliances, and why its disputes with Europe have become more common. Yet there is an expanding body of literature that convincingly argues that while the unipolar analysis may have been helpful in the 1990s, it is no longer as supportable. Europe, China, India, and Russia all pose challenges to U.S. preeminence, as do the mounting doubts about the utility of U.S. military power and the country’s declining international economic presence.

During the cold war, many of the differences between Americans and Europeans were overlooked or ignored in the interests of maintaining a display of unity in the face of the Soviet threat. Since the end of that threat, however, the cracks in the edifice have widened, and for many the German and French repudiation of the U.S. position on Iraq was symptomatic of broader and deeper ills that beset the Atlantic order. While the questions posed and assessed in The End of the West? are interesting, they are no longer the most interesting, and the book generally has a feel of one whose arguments might have been more pertinent back in 2003 or 2004, but that have been overtaken by events, by the academic debate, and by a different and more sophisticated understanding of what drives the Atlantic order.

It is indicative of the problem that the sources cited in this book rarely date much past 2005, and that there are many critical omissions. The editors and contributors also handicap themselves by focusing so heavily on security, and by devoting little attention to the expanding debate about American and European positions on human rights, terrorism, globalization, national identity, immigration, religion, the environment, capital punishment, and a host of related matters.

In short, while The End of the West? sheds some light on the state of the Atlantic order, its contributors do not really address the kinds of issues that now matter most in an international system where many of the treasured assumptions about the postwar international order no longer hold true.

—JOHN MCCORMICK The reviewer is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Indianapolis, and author of The European Superpower (2007).

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