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Lost in illusions: the West's struggle for realism in a changing world

By Vince Hooper - posted Wednesday, 19 June 2024

In the ever-evolving global landscape, the question of whether the West has lost its sense of realism is becoming increasingly pertinent. Realism, in international relations, emphasizes pragmatism, power dynamics, and national interest. However, recent actions and policies by Western nations suggest a departure from these principles, raising concerns about their long-term strategic coherence and effectiveness.

One of the most glaring examples of this shift is the handling of relations with Iran. Historically, realism dictated that engagement with Iran should balance confrontation with cooperation, recognizing its significant influence in regional and global affairs. Yet, Western strategies have often oscillated between outright hostility and naïve optimism, ignoring the complex realities on the ground. The West's approach to Iran has been marked by contradictions. On one hand, there is increasing rhetoric about the need to counter Iran's influence and its nuclear ambitions. For instance, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) in 2018 and the subsequent reimposition of sanctions represent a hardline stance. On the other, there are calls within some Western circles for renewed diplomatic engagement and negotiation. This ambivalence weakens the West's position, as it struggles to articulate a coherent strategy that balances security concerns with the potential benefits of engaging Iran economically and politically. This has pushed Iran towards much deeper cooperation with China and Russia.

The departure from realism is also evident in the West's internal politics. Populism and ideological extremities have taken center stage, diverting attention from pressing issues such as climate change, economic inequality, and infrastructure decay. These internal distractions hinder the West's ability to project power and influence globally. For instance, Brexit consumed much of the UK's political energy, leaving less bandwidth to address broader strategic concerns leading to disenchantment in the UK and the need for an early election in July 2024. Similarly, the January 6 Capitol riot in the US highlighted the deep political divisions that undermine the country's stability and governance.


Moreover, the rise of "woke" culture in the West has shifted focus from strategic international issues to domestic social debates. While addressing social justice and equality is essential, the intense polarization around these topics often distracts from pragmatic foreign policy considerations. This cultural shift affects how the West interacts with countries like Iran, as ideological purity tests and moral posturing replace positive strategic engagement. For example, the West's inconsistent human rights rhetoric can appear hypocritical, undermining diplomatic efforts and alienating potential partners.

The West's response to the evolving technological landscape, particularly in artificial intelligence (AI), reveals a lack of strategic foresight. The race for technological supremacy in AI is crucial for future geopolitical dominance with the US and China going head-to-head. However, fragmented policies and inconsistent regulations across Western nations impede collective progress and global regulations needed to reign in AI. In contrast, nations like China have demonstrated a more unified and long-term approach, investing heavily in AI research and development, and positioning themselves as global tech leaders. This context is critical for the West, as it seeks to maintain its technological edge and ensure it is not outpaced by competitors. By fostering strategic partnerships and investing in AI innovation, the West can bolster its technological base and counteract the growing influence of nations like China.

Climate change, one of the most pressing global challenges, further highlights the West's inconsistent approach. Despite the clear and present dangers posed by climate change, Western nations have often failed to adopt comprehensive and coordinated policies to address the crisis or set too ambitious unrealistic targets that later need to be adjusted.

This lack of realism in confronting environmental issues not only endangers the planet but also undermines the West's moral authority and leadership on the global stage. While Europe has made strides in renewable energy and emissions reductions, the US has seen fluctuations in its climate policies, with significant rollbacks during the Trump administration and renewed efforts under Biden's presidency. This inconsistency hinders the development of a unified global response to climate change, a situation that the West must address to maintain its leadership and credibility on environmental issues.

The transition to electric vehicles (EVs) is a case in point. While Western countries have set ambitious targets for phasing out internal combustion engines, the supply chain for critical EV components, particularly batteries, remains heavily dependent on China and may indeed be just as deadly to the environment as burning fossil fuels. The dominance of Chinese companies in the production of lithium-ion batteries and the control of raw materials like cobalt and lithium, particularly in South America puts the West in a precarious position.

Strategic investments and partnerships in this sector are essential to enhance the West's economic resilience and reduce dependency on Chinese supply chains. The move towards a global hydrogen economy with hydrogen batteries may be unrealistic given 95% of hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels.


Another critical area where the West's realism seems compromised is in its handling of the Global South. Many developing nations view Western policies as hypocritical and self-serving, leading to a loss of influence in these regions. The West's insistence on imposing its own values and systems, without adequately considering local contexts and aspirations, often backfires leading to greater regime instability. For example, Western-led interventions in the Middle East, such as the invasion of Iraq, have led to prolonged instability and resentment.

Meanwhile, initiatives like China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are seen as more appealing alternatives despite countries becoming hugely indebted to China. Strategic engagement with the Global South, considering local contexts and fostering genuine partnerships, is essential for the West to regain influence and foster stability in these regions.

Additionally, social media has become a double-edged sword in Western societies, affecting both domestic politics and international relations. On one hand, social media platforms have democratized information and mobilized political movements in the West. On the other hand, they have also facilitated the spread of misinformation and polarization, undermining the foundations of Western democracy and rational discourse. The rapid dissemination of fake news and the amplification of extremist views have destabilized political environments and eroded public trust in institutions.

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About the Author

Dr Vince Hooper is an associate professor at the Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, Saudi Arabia.

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