Complexity, shades of grey and geopolitical diversity are all likely to grow in importance in international affairs as the 21 st Century progresses. Already international politics has radically changed compared to a decade ago, and there is no reason to belief that that trend is slowing down. Simultaneously, the lines between domestic and foreign policy are fading, and governments will have to deal with both at a highly interconnected level. This is nowhere as obvious as in Europe, where globalisation, immigration and a new geopolitical reality go hand in hand. Regardless of whether there is a version of universal Hegelian liberalism and democratization somewhere at the horizon, the world is rapidly moving towards a multipolar reality where the West – used here in its most restrictive sense of Europe and North America – is no longer capable of dominating the international system in the way that it did for most of the past centuries. Moreover, its internal nature is changing rapidly, and European governments can no longer pretend to represent the homogenous culture, singular identity or predefined interests of before.
The above raises important questions about how the West, and Europe in particular, can accommodate such realities most effectively. The events in France during the last two weeks are a good illustration of how deep the problem goes. The riots clearly show the problems with national identity as well as the need for governments to stop acting like protectors of a selective past and instead become responsive to the present.
The rioting youths, however some like to think otherwise, are Westerners. The majority have the French nationality or are legal residents, the only relevant benchmark of categorisation. Unfortunately, they do not fit into the West’s own image, and this has had its repercussions. One of the most obvious problems in the social perceptions and policy making is that the issue viewed as a struggle between “France” and immigrants who need to be become “French” as defined by the traditional (ideal) image. The government in Paris views itself as a guarantor of a predefined identity whereas it has become clear that not everyone can be moulded into the traditional version of a well-behaved, culturally “French” and secular citizen. Rather than finding new ways to try anyway, it is to be hoped that those in Élysée Palace will start viewing themselves not as representing citizens that correspond to an image but rather as serving all the French, including the “scum” that Interior Minister Sarkozy helpfully referred to.
France is a better example of this failure than most countries given its insistence – both in public debate as well as in its official stance – on “assimilation”. This vocabulary implies exactly that there is such a thing as a “static”, non-negotiable French society which can absorb but not fundamentally change its identity. When Sarkozy, in the middle of the crisis, argued that those arrested and without French nationality should be thrown out of the country, he made exactly the mistake that is causing the problems in the first place. The problems are not between French society and foreigners; it is one in the middle of French society itself. The fact that those rioting do not look or behave like winemakers in Bordeaux makes no difference.
Obviously, such a failure of governments does not take away individual responsibility, in this case of those youths who commit violence. However, there is no denying that large parts of European society feel – and often are – underrepresented as a result of the traditional image that Europe has of itself. Politics is no longer a simple matter of left or right domestically, nor of traditionally defined national interests internationally. Accepting this would signify a major improvement in policymaking at every level of government.
It cannot be stressed enough, however, that the events in France are symbolic for most – if not all – Western nations. The same dynamic that has led to these riots can be found across Europe , and governments would do well to learn from the recent problems rather than retreat into the trenches in order to hang on to the past for as long as possible. Moreover, the failed attempts at homogeneity at home have a clear parallel with the monoculture of current international relations. It is not only at a domestic level that national identity is changing but also at the international level where old commonalities within the West are disappearing and new, less exclusive links are established. The old ideal is no longer, and both domestically as well as internationally this needs recognition.
Fortunately, there is evidence that Europe and the U.S. are becoming increasingly distant in their relationship. Given the above, this should be welcomed with open arms. Whereas Europe as such has the European Union to create shared interests and common bonds, such bonds are quickly fading between countries like the US and France , to name an example. That does not need to lead to antagonism – whatever the mudslinging across the Atlantic – but certainly to a loss of “Western” identity. This levels the playing field and forces nations to engage each other at a more equal footing.
The three things that are often regarded as the pillars of the West (capitalism, democracy and freedom) are certainly not exclusive to this region, and as such not enough to maintain implicit – nor explicit in the form of NATO – alliances that exist between the traditional partners. This is the natural consequences of changing demographics, differing geopolitical interests and growing cultural differences, as well the rise of new poles in the world order. Western governments need to recognize such increased diversity, both at home and abroad. If not, the “scum” will soon outnumber well-behaved citizens, and politicians will be booted out of office more quickly than one can say “liberté, egalité, fraternité”.