These days foreign-policy analysts – including my colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations – talk a lot about the prospect of a “post-Western” world. The idea is that, as rising powers like China and India emerge, the West is losing its dominance in global affairs. In some ways, this de-centering of the West may be no bad thing – in particular, it may lead to a more equal world. But because countries like China and India will also inevitably have different ideas than the West about how the international system should be run, the transition to a post-Western world will be more than just a redistribution of power from west to east. So what will happen to the idea of the West – the normative project about which Heinrich August Winkler writes? In other words, as the economic and political power of the West declines relatively, will the ideas that have emerged from it – and which inform the values for which it stands – also lose their traction? Does it matter if they do?
The debate has been framed largely in terms of whether emerging powers like China and India will integrate into or challenge the existing international system. But in an influential article entitled “The World without the West”, which appeared in The National Interest in 2007, the American academic Steven Weber argues that rising powers are instead simply bypassing or “routing around” the West. “By preferentially deepening their own ties among themselves, and in so doing loosening relatively the ties that bind them to the international system centered in the West, rising powers are building an alternative system of international politics whose endpoint is neither conflict nor assimilation with the West”, he writes. “It is to make the West, and American power in particular, increasingly irrelevant.” Weber describes a “deepening of interconnectivity within the developing world – in flows of goods, money, people and ideas – that is surprisingly autonomous from Western control, resulting in the development of a new, parallel international system, with its own distinctive set of rules, instititions and currencies of power”.
In particular, the emerging world without the West that Weber describes is a neo-Westphalian one in which “hard-shell states […] bargain with each other about the terms of their external relationships, but staunchly respect the rights of each to order its own society, politics and culture without external interference”. Specifically, it is unlikely that “evolving Western notions of liberal internationalism – particularly ideas like politicial conditionality on development aid and the ‘responsibility to protect'” will have much of a place. In fact, Weber says, Western claims about “values” such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law are increasingly seen in the rest of the world as “a power game pure and simple, an attempt to redefine as ‘universal’ what is distinctively the product of a particular culture, and (declining) power base”.
What particularly interests me about this is the way ideas like “responsibility to protect” and the values that inform them are based on narratives – stories we tell ourselves about our history and the lessons we have learned from it. For example, the “responsibility to protect” – which was adopted by the United Nations in 2005 – derives from a narrative in which the Holocaust plays a central role. However, as Weber writes, “it is increasingly difficult for Western narratives to penetrate the developing world”. In other words, the developing world is increasingly not just “routing around” not just the West but also the idea of the West. It therefore seems to me that, unless we simply give up, a crucial question for the twenty-first century will be how to make connections between the different narratives of the West and the rest of the world. How, in other words, do the stories we tell ourselves and those that people in non-western countries like China and India tell themselves intersect?