The world without the idea of the West

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?


4 thoughts on “The world without the idea of the West

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  3. Hans: This is a very interesting post on an issue I think needs to be given far greater attention. For my part, I think that the ‘idea’ of the West and the ‘power’ of the West should not in any way be disentangled from one another. I think something very peculiar happened in the 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union: it Europe, in particular, it became very fashionable to believe that Western values – liberal values – were themselves responsible for the great victory and the roll-back of Soviet-Russian power. Liberalism came to be seen as a kind of universal panacea that could be ‘spread’ and ‘applied’ irrespective of a society’s historical experiences or local customs; indeed, this view went so far – perhaps due to a misreading of Fukuyama’s ‘end of History’ thesis* – that many Westerners came to believe that they did not have to do very much at all, and that the ideas were themselves so powerful that other people would simply accept them and convert to them given enough time. In other words, ‘Western’ values had grown and would continue to grow not because Western countries decided that they would deliberately expand their political presence – as they had during the cold war – but rather because of their inherent traction.

    The points I’m trying to make here are twofold: firstly, where did ‘Western’ values come from? Are ‘Western’ values really that Western? Or did they actually emerge in a particular part of what we now look on as being the West (i.e. Britain, France and the Low Countries, as the world’s first post-feudal societies)? Secondly, how can those values expand if there is no-one or nothing to expand them? In actual fact, I think the two issues are heavily entwined with one another.

    To shorten the answer, perhaps it would be better to ask a rhetorical question: i.e. would we today be living in a world where liberal values are dominant (and have been dominant for over three centuries) if the British, French and Dutch had never pioneered such values (or looked at a slightly different way, had those values not emerged due to political responses to particular dislocationary experiences), or had their offspring, the United States, closed in on itself and ignored the plight of Central Europe after World War II? Would liberal values have become so widespread had British, French and American power – or indeed, any powerful national-state – not been there to defend and project liberal values? To look at it another way, would Nazism have become so dangerous had it manifested itself in some small, weakened country in south-eastern Europe? Unlikely.

    If this is the case – and I have to say that I think it is – then the rise of non-European and illiberal countries could be very damaging to liberal values. If these countries’ relative power continues to rise against the original Western countries, it will undoubtedly push back the liberal order the liberal powers have constituted. This will be a very unhappy experience for us, less still for those who have, due to historical circumstance, come to shelter under the major liberal powers’ wings, themselves becoming nominally liberal.

    With this all in mind, I’m not sure that I am able to provide an optimistic answer to your ultimate questions. I’m not sure we can make our liberal stories intersect with those of countries who do not share, or seem to want to share, our way of life. I know this may appear as a very pessimistic answer, and one wholly at odds with liberal optimism. But I think that to try and make them intersect with us could actually lead to the corruption and undermining of our own values, which – as a progressive – I would be deeply concerned about. That is not to say that I am what – as you have called elsewhere – an ‘Enlightenment fundamentalist’! I strongly believe that we can improve on liberal-democratic values, for example through their extension into the economic domain. To be sure, the Enlightenment should not ever be understood as the end of History, but in some ways, its very beginning. Having said that, I’m certain the West has little to learn from most non-Western societies, especially those still mired in History, and very much to resist from them. In short, just as we have been unable to make many other societies’ values intersect with ours in the past, it may be equally impossible to do so in the future…

    * I say ‘misreading’ because I think many misunderstood the darker, more disturbing point that Fukuyama was trying to make, namely that the proliferation of democracy would probably lead to increasingly satisfied people who would no longer be particularly interested in politics. In turn, this would lead to corruption and the decay of the democratic social and political order – and the return of History. I read the End of History not as an unhinged and triumphalist account but as a pessimistic warning to the West.

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