Once upon a time in the West
Published in Newsroom.co.nz (Wellington), 26 February 2020
Every now and then, a new word pops up to encapsulate the mood of the time – and the best neologisms make you think “Gee, I should have thought of that.”
‘Westlessness’ is such a word. It was the motto of this year’s Munich Security Conference, the world’s largest conference on international security policy.
The only problem with ‘Westlessness’ is that it might be untranslatable into any other language. That said, its two English-language elements nail the state of the world.
We are now living in a restless world as the old established orders no longer guarantee order and the old guarantor of the global order, ‘The West’, withdraws. In fact, one could argue that the West is also becoming less Western. It is a philosophy that is giving up on itself.
And, by the way, the West was never defined by geography because it counts Japan, Australia and New Zealand among its members – as well as most of Europe and North America. No, the West is not a geographic indicator, but once stood for broadly open, rule-of-law, free-market, liberal democracies. The surge of populism in parts of the West has led to a retreat from these values.
The clever organisers of the Munich conference captured today’s geopolitical tumult perfectly in the chapter headings of the conference report.
They call China the ‘Meddle Kingdom’, Russia ‘Putemkin’s State’ and Europe a ‘Eurovision Contest’. They sum up the problems in the Mediterranean as ‘Nightmare Nostrum’, the Middle East as ‘Dire Straits’ and South Asia as ‘Cease-fire Fighters’. And remind us of specific issues in the US (‘Divided We Stand?’), right-wing extremism (‘White and Wrong’), climate security (‘To an Uncertain Degree’) and space security ‘(One Small Misstep…’).
What explains this global confusion, this restlessness?
It would be tempting to explain Westlessness by referring to China’s economic renaissance. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s, China has transformed from a global backwater into the economic giant it is today. In doing so, China reclaimed a position in the world it had not occupied for centuries. It did so without making the journey towards liberal democracy, despite the hopeful predictions of many Western observers.
But China’s rise is arguably not what weakened the West. Few Western citizens would see in China a country with structures they wish to replicate at home. China is missing a core ingredient to make it a world leader: soft power. Cultural inspiration was how the West gained and preserved its global appeal for a such long time. Yet most Westerners find no inspiration in contemporary Chinese movies, music or literature – all prerequisites if the world is to follow the Chinese model.
Something else weakened the West.
The first element is that after the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Eastern European communism in the early 1990s, the West lost its systemic and ideological challenger. The Soviet Union provided a yardstick by which the West could measure itself ex negativo. This should have made it easier for the West to assert itself. But once the Iron Curtain dropped, it left a vacuum of orientation.
However, the second element to Westlessness is probably worse. It is the growing schism between Western elites and ordinary Westerners, a trend which precedes what we have come to know as the rise of populism.
Take the growth of the European Union project. Whenever it was put to Europeans in referenda, the results were either rejections or at best narrow victories for the EU. It is easy to forget that even the French only just passed the Maastricht Treaty, by which the Euro was introduced, with 51 percent approval in 1992. The same year, the Danes rejected it with a 50.7 percent majority. A decade later, both the Dutch and the French rejected a proposed European constitution.
The seeds of anti-establishment and anti-elite sentiment were planted decades before Trump and Brexit. Trump and the Brexiteers tapped into the schism between the “anywheres” and “somewheres”, described by British publicist David Goodhart as the few elites who live without traditional constraints and everyone else who depends on the West’s status quo values.
Ironically, holding a conference under the motto of ‘Westlessness’ does nothing to heal this rift. It only highlights the underlying disconnect between political and business elites and ordinary people.
Part of the appeal of Trump and Brexit was the alluring simplicity of “Make America great again” and “Take back control”. By contrast, elite discussions at the Munich Security Conference or Word Economic Forum at Davos are only intelligible to insiders. A a panel session ‘Finding multilateral solutions in a multipolar world’ is hardly a catch cry people can rally behind.
‘Westlessness’ is both a phenomenon and a symptom. A phenomenon describing a world in turmoil and a symptom of the lack of communication between the governing classes and the governed.
If the West wants to find itself again, it first needs a language its own people can understand again.