The West in a new cold war with itself

Published in the New Zealand Herald, 22 June 2020

The Cold War is mainly history today with more people remembering the spies than the ideological warfare. But at its heart, it was an ideological battle, which makes comparisons with today’s tensions between China and the West natural.

Superficially, this makes it an appropriate comparison for today’s tensions between China and the West. However, the differences between then and now is that rather than confronting the Eastern challenge, Western liberal democracy is mainly at war with itself.

The old Cold War was neat and orderly. The US-led West was free, democratic and capitalist while the Soviet-led East was unfree, undemocratic and communist. People knew which side they were on.

In the West, conservatives and social democrats may have harboured different sympathies for redistribution and regulation, but they were both pro-Western in conviction and outlook. They were all part of the broader liberal-democratic, Western political spectrum.

Today’s West is far less united, both externally and internally.

The weakening of Western cooperation is a dramatic development in geopolitics. Western countries have become fractured and rudderless, moving away from the political solidarity and economic integration that began after World War II. Britain is making an exit from the European Union, while some Western countries are flirting with populism and authoritarianism.

The changes in the West are not confined to relations between governments. The social changes happening deep within Western countries are even more worrying.

During the Cold War, there was a tacit understanding of what liberal democracies were about. Equality before law, free speech and political freedom were the basic tenets of civic society. On the economic side, it extended to secure property rights, freedom of contract and freedom to trade. It also embedded a belief in technological progress and continual social and economic improvement.

Of course, individual Western countries fell short of achieving some of these aspirations. But they still widely agreed upon the foundations – at least in principle. Those people trying to improve society, no matter where they stood politically, were trying to do so from within the existing system.

Over the past three decades, a new activism has emerged in Western society that strives to fix perceived social, economic or environmental ills. However, it is increasingly doing so by explicitly rejecting the foundations of the existing order. The quest for improvements and progress is challenging the system.

Take feminism and the fight for gender equality. Before the new millennium, feminist activism focused its efforts on promoting women’s rights. These included not just the right to vote, where New Zealand led the world. It was also a fight to achieve equal opportunities and pay.

Crucially, the purpose of early feminism was to allow women the same opportunities as men in our social and economic system. No-one would quarrel with this.

Many contemporary feminists, however, are not content with such an approach. As US feminist Nancy Fraser, author of Feminism for the 99%, put it: “Any feminism aimed at liberating all women must itself be anti-capitalist.” And if you wonder why, she continued by saying “liberal, pro-capitalist feminisms can at best empower a small, privileged stratum of professional-managerial women, while leaving the vast majority vulnerable to abuses of every stripe.” A fight for equality has morphed into a class war.

Many climate change activists show a similar approach. Climate change is a technological and economic challenge. For economists, reducing carbon emissions requires internalising external effects, i.e. pricing emissions. Engineers and scientists can help in this process. Our existing economic order offers good ways of dealing with climate change.

But such solutions are not enough for many climate change activists. As Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg told a United Nations conference last year, her problem was with “fairy-tales of endless economic growth.” She was demanding a system change. Extinction Rebellion, the more radical version of Fridays for Future, made this even clearer. Its proclaimed vision is decidedly anti-capitalist, anti-democratic and anti-growth.

Dealing with the challenge of climate change thus becomes a quest for a system change. Many activists from the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion movements would simply spurn the idea that climate change can ever be properly addressed within a Western economic framework.

The latest example of activism taking a noble goal and letting it morph into a systemic question is Black Lives Matter.

The historic fight against slavery was led by a coalition of Christian evangelicals and classical liberals in 18th and 19th century Britain. It is justified to condemn excessive police violence in the US today, and there is a widespread social consensus to confront racist discrimination wherever it occurs.

However, especially the British offshoot of Black Lives Matter goes well beyond these goals. On its fundraising website, the group openly described its aims: “We’re guided by a commitment to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately harm black people in Britain and around the world.” To these radical activists, anti-discrimination is not simply a fight against racism: it has become a fight against both the free market and the state. No wonder the movement seeks to de-fund the police. No wonder it aims to remove any symbols or reminders of Western history.

What we are observing in Western countries is a new form of activism that campaigns on eminently laudable goals. Who would be against women’s rights, protecting the environment or stopping racism? Certainly no-one in mainstream political parties on either the centre left or centre right.

But increasingly, these worthwhile goals are being hijacked by some factions of social and environmental activists wanting to overthrow the foundations of the Western social, economic and political system itself. Freedom of speech, economic freedom and property rights are facing existential threats not so much from outside rivals but from within. At the same time, these activists offer no coherent alternative system.

And all of this is happening at a time of challenge far greater than that experienced during the Cold War. The Soviet Union was essentially a bankrupt developing country armed with nuclear weapons, China has become a sophisticated economic and military power. Beijing in 2020 is not Moscow circa 1980.

While Beijing is asserting itself more vociferously in the world, the West is mainly at war with itself. In doing so, it is taking its eyes off the geopolitical challenges implied by China’s rise.

This new Cold War could be decided not by Beijing’s victory but by the West’s suicide.

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