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Die Zeit on 13 September 2014 wrote “the west is not a model for the rest. Who is clueless what to do in this new world of crises? Former colonial powers still believing in the superiority of their values are”.
On the 14 October 2014 edition of The Guardian, Pankaj Mishra wrote that “the western model is broken. The west has lost the power to shape the world in its own image – as recent events, from Ukraine to Iraq, make all too clear. So why does it still preach the pernicious myth that every society must evolve along western lines”.
“So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” according to a new book, The Fourth Revolution, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This seems to be an extraordinary admission from two editors of the Economist, the flag-bearer of English liberalism, which has long insisted that the non-west could only achieve prosperity and stability through western prescriptions.
It almost obscures the fact that the 20th century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost. The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilization”, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.
Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured people’s view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalized around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments. In short, every society is destined to evolve just as the west did. Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature.
Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory”, which is the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.
The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by Panglosses of globalisation such as Thomas Friedman.
Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American candoism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted the celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds and redoubled an old delusion. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.
One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacy. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even ostensibly democratic countries such as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.
This moment demands a fresh interrogation of what Neibuhr euphemistically called “the highly contingent achievements of the west”, and closer attention to the varied histories of the non-west. Instead, the most common response to the present crisis has been despair over western “weakness” and much acrimony over what Barack Obama, president of the “sole superpower” and the “indispensable nation” should have done to fix it.
The US magazine Prospect asks “Will the West Win?” on the cover of its latest issue, underlining the forlornness of the question with a picture of Henry Kissinger, whose complicity in various murderous fiascos from Vietnam to Iraq has not prevented his re-incarnation among the perplexed as a sage of hardheaded realism.
A noted economist, Robert Kagan, writing in the Wall Street Journal at the start of September 2014, articulated a defiant neoconservative faith that America is condemned to use “hard power” against the enemies of liberal modernity who understand no other language, such as Japan and Germany in the early 20th century, and Putin’s Russia today.
Kagan doesn’t say which manifestation of hard power – firebombing Germany, nuking Japan, napalming Vietnam – the United States should aim against Russia, or if the shock-and-awe campaign that he spearheaded in Iraq is a better template. Reger Cohen of the New York Times provides a milder variation on the clash of civilized discourse when he laments that “European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law”.
In my opinion, such diehard advocated of the west’s capacity to shape global events and congratulate itself eternally were afflicted with an obsolete assumption even in 1989, that the 20th century was defined by the battles between liberal democracy and totalitarian ideologies, such as fascism and communism.
Their obsession with a largely intra-western dispute obscured the fact that the most significant event of the 20th century was decolonization, and the emergence of new nation-states across Asia and Africa. As ruthlessly imperialist, they barely registered the fact that liberal democracy was experienced by their colonial subjects.
For people luxuriating at a high level of abstraction, and accustomed to dealing, during the cold war, with nation-states organised simply into blocs and superblocs, it was always too inconvenient to examine whether the freshly imagined communities of Asia and Africa were innately strong and cohesive enough to withhold the strains and divisions of state-building and economic growth.
If they had indeed risked engaging with complexity and contradiction, they would have found that the urge to be a wealthy and powerful nation-state along western lines initially ordered and then disordered first Russia, Germany and Japan, and then, in our own time, plunged a vast swath of the post-colonial world into a bloody conflict.