The fall of the West has been endlessly forecast, but while it may not quite be imminent, decline is readily apparent. It would be difficult to point to an era when such a fall in faith in the West’s governance and systems has coincided with such a surge of power and confidence in the forces arrayed against it.
What, then, constitutes “The West”?
Its core members certainly inhabit the Western Hemisphere – notably, Western Europe and North America. But it is not simply a geographic descriptor, it is also a dense soup of institutions and values. “Western” countries broadly sync democratic governance, market capitalism and rule of law with prosperous lifestyles, civic society and liberal values.
Given this, many countries in Eastern Europe and certain parts of the Anglosphere – notably Australia and New Zealand – would be considered “Western.” For the same reason, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan could, arguably, be “Western” nations, albeit they are geographically, culturally and racially “Eastern.”
Whence Western decline?
Why the West can’t win
It started in the East, with the Vietnam War and its associated era. The American failure to prevail generated massive national trauma, compounded by Watergate. A people who once respected government switched to distrust. The distrust extended to multiple pillars of “the arsenal of democracy” – the military, the military-industrial complex and the intelligence community.
Vietnam made apparent the limits on American power. Today, it is no longer just the US, but the wider West – which unsuccessfully fielded multinational coalitions, after September 11, 2001 – that suffers from defeatism.
Iraqi and Afghan resistance proved more resilient than anticipated. Fighting spirit trumped the excellence of the West’s arms and professional, high-tech militaries. Chaos generated new enemies, such as ISIS. Western publics’ inability to tolerate casualties, their refusal to prosecute ruthless operations, together with a reluctance to implement long-term strategies, such as post-combat nation-building, indicates that the West’s war-winning days are over.
And confidence has plummeted in sectors that extend well beyond strategy/security.
Financial failure and manufacturing’s eastward shift
The 2008 global financial crisis, a devastating but unnecessary event, was ignited from deep within the richest but worst-monitored sector of the US economy: high finance. Moral damage was massive. The GFC compounded extant distrust in governance by undermining faith in global capitalism itself.
The shock came amid a much wider, long-term trend: the hollowing out of the Western industrial base as manufacturing shifted eastward. That created a long-simmering anger toward a political class that promoted the benefits of globalism to the middle class, at the perceived expense of the working class.
This shift was not universal – Germany, for example, maintained a powerful manufacturing base rather than shifting to services – but it still gave rise to the trans-Atlantic phenomena of Trumpism and Brexit, both in essence anti-globalism dynamics. Bizarrely, the two movements are led by leaders in Washington and London who, despite being highly privileged individuals themselves, champion the working class and raise the dreams of a return to brighter, pre-globalization days.
Still, the long-term eastward trend in metal bashing gave the West new allies – or arguably, new members.
West shifts East – then ‘Eastern West’ divides
From the 1960s to the 1990s, Japan, followed by South Korea and Taiwan, showed what Asia’s ambitious working classes – strategized by sound planning, empowered by access to Western technology, and unleashed on to global markets – could do. The arrival of Asian tigers reshaped the global economy; the arrival of Asian middle classes added millions of new citizens to the world’s democratic population.
Postwar, America foisted democracy upon Japan. South Korea and Taiwan, after building industrial bases, crushing poverty, climbing the prosperity ladder and incubating middle classes, grabbed democracy with both hands. These nations have adopted what are, for all intents and purposes, “Western” values. The lifestyles, freedoms and aspirations of a salaryman in, say, Busan are very largely the same as those of an office worker in, say, Brighton.
Commercially, the three East Asian democracies are simultaneously competitors and partners, competing and cooperating while deeply entangled in supply chains. However, although all are sheltered by America’s defensive aegis, they are bound by no quadrilateral strategic alliance. This failing – the lack of an “East Asian NATO” or “economic community” – is now being exacerbated.
Japan and South Korea enjoyed solid commercial and diplomatic relations from the 1960s to the 1990s. But after the latter country democratized, new demands surfaced over old historical issues, related to Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula from 1910-1945. At the same time, South Korea had become less reliant upon Japanese capital, consulting and technology. A dynamic emerged: Seoul demanded apologies and restitution for historical grievances; Japan insisted it had already paid and compensated.
This endless diplomatic-historical dispute has now made an unwelcome leap from the diplomatic to the economic space as a nasty trade war shapes up. Rhetoric from Seoul suggests that the spat could be the biggest reckoning since diplomatic relations were established in 1965. Currently, neither side looks set to de-escalate. But even if this situation is resolved – likely via US mediation – relations have been poisoned.
South Korea has always been an economic rather than a political force. Japan has customarily been the same, but under its current leader, it has made clear its ambition to play a more assertive role in global affairs, a role that would most surely be well synchronized with the West.
The soaring distrust between Seoul and Tokyo impacts their desire and ability to act in diplomatic or military concert. This widening divide in the “Eastern West” is particularly problematic as there is another player in the neighborhood who wields massive commercial and military power, but has not taken the democratic path forged by East Asia’s industrial first movers.
The Eastern challenge
The ”Asian tiger” model was not replicated by the dragon in the pack, China. There, literally no alternative power structure to the governing Communist Party exists.
The party brilliantly harnessed capitalism for economic growth and, on the back of its economy of scale, become the “workshop of the world.” Its trajectory was accelerated by its flaunting of global regulations that – until the appearance of Donald Trump – no national or corporate leader apparently dared question. It has used the resultant prosperity (backed up with a big, post-Tiananmen stick) to keep its expanding middle class from making political demands.
Beijing is craftily playing two ends of globalism against one another. In world markets, leveraging a deep treasure chest, it is an ambitious commercial player and a far-sighted, hungry investor. At home, it raises the specter of overseas threats while reminding its public of historic humiliations at the hands of foreign powers, whipping up a prickly and emotive nationalism.
And increasingly, China has a friend and ally: Russia. The world’s largest country spans the Eurasian landmass, but its center of gravity remains in European Russia. Yet despite historical yearnings, and a range of historical wartime alliances, Russia never really became a part of the West. Indeed, the West missed an opportunity, during the chaotic and disastrous Boris Yeltsin years, to embrace Russia. That failure was reflected in the rise of Vladimir Putin, who bought order from chaos, and handed Russians back their self-respect.
Still, even as communist partners, Russia and China were never fully aligned. There were tensions between Beijing and Moscow as early as the Korean War, and in the 1970s and 1980s, Beijing and Washington contained Russia.
Today, however, an ancient principle – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – is gluing Beijing and Moscow back together. But they are not just united by distrust of the West; the two nations are in many ways complementary. Russia has natural resources, basic science and weapons; China has capital, commercial technologies and heavy manufacturing. Russia has an under-population problem, China the opposite.
Both are led by strong, long-game leaders who are instilling national (and nationalistic) pride into their peoples. They are also both nations with a sense of being waxing, not waning powers.
East vs West on a global chessboard
Where does that leave the world as its shifts toward what is now looking like an post-Cold War, East vs West bipolar world?
The challenge facing the West (and even less, the ”Eastern West”) is not Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Unless a terrorist group obtains a weapon of mass destruction, terror attacks will conquer nobody: Seen from a broad perspective, they are pinpricks rather than existential threats. Terrorism is far deadlier to Islamic societies than Western ones.
The real issue is the increasingly assertive Sino-Russian partnership. This is particularly true as China invests massive capital into the developing world, asserts its presence in the South China Sea, and builds an expeditionary military. Moscow, meanwhile, lacks Beijing’s financial power, but is in sync when it comes to developing and integrating the Eurasian landmass on not just an east-west axis, but also in northern (Arctic Sea) and southern (Middle East/South Asian) directions.
The game is on to lure countries into one of the two camps, and a handful of states are clearly already in the Russo-Chinese orbit: Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Taking a wider geographic gaze, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia are all in play. China is deploying massive capital resources in Africa, significant economic resources and South Asia, while deploying both capital and economic resources in Southeast Asia. Russia, meanwhile, maintains its customarily strong relations in Central Asia.
Hard power, soft power, sharp power
The decline of the West and the “Eastern West” is by no means a foregone conclusion. They are still prosperous and economically powerful, with high-tech militaries. There are still things they do very well. Commercial and technological innovation, effective education and global brands are three. Soft power – cultural products and aspirational lifestyles – is a fourth: Prosperous Chinese and Russians inevitably head West, Westerners are far less keen to head East.
But the East is deploying an (arguably) new power format: “sharp power,” or information/disinformation warfare to win influence. Enabled by modern international communication nets, it takes various forms: electoral meddling; the creation of state-controlled media channels to promote national narratives and/or fake news internationally; the retention of Western academics, journalists and pundits to argue the Sino-Russian case; etc.
Sharp power is particularly effective as it targets the West’s Achilles heel: its dangerously frayed confidence in its governance and institutions – including its free, but financially challenged, media. And the West cannot return fire in kind: China has effectively erected an information firewall around its people, while Moscow toys with the idea of fencing off its own Internet.
Amid these multiple dynamics, does the West have the grit, patience, confidence, determination and foresight to maintain its influence and economic status in what is increasingly shaping into a power struggle between it, and China and Russia? That is not clear.
An ideal end game, of course, would be for China and Russia to gradually assume the freedoms institutions and values the West holds dear. Then, indeed, we might witness Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” But while that outcome looked feasible in the 1990s, Beijing and Moscow are now determinedly walking their own paths. It looks far less likely today.