The West versus the Rest
Twenty-five years ago, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington penned an influential article on the West and the Rest. Building on his 1993 classic “The Clash of Civilizations,” he argued that the West has won the Cold War, but it cannot flourish in a more hostile world until it abandons its universal aspirations.
In his mind, the clash is about identities defined by cultural civilizations. He defined eight civilizations: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Western, Latin American, Orthodox, and African. For him, “the West” refers to broadly Western Christendom, covering Western Europe and North America, including Australasia. Japan is today counted as part of the West, not just being first Asian state to industrialize, but also to emulate Western imperial history.
European thinkers have long debated the role of the West in sustaining modernity. America now carries the mantle of leading the West, but much of her intellectual power was boosted by European science and social scientists who fled from Nazism or communism after the 1930s. Milton Friedman’s free market views were hugely influenced by Austrian philosopher/economist Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992). But it was the Hungarian political philosopher Karl Polanyi’s (1886-1964) ideas that are more durable than the neoliberal thinking that pervades the West today.
In his book, “For a New West,” Polanyi saw presciently in 1958: “The material and scientific products of the West are avidly consumed by the nascent nations, but with an unconcealed contempt for the interpretations set upon them by ourselves. That cultural entity, the West, of which the thinkers and writers were the traditional vehicles, is no longer listened to; not on account of a hostile public, as we persuade ourselves to believe, but because it has nothing relevant to say…
“Western universalism—this is the Jewish-Christian inheritance—was the claim to a way of life of universal validity … It was not a conversation, rather a spirited monologue. Since no answer came, we carried on in our train of thought—unsustained, but also uncontradicted.”
Washington still has many New Rome policymakers who use a royal “we” to assume that the West speaks for the whole world because it remains scientifically, militarily, economically, and, via human rights, morally unchallenged.
Sixty years later, the Ukraine war revealed cracks in that logic. The fact that 59 percent of the world’s population voted against or abstained on the UN condemnation of Russia in March 2022 showed that the West today is a minority “we.” The Rest remains unconvinced that the West is able to condemn with clean hands, having also violated international principles to invade other countries in its own interests. Many saw parallels between the Ukraine conflict as a civil war with great power intervention, not unlike those in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan.
Ukraine events essentially upended the view that wars can be fought on purely moral grounds. The brutal realist view is that amidst the complex domestic civil war issues, the geopolitical game is to weaken Russia in order to determine who ultimately controls energy, food, and military security at the European and global levels. Some cynics think that Europe fell into a trap, whereby in defending Ukraine sovereignty, she has lost her own sovereignty by being ultimately dependent on American energy and military security, including dictating who she can or cannot trade with.
India clearly saw that the war was more about self-interest and therefore chose not to be on anyone’s side except her own. The fog of war and propaganda cannot hide the ugly truth that power is ultimately determined by sources of energy. We see today that the Industrial Revolution was really an energy revolution. Production driven by coal and fossil fuels made the West realize that command of energy ensured imperial power. Hence colonial expansion was all about the grab for land, people, energy, and power. The Americans improved on the British imperial model by using the power of reserve currency, namely the US dollar status, to acquire global goods and services, rather than having to conquer colonies. But the financialization model has reached the stage whereby the West is on the brink of a third world war with World War II debt levels. Every aircraft carrier and missile launched is funded by more debt. If we were on the gold standard, there would be no more money to fight.
The 1970s was a masterstroke of Western ingenuity. Having induced China out of the Soviet camp, the West benefited from Chinese labor to produce cheap global goods, plus cheap Russian food and energy after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The West’s “great moderation” period of good growth with low inflation relied on Chinese factories and Russian/Middle East oil plus commodities from the Rest, because all loved the US dollar. The Middle East has woken up to the harsh reality that after discovering shale oil, America has become a strategic competitor rather than a major customer. The US dollar has also become weaponized.
Thus, the Ukraine war realigned global energy power. America and Russia are energy self-sufficient, but Europe, China, India, and Japan remain energy-starved. By pushing Russia eastwards as not part of Europe, the West has now pushed Russia, the largest country by geographical size, to provide food, energy, and fertilizers to the Rest.
The emerging new world order is shaping up as a three-cornered tussle whereby the South will try to balance the East (Russia and China) and the West as to who gives them more benefits. In an eight billion world, the geopolitical contest is really about whether the one billion West or 1.8 billion East can win the hearts and minds of the 5.2 billion in the South.
Polanyi was clear on whether the West would thrive in a multipolar world. First, “the survival of democracy depends upon the measure of its (West) success in tackling the global tasks of the time.” Second, the market economy must be tamed by the nation state, not in the name of what Polanyi called a “predatory empire,” but “an adjusted, tolerant West” where the Rest are partners, not vassals in the new order.
Welcome to the new global power game. Asia News Network
Andrew Sheng is former chair of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.
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