The West has lost its credibility and shown its vulnerability by its failure to deal with the systemic risks and crises that mark the 21st century.
The West held dominance over the world from the end of the15th century to the early 20th century. It has exported its production methods, institutions and ideas across every continent by means of three major globalizing movements: the great discoveries of the 16th century; the convergence of colonization, the industrial revolution and free trade in the 19th century; and, at the end of the 20th century, the fall of the Soviet empire, the universalization and deregulation of capitalism, and the move into the digital era. The success of the West was based on four principles: the invention of capitalism, scientific progress that enabled a better understanding of the world and its value; the creation of political freedom that allows individuals and nations to shape their own destiny; and, lastly, the idea that free nations should be united in solidarity against the Ancien Régime [e.g. pre-revolutionary France] and, later on, against totalitarian states.
The third globalizing movement seemed to mark the triumph of the West, by bringing mankind into the age of universal history. In fact, it has brought about the fall of the West. The major developed countries’ share in world production has been reduced from 45% to 30% and the center of gravity of capitalism has shifted towards Asia.
The geopolitical system has become multipolar and the USA’s leadership has disintegrated at the same time as it has gone about dismantling the 1945 world order. Furthermore, Western democracies have been hit by an existential crisis linked to a destabilization of the middle classes that has planted the seeds for populist movements and leaders.
The West has lost its credibility and shown its vulnerability by its failure to deal with the systemic risks and crises that mark the 21st century. Following on the 9/11 attacks, it has engaged in endless conflicts. It was shown to be incapable of handling the 2008 financial crash brought on by a runaway bubble economy. Today, with the rare exceptions of Germany and Israel, it is showing its inability to deal with the coronavirus epidemic and is faced with a combination of a public health crisis, economic collapse and political turmoil.
The West now has to face up to powerful hostile forces that aim to supplant it.
But the origin of its fall is internal, and is related to the corruption of its values, its institutions and its mores.
Bubble capitalism has rejected production in favor of speculation and set aside innovation in favor of easy money. It is based on an unsustainable business and social model that combines poor growth, over-indebtedness and a staggering rise in inequality. The ignorance and demagoguery cultivated by political leaders and social media have nurtured disdain for education and science, creating a chasm between an elite – with mastery over the new technologies – and the rest of the population. Much of the true meaning of democracy has disappeared because counter-balances and the rule of law have been eaten away, public debate has become subservient to collective passions, individual identity has been placed on a pedestal and has killed off the idea of the common good, and the tyranny of short-term interests blinds people to any vision of the future. Lastly, just as in the 1930s, the unity of free nations has been unraveled because of the trend to nationalism, protectionism and isolationism in the USA, because of Brexit and because of the increasingly explosive division between northern and southern Europe – concerning governance of the euro – and between western and eastern Europe where there has been a shift to authoritarianism, influenced by Hungary under Viktor Orban.
The West has lost its leader, for the USA has betrayed the legacy of its Founding Fathers as well as its allies. It has lost its strategy and its NATO backbone, but above all its principles because of the corruption of political freedom and the abandonment of human rights. The strength of the West was derived from its ability to constantly re-examine itself – in terms of competition between individuals, companies and nations – and to remain true to its values. It must now reinvent itself, maybe taking South Korea or Taiwan as examples to be followed. It must create a new and inclusive economic and social pact.
Capitalism must be steered towards production, innovation and ecological transition. Massive investment must be made in education, science, technology and in citizenship. Public debate must be revived and people must be engaged in the life of their nation. Democracies must ally to ward off threats from the démocratures [démocrature = a combination of democracy and dictatorship] and from Jihadism.
The West must get back in line with its destiny, which is indissoluble from freedom. Not in order to dominate the world but, in the highly chaotic and dangerous geopolitical environment of the 21st century, to defend the principle that cultural diversity can be reconciled with universal values that are the very basis of human dignity.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 4th May 2020)