Commentary 23 March 2017

The End of Western Arrogance

Thorsten Benner               GPPi

“This is not your world,” they want us to know, “and history is not moving in your direction. You will have to reckon with us.”

Five years ago, this is how Michael Ignatieff described Russia and China’s message to the West, a message issued in the way they dealt with the Syrian Civil War in the UN Security Council. Back then, Russia and China – and the other BRICS members Brazil, India, and South Africa – felt cheated once more by the West, this time due to the Libya conflict. All the BRICS members had let pass a Western-sponsored Security Council resolution that authorized the use of force to protect civilians threatened by Ghaddafi’s actions in Benghazi. But NATO, the charge went, abused the resolution to act as the rebels’ air force, ramming through regime change in Libya. Russia and China resolved not to allow this to happen again in the case of Syria, and they have steadfastly stuck to this position. Their veto against Western interventionism is only one example of non-Western powers demonstrating their growing weight in the struggle for global (dis)order.

In recent years, non-Western powers have pursued parallel global institutions that compete with the Western-dominated international organizations. The annual BRICS meetings are an alternative to the G7. With the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China has created a new development bank. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, initiated by Russia and China, is a new, expanding regional security organization, and it has set its sights on Turkey’s membership, which would be a direct challenge to NATO. Meanwhile, Russia and China, alongside many other non-Western states, have forcefully pursued their distinct approaches to human rights or internet governance in the UN system and other global bodies. China has also organized rival global conferences, such as the World Internet Conference and the Xiangshan Forum on security issues.

For many in the West, this challenge to established institutions is a surprise, for has not China’s insertion into the Western-led institutional order been a key factor in the country’s spectacular economic rise the past decades? Many have assumed that self-interest will prompt rising powers to socialize themselves into the Western-led order; after all, the US and its Western allies exercise benign hegemony (especially compared to previous types of hegemonies). But even the most benign hegemony is still hegemony, and it still triggers resentment among those on the receiving end of the rules defined by the hegemon. Many non-Western states are tired of being rule-takers, playing along to a tune set by Western powers. So they develop alternative perspectives on what rules and institutions should look like.

This is, of course, not a completely new development. In the 1970s, inside the UN, one saw newly decolonized countries promoting a “new international economic order” (which led the West to quickly sideline UN bodies on economic questions in favor of the World Bank and the IMF, where the one-country-one-vote principle did not apply, or in favor of exclusive clubs like the G7). And throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union pushed its own vision. But after the demise of communism in 1989, the West got used to being unchallenged.

Western powers and the Western model became so dominant that Europe and the US afforded themselves the arrogance to ignore the perspectives of others. Few made the effort to dive into the worlds of others and take seriously their ideas, ideologies, and sensitivities. Today, with non-Western players powerful enough and willing to make their voices heard on the global stage, this is an arrogance the West can no longer afford. Non-Western players have the power to shape global (dis)order – for the better and for the worse. There is a rekindled competition of ideas and models of order. It is in the West’s interest to understand the many alternative perspectives espoused in the non-Western world. To understand is to probe the contexts and effectiveness of these worldviews, and to examine how and why narratives work (for example, through making reference to Western hypocrisy and double standards). Understanding does not mean justifying conspiracy theories or arguments for the denial of universal rights.

One area to explore is how history is used for political ends. Wherever there is a history of colonial rule, political leaders can make use of a powerful anti-colonial reflex to justify their actions and delegitimize external criticism (for instance, with regard to human rights violations). Filipino president Duterte skillfully employs anti-colonial resentment to fend off criticism of brutal behavior by his security forces. In Europe, we can observe a variant of this pattern. The leader of Poland’s governing right-wing party, Kaczynski, railed against interference by the EU Commission and the Venice Commission when both criticized the Polish government’s record regarding the rule of law. Kaczynski made reference to a “sick system of post-communism and post-colonialism.” In doing so, he appealed to a wounded national pride that can also be found in other Central and Eastern European countries that, after 1989, took over the Western EU model (with all its rules and dominant companies that expanded eastward). One may not find these grievances legitimate – after all, Poland and others chose to accede to the EU – but one needs to take them seriously, because they are potent.

Only if Western European countries and the US take non-Western perspectives seriously, and if they understand them better, will they be able to shape global politics in a way that accord with their interests. That advocates of liberal democracy find themselves in strong competition with advocates of authoritarianism makes this task only more urgent. There are powerful financial, political, and ideological links between anti-liberal forces in Europe and in authoritarian powers (such as Putin’s Russia). We therefore need a fresh, curious, and inquisitive look at the worlds and worldviews of the others and their manifold linkages with the West.

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This is the first in a regular series of columns by Thorsten Benner that Tagesspiegel Causa will publish under the header “The Worlds of the Others.” The original German version can be accessed here.

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