The West is experiencing a contraction in power, not necessarily a decline
Does the contraction decrease? One would think that the contraction of the West works in its favor because it allows it to focus on more realistic goals with greater intensity.
by Boaventura de Sousa Santos
What Westerners call the West or Western civilization is a geopolitical space that emerged in the 16th century and expanded steadily until the 20th century. On the eve of World War I, about 90% of the globe was Western or Western-dominated: Europe, Russia, the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and much of Asia (apart from the partial exception of Japan and China). From then on, the West began to contract: first with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the Soviet bloc, then, from the middle of the century, with the decolonization movements. Terrestrial space, and soon after, extraterrestrial space, became fields of intense disputes.
Meanwhile, what Westerners understood by the West was changing. It started with Christianity and colonialism, then morphed into capitalism and imperialism, then metamorphosed into democracy, human rights, decolonization, self-determination and “rules-based international relations” – it was clear that the rules would be set by the West and followed only when they served its interests – and ultimately in globalization.
By the middle of the last century, the West had shrunk so much that several newly independent countries made the decision not to align themselves either with the West or with the bloc that had become its rival, the Soviet bloc. This led to the emergence, from 1955 to 1961, of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). With the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991, the West seemed to be going through a period of enthusiastic expansion. It was around this time that former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev expressed his desire to see Russia join the “common home” of Europe, with the support of then US President George HW Bush. , a desire reaffirmed by Vladimir Putin when he took power in 2000. It was a short historical period, and recent events show that the “size” of the West has since shrunk considerably. In the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, the West decided, on its own initiative, that only countries applying sanctions against Russia would be considered part of the pro-Western camp. These countries represent about 21% of the member countries of the UN, which represent only 16% of the world’s population.
Does the contraction decrease? One would think that the contraction of the West works in its favor because it allows it to focus on more realistic goals with greater intensity. A careful reading of the strategists of the hegemonic country of the West, the United States, shows that on the contrary, without apparently realizing the blatant contraction, they demonstrate boundless ambition. With the same ease with which they envision being able to reduce Russia (one of the greatest nuclear powers in the world) to a vassal state or ruin it, they envision neutralizing China (which is on its way to becoming the world) and soon causing a war in Taiwan, (like the one in Ukraine) to achieve this goal. On the other hand, the history of empires shows that contraction goes hand in hand with decline, and that this decline is irreversible and leads to a lot of human suffering.
At the present stage, the manifestations of weakness are parallel to those of strength, which makes analysis very difficult. Two contrasting examples help to better understand this point: The United States is the greatest military power in the world (even though it has not won a war since 1945) with military bases in at least 80 countries. An extreme case of domination is its presence in Ghana where, according to agreements made in 2018, the United States uses Accra airport without any control or inspection, American soldiers do not even need a passport to enter the country, and benefit from extraterritorial immunity, which means that if they commit a crime, no matter how serious, they cannot be tried in Ghanaian courts. On the other hand, the thousands of sanctions against Russia are, for the moment, doing more damage in the Western world than in the geopolitical space defined by the West as the non-Western world. The currencies of countries that appear to be winning the war depreciate the most. Looming inflation and recession have led JP Morgan Chase & Co. CEO Jamie Dimon to say a “hurricane” is approaching.
Is contraction a loss of internal cohesion? Contraction can mean more cohesion, and this is quite visible. The leadership of the European Union, that is, the European Commission, has over the past 20 years aligned itself much more with the United States than with the countries that make up the EU. We saw it with the neoliberal turn and with the enthusiastic support of the former President of the European Commission, José Manuel Durão Barroso, for the invasion of Iraq, and we see it now with the current President of the commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who appears to operate as US Undersecretary of Defense. The truth is that this cohesion, if effective in the production of policies, can be disastrous in the management of their consequences. Europe is a geopolitical space which has lived since the 16th century on the resources of other countries which it dominates directly or indirectly and on which it imposes unequal exchanges. None of this, however, is possible when the United States or its allies are its partners. Moreover, cohesion is made of inconsistencies, as the conflicting accounts of Russia show. After all, is Russia the country with a lower GDP than many European countries? Or is it a force that wants to invade Europe and poses a global threat that can only be stopped with the help of investments provided by the United States for the armament and security of Ukraine – already about 10 billion dollars – a distant land of which little will be left if the war lasts long?
Does the contraction occur for internal or external reasons? The literature on the decline and end of empires shows that, apart from a few exceptional cases where empires were destroyed by external forces – such as the Aztec and Inca empires with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors – internal factors generally dominate in the contraction , although the decline may be precipitated by external factors. It is difficult to distinguish the internal from the external, and specific identification is always more ideological than anything else. For example, in 1964, the famous American conservative philosopher James Burnham published a book called Suicide of the West. According to him, liberalism, then dominant in the United States, was the ideology behind this decline. For the liberals of the time, liberalism was on the contrary an ideology which would allow a new world hegemony more peaceful and fairer for the West. Today, liberalism is dead in the United States (neoliberalism dominates, which is its opposite) and even the old school conservatives have been totally overtaken by the neoconservatives. That’s why former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (for many a war criminal) vexed anti-Russian proselytes by calling for peace talks while discussing the Ukraine conflict during a talk at the World Economic Forum. from Davos in May. Be that as it may, the war in Ukraine is the great accelerator of the contraction of the West. As the West wants to use its power and influence to isolate China, a new generation of non-aligned countries is emerging. Organizations like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Economic Forum are, among others, the new faces of non-Western states.
What happens afterwards? We do not know yet. It is as difficult to imagine the West occupying a subordinate space in the global context as it is to imagine it in an equal and peaceful relationship with other geopolitical spaces. We only know that for the leaders of Western states, either of these hypotheses is either impossible or, if possible, apocalyptic. As a result, the number of international meetings has multiplied in recent months, from the World Economic Forum meeting that took place in May in Davos to the most recent Bilderberg meeting in June. Unsurprisingly, at this latest meeting, of the 14 topics discussed, seven were directly related to Western rivals.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal. His most recent book is Decolonizing the University: The Challenge of Deep Cognitive Justice.