By Matthew Rock.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, few people questioned the power of the West, a place of free markets, representative democracies, and expansive civil rights. Long opposed by the Soviet model, whose ideals included a centrally planned economy, an authoritarian government, and limited liberty in the name of the common good, the West seemed to have finally prevailed.
Recently, however, the West has been knocked off its golden pedestal. The European Union, the world’s landmark project in liberalism, has been mired in an economic recession since early 2008 and continues to endure sluggish annual growth of less than 1% and an unemployment rate of over 9%. In the most recent European parliamentary elections, voters across Europe elected candidates who outright oppose the EU. In America, although economic growth is projected to be 3% for 2015 and corporate profits are soaring, Americans’ confidence in all three branches of government has hit record lows, which reflects Americans’ widespread disapproval of their deadlocked government.
None of this bodes well for the images of democracy, liberalism, or the West in general. People now increasingly question the efficacy of Western ideals and are confronted by a variety of alternatives. Particularly, the models of China, Russia, and the newly made ISIL all present real challenges to Western domination in the world.
China: Black Cat, White Cat, So Long As It Makes Me Rich
Despite the recent focus on China’s slowing growth rate, the People’s Republic of China remains the world’s top contender for a second superpower. Through a peculiar mixture of capitalist initiatives, state-owned conglomerates, and communist-style authoritarianism, the Chinese state succeeded in maintaining consistent double-digit growth from the early 2000s to 2010, and from 2010 to 2013 nominal GDP per capita increased from $4,433.3 to $6,807.4, an astonishing rate of increase. Furthermore, China sits as the world’s largest exporter and possesses a rapidly urbanizing population. It is now uncertain whether the U.S. or China is the world’s largest economy.
China is by and large anti-Western in philosophy and operation, and it proves a country does not need to be “Western” to be successful. It does not hold elections and has no tolerance for anti-Party views. Government intervention is shameless, and capitalism is held not as an ideal but as a tool by which the pace of economic growth may accelerate. Thus, China’s government presents a pragmatic, top-down alternative for economic development, opposed to the Western ideal of decentralized activity and decision-making. When China is compared to the U.S., Great Britain, France, and Germany, Chinese politics tend to seem more decisive, effective, and action-oriented. The difference in economic development between China and most other democratic developing countries is night and day.
A limited democratic government, pure economic liberalism, and free enterprise might sound nice on the pages of The Economist, but nice doesn’t always cut it. When a bastardized mix of capitalism and communism propagated by an all-powerful single-party government can rocket a country to the top of the global stage in less than 20 years, the world starts to question the value of pure Western ideals. Western powers must now work to convince others why their model is superior to the Chinese one. They are unlikely to convince everyone.
Russia: Momma’s Back
Russia grew at a rate of .19% in 2014, and the Russian currency descended into free fall in late 2014. International sanctions against Russia, as well as a tumbling oil price, led investors to flee, and the Kremlin’s tax receipts started to dry up. Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s despotic president (above), enjoyed an approval rating of 88% in September 2014, one of the highest among the world’s leaders. Rather than view Putin’s annexation of Crimea as a flagrant violation of the international order, Russian citizens consider the move to be an appropriate nationalistic policy designed to help return Russia to its former glory. Russian officials sanctioned by the U.S. and EU even wear their sanctions as badges of honor.
The West’s flimsy response to Russia’s aggression further highlighted the West’s weakened state. Because of Europe’s reliance on Russian oil and natural gas, as well as its desire to keep the business of wealthy Russian oligarchs, the EU presented a lackluster list of sanctions to counter Russia’s initial aggression. Although America presented a more biting list in the beginning, it would take two more rounds of legislation before one could use the word “strong” to describe America’s stance against Russia, and the White House continues to show indecision on whether to arm Ukrainians. Thus, the strong, charismatic, and often shirtless Mr. Putin seems to stand far above his flabby, indecisive, and perpetually clothed counterparts.
Russia thus poses a direct challenge to the diplomatic and military superiority of the West and exposes a weakness in the West’s resolve to defend the international order it has constructed. What use are massive weapons arsenals, extensive manpower, and deep financial resources if Western powers refuse to make use of them? Russia’s behavior ultimately encourages other belligerent regimes to flout international norms and teaches them to expect nothing more than a slap on the wrist for violating them. Unfortunately for the West, when the rules of the game lose meaning, the rule makers lose control.
ISIL: A State by Any Other Name
On February 17, three British schoolgirls between the ages of 15 and 17 took a flight to Turkey and made their way into Syria to join ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a terrorist state not recognized by the international community. Before she left Britain, Shamima, one of the 15-year-olds, followed 74 Twitter accounts overwhelmingly connected to radical Islam. These girls’ departure from a liberal democracy to a fundamentalist terrorist state provides a tidy symbol for the Islamic alternative to the West’s reason-led secularism.
After it captured lands in Syria and Iraq and opened operations all throughout the Middle East, ISIL harnessed the power of social media to attract young, frustrated people to its fighting ranks. It continues to wage war in the Middle East, search for Westerners to take hostage (and behead), and sponsor terrorist attacks in Europe (the attackers in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack were found to have links to ISIL).
Context is helpful in understanding ISIL’s rapid rise. Since 2010, rulers have been forced out of power in Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Mass civil uprisings broke out in Syria and Bahrain. However, soon after this outbreak of pro-democratic protests known as the Arab Spring, chaos took hold again. Egypt’s military overthrew the country’s elected leader, Libya broke out into civil war, and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad violently cracked down on his people. Hope for democracy stained the region blood-red and left millions of people displaced. The West had failed the Middle East (one could say America failed Iraq quite literally). Enter the terrorist group ISIL, an offshoot of Al Qaeda.
Meaning in life via religious fundamentalism. Brotherhood among combatants. An escape from destitution in a broken homeland. An eternal place in Heaven. In its own horrific way, ISIL provides purpose in a man’s (and a woman’s) life, which helps to explain its appeal. According to a February Daily Beast article, ISIL grows as fast as the U.S. can wipe it out. In fact, U.S. drone strikes may make recruitment for the terrorist state exponentially easier, since America can then be construed as the invading enemy.
In many ways, the rise of the Islamic State presents the greatest challenge to the propagation of the Western model, since it largely defines its own values in order to be in direct opposition to those of the West. Its fundamentalism directly attacks secularism; its belief in Muslim superiority flouts the ideal of equality among man; and its affinity for holy war and terrorism in the name of the Prophet opposes the world’s institutional order. At the same time, ISIL strains the West’s resources and undoes decades worth of American and European intervention in the Middle East. At the exact moment when the West needs to be at its strongest to confront the challenges posed by China and Russia, ISIL ensures the Western powers grow weaker.
What To Do Now?
Clearly, the problems facing the West are expansive. Insofar as the U.S. and the EU define the success of their diplomatic policies as the propagation of democratic, liberal ideals, they currently face great barriers to even a morsel of success.
The U.S. and the EU must be dynamic in this most critical of times. While they should look outward to change the course of world affairs, they must look inward as well. On one hand, the EU must expand its own natural gas capabilities to reduce its dependence on Russia and be able to appropriately punish an aggressive regime, while on the other hand, it ought to revitalize the organization of its tired parliamentary structure. The U.S. must take unprecedented steps to disrupt the recruitment chain for ISIL, while it should redraw Congressional districts to reduce the prevalence of gerrymandering and should tackle money in politics.
Internal efforts would give credibility to the West’s efforts to change the course of affairs abroad; otherwise, the West may resemble a collection of tired states seeking to impose their own dilapidated model onto the world. Furthermore, internal reform would strengthen Western countries and ensure they have the power to influence the state of the world. Finally, a reinvigorated America and EU would improve the image of the West in the world, which would help to persuade leaders to freely choose its model over the Beijing and Moscow alternatives.
Overall, the West must turn the threat of Chinese dominance, Russian aggression, and ISIL insurgency into an opportunity to reexamine itself, reform, and be better able to confront current and future challenges. If it fails to do this, it will become hard even for the most reasonable of people to objectively say the West’s model is superior.