Monday, September 14, 2015

Is the World Rejecting Western Values?

When the Berlin Wall fell and Communism was finally defeated Francis Fukuyama famously declared that history was over, and that liberal democracy had emerged as the best form of human government. Henceforth, he said, liberal Western values would overtake the world, presumably leading to a new age of peace and prosperity.

Or, something like that.

To which Steven Erlanger responded yesterday with a reality check:

But couple the tightening of Chinese authoritarianism with Russia’s turn toward revanchism and dictatorship, and then add the rise of radical Islam, and the grand victory of Western liberalism can seem hollow, its values under threat even within its own societies.

One Ivan Krastev explained that the rest of the world had never bought into the Western and neo-Hegelian idea of universalized values:

“Nineteen-eighty-nine was perceived as the victory of universalism, the end of history, but for all the others in the world it wasn’t a post-Cold War world but a post-colonial one,” said Ivan Krastev, director of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, and a contributing opinion writer for The Times.

It seemed to many in Asia and Africa to be the end of Western ideological supremacy, given that liberalism and Communism are both Western creations with universal ambitions. After all, Mr. Krastev noted, “both liberalism and Communism were dominated and shaped by the West — but who is the legitimate son of the Enlightenment and who is the bastard one?”

We tout liberal democracy even though, strictly speaking, America is a republic. As for the rest, human rights, the rule of law, free expression and the rest… why have nations like China and Russia rejected them? We think we understand why Muslim nations have decided that they would rather fight than compete with Western values, but China, in particular, has chosen to compete… using capitalism mixed with Confucian values.

One appreciates that philosophical idealists see the world in terms of minds and ideas. Hegel, in particular, saw the great drama of human history unfolding toward an inevitable endpoint. The World Spirit would fully actualize itself in the perfect government. Some later thinkers thought it was the Workers’ Paradise. Others thought it was liberal democracy.

Before getting lost in the gauzy world of Hegelian ideas, it would be better to ask how the United States, the great exemplar of governmental perfection looks to the rest of the world. Are we setting an example that others want to emulate or are we evincing characteristics that others would rather avoid?

Surely, America has the most stable political system. That’s why so many foreigners thrill to the opportunity to buy property in America. They have confidence that America will not confiscate their possessions, situation that has often happened in other countries.

And America has a very high per-capita GDP. It is much higher than that of China, though China’s greater population gives it a comparable GDP.

And everyone knows that people seem to be freer in America than they are in many other nations. In one sense this means that we can express political opinions more freely than can people in many other countries. In another sense this means that we have more freedom to conduct our personal lives as we please. Of course, some of us see this as an invitation to take responsibility. Others believe that it makes life into a free-for-all.

But, foreign countries looking to America for an example to emulate also find more disturbing trends. They see a nation that is living beyond its means, living off of borrowed money, appearing to be weak and pusillanimous, decadent, self-involved, guilt-ridden and squeamish … incapable of facing the threat of radical Islam. It sees a nation that is willing to give the leading state sponsor of terrorism more money to conduct terrorist operations and is happy allow them to have nuclear weapons. And it sees America doing so on the say-so of its authoritarian president, without any concern for the will of the American people, expressed through the votes of its representatives.

Sensing weakness in America, sensing weakness in America’s current president, Russian president Putin is flexing his muscles in the Ukraine, in the Arctic and in Syria. Seeing America beat what appears to him to be a cowardly retreat from world leadership he is enlarging the Russian sphere of influence.

China, however, has shown very little interest in exporting its ideas or its systems. As opposed to America, it does not proselytize. And yet, when Muslims in its midst engaged in terrorist activities it did not wring its hands about Islamophobia or read them their Miranda rights and provide them with Qurans. It crushed the Islamists, without giving much thought to the justice of it all. One cannot imagine China opening its borders to millions of Arab Muslims, even those fleeing political persecution.

It’s not about whether or not you would want to live in China. I suspect that you would not. It is about the fact that nations around the world will only adopt American values if America can show that these values work. As for Europe, its current wish to become the refuge for millions of displaced Muslims is not going to end well.

If America gives the world the impression that its vaunted values are really a formula for surrender, a recipe for weakness and decadence, then the world will look elsewhere.

If American cannot express pride in its great achievements, if it dismisses the founding fathers because there were not enough women among them, if its response to Islamist terrorism is to have a national conversation about reparations for slavery, if it rails against government control of the economy while having far more bureaucrats per person than does Communist China, if it believes that it has reached a moral apotheosis by glorying in the choice made by Caitlyn Jenner… then you will understand why other countries believe that American values are not the way to go. Or better, that capitalism does not need liberal democracy to thrive and to produce prosperity.

One can argue the case for or against liberal democracy, of course. But still, it’s not going to be decided in debating halls. It’s going to be decided by the face that a nation presents to the world and by whether or not we can make our system of government and economy work.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: ... Or better, that capitalism does not need liberal democracy to thrive and to produce prosperity.

Grand narratives are always problematic, including the narrative of capitalism, as if its clear what that means, whether in the older world where money is scarce and risks are real, or the newer world (post 1980) where money is cheap, and risks are only paid by those who don't have the power to push them onto someone else.

The narrative I follow is over the question of "growth" - does growth (as in GDP) "produce" prosperity or is it a huge pyramid scheme where those who are best able to push all benefits into the present and all costs into the future.

If I want to listen to grand narratives I'll go to essayist Wendell Berry. What's he saying recently? It looks like he's worrying about farmers and rural america, a topic he has lamented for the last 40 years.

I'd say Berry stands in line with the Jeffersonian ideals.
Including a position against a strong federal government.
While the Federalists advocated for a strong central government, Jeffersonians argued for strong state and local governments and a weak federal government.
Self-sufficiency, self-government, and individual responsibility, were, in the Jeffersonian worldview, among the most important ideals that formed the basis of the American Revolution. In Jefferson's opinion, nothing that could feasibly be accomplished by individuals at the local level ought to be accomplished by the federal government. The federal government would concentrate its efforts solely on national and international projects.[43] Jefferson's advocacy of limited government led to sharp disagreements with Federalist figures such as Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson felt that Hamilton favored plutocracy and the creation of a powerful aristocracy in the United States which would accumulate increasingly greater power until the political and social order of the United States became indistinguishable from those of the Old World.

I wonder where all of this fits in our imagined "Western values" that are now at risk of being ignored?

I guess I like like the ideals of redundacy, so there's a strange problem to life where what is most visible seems the most solid, while you don't know what exists when it disappears. So some people will be working as hard as they can to keep status quo from falling apart, and others will be working behind the scenes meeting actual needs that the status quo can't see, and won't be seen except after the fact, when some regions in the future fall apart, and other regions thrive when centralized power fails. Even places like Detroit are not proving grounds for that underground activity.

So we really won't know what world we live in until centralized powers fail us, until grand narratives prove false, and then we'll see how dependent we've become on the illusions of power.

I'll have hope in the future as soon as we can identify how the middle class can exist without fossil fuels. Necessity is the mother of invention, but I hate the idea of waiting until all choices are eliminated before we admit our intractible dependency.

Sam L. said...

The Leftists, academia, media, lobbyists all hate Western Civilization and Western Values. This is what others elsewhere in the world see us saying. In return, they have to figure that if WE don't believe in them, why should they?