Columnists

Thomas Ponniah
The resilience of the West?

| May 22, 2013
Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Mr.Thomas, meironke, Neil Cowley,

"The West is in decline." "Great powers rise and fall." "We now live in a post-American world." We have perpetually heard various proclamations about the inevitable collapse of Western domination since the end of World War I. These assessments have been cyclically presented by both progressives and conservatives for almost one hundred years. Will they continue to be disproven? If so, why?

Regis Debray, former comrade of Che Guevara, has written a fascinating article -- "The Decline of the West?" -- in the latest edition of New Left Review. The essay lays out five reasons that he believes that Western hegemony -- or more accurately what I would term the dominance of the United States -- remains robust. He also conveys some explanations for why one could argue that the West is in decline: its self-destructive global hubris, superiority complex, refusal of sacrifice, short-term thinking and dispersed opposition. While the latter points are insightful, they are not as persuasive as his account of the West's persistence.

Unprecedented cohesion: Debray notes that "the West" has historically defined itself against its perception of a nefarious, uncivilized, dark "East". Today that description continues to be held up not only as a belief but more significantly by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This security system is more invulnerable than ever: it is consolidated in the USA but now includes Eastern Europe with solid supports in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. NATO has bases on all five continents with 800 U.S. military installations overseas. There is no other political alliance -- the OAS, Mercosur, ALBA, the Arab League, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or ASEAN -- that has the formidable unity of NATO.

The cohesion of the NATO countries is not simply political but ideological. Debray contends that the concept of "human rights" -- even if regularly manipulated -- unifies countries and citizens across the world more persuasively than any other set of values such as Islamic ones because the latter are contested internally by their own young and educated urban middle classes. In contrast, it is precisely the young, educated urban middle class in the West that is most dedicated to the discourse of human rights. While many progressives in Asia and Africa smirk when hearing of the West's latest justifications for its "humanitarian" interventions, most of the world's population believes in human rights.

Monopoly on the Universal: Only the West, representing 10 per cent of the global population, has the temerity, narcissism and capability to convince most of the world that its particular values -- embedded in the United Nations headquarters in New York city -- are those of humanity in general. No other group of countries or region defines itself -- without irony -- as the "international community" that upholds democracy against infantile, tyrannical or criminal others. The "defence" of democracy is of course backed up by muscle: the U.S. military budget of $700 billion annually equals the combined military expenditures of all other nations in the world.

Global business school: Western universities, institutes, foundations and consulates shape the language, concerns and preferences of international elites. American embassies annually arrange 3000 internships for young leaders from around the world. Those young include elites from China, India, Brazil and numerous Middle Eastern states. Debray notes that one could argue that from 1850-1950 the West exploited the "natives" in other countries, from 1950-2000 those who survived came as immigrants and from 2000 to 2050 the West will educate the most gifted and send them back to key jobs in their own countries to disseminate Western ideas and uphold its concerns.

Scientific innovation: While there has been an impressive increase in the education levels of middle-class and elite Chinese and Indian students, and while these two countries now possess more engineers than the U.S., the future of technological innovation in terms of industrial patents and Nobel prizes will continue for some time to emerge from Silicon Valley and MIT. An interesting example provided in the essay is that while the Egyptian army was trained, funded and armed by the United States, the activists of Tahrir Square were co-ordinated via the Net, Facebook and SMS; that is, technologies developed in California. Nothing demonstrates hegemony more powerfully than the fact that the technological tools of both repression and rebellion are designed within the United States.

Programming human sensibilities: The U.S. has no need of international cultural institutes like Alliance Francaise, the Goethe Institute or the Confucius Institute, because Star Trek, blue jeans and Beyoncé are much more persuasive. Western culture is so dominant globally that the West often serves as the standard-bearer for the rights of women, ethnic minorities, the poor and LGBTQ communities in nations around the world. Debray notes that just as communism's rebels were the children of rock 'n' roll, so future Islamic dissidents may be the progeny of contemporary U.S. pop culture.

The West's combined belief in profit and freedom of opinion enables it to commodify, absorb and appropriate opposition. Domestic dissidents in the United States like Noam Chomsky, Judith Butler or Cornel West are not outlawed but regularly heard in journals, radio stations, websites and the country's most prominent universities. The genius of the U.S. and the West in general lies in its ability to inoculate itself against serious opposition by regularly incorporating massive internal criticism.

Insofar as we accept Debray's various assumptions, his overall thesis is convincing. We can add one more reason that the United States, and perhaps by extension the West, could remain the dominant geo-political power and culture over the course of the 21st century. Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, the possibility that the U.S. delivered to the majority of people who came to America -- insofar as they worked hard, obeyed the law, and weren't of African descent --  was that they would live better lives in their new country than they would have in their country of origin. Insofar as the American dream remains realistic, the majority of the world's population will not only want to live in the U.S. but will also prefer its global hegemony to that of any other.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. 

Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Mr.Thomas, meironke, Neil Cowley, writetomikek,  JoesSistah