Deep down, the West no longer has the morale of its morality, the valour of its values…
– Regis Debray
In the latest issue of New Left Review, Regis Debray lays out the principal reasons why the West could be interpreted as either resilient or in decline. In his view, the former is more probable than the latter in the short term. In my last column, I reviewed his arguments explaining Western hegemony: its unrivalled military cohesion as exemplified by NATO; its confident, narcissistic capacity to impose universally its particular values; its universities’ global political-economic education of elites from around the world; its cultural influence not only in terms of blue jeans and Beyoncé but also in terms of the rights of women, religious minorities, LGBTQ persons and racialized communities; and finally its scientific innovation which arms authoritarian governments while also designing the information technology utilized by the autocrats’ Facebook-wielding adversaries. In today’s article, I outline the constraints that Debray believes undermine the long-run prospects for Western hegemony.
Hubris of the global: The phrase “imperial overstretch” has been used to describe the situation of the empire which mistakenly believes that it can control both the centre and periphery. Contemporary technology, with its capacity to kill an individual 10,000 miles away via a Predator drone or to inflict unprecedented “collateral” damage as in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has filled the West with an unjustified arrogance. While the West can win battles, it no longer wins wars in the global south. The local populations do not want Western leadership or occupation and will resist until the foreign force leaves.
Superiority complex: Perhaps in consequence of their economic and institutional incentives, Western interventionists rarely realize that they are perceived not as liberators but as invaders. This is linked to the West’s apparent ignorance that the majority of the world defines itself in terms of collective interests rather than personal ones. Over half of the world is constituted by tribal collective formations. Tribes do not orient themselves according to individual interests or Western human rights but instead according to group sovereignty. They will sacrifice themselves at “unreasonable” levels in order to drive out the occupier.
Prison of short-termism: The contemporary West’s short attention spans, perpetual channel-surfing, and aspiration for “just in time” military victories exist in stark contrast to the rest of the world’s willingness to wage long wars of attrition. The Western inability to plan ahead leads to situations in which the victor of the war against Sunni Iraq ends up being not the U.S., the West, or Saddam Hussein, but something quite different — pro-Iranian Shi’ism. The desire for short-term effervescence and demagogic political gains undermines long-term strategy.
Enemies everywhere: The deterioration and breakdown of the nation-state has led to the proliferation of numerous, less predictable, less rational, more nomadic, more armed forms of resistance. Debray suggests that in the long run, the West in general, or a specific country like Israel, may prefer a local tyrant like Hafez Assad in Syria to “hundreds of religious fanatics with surface-to-air missiles, scattered across the countryside.” The privatization of violence, produced by the crumbling of the state, sets the stage for dispersed, potentially uncontrollable armed religious and ethnic extremists around the world.
Refusal of sacrifice: Last, and I think most importantly, we live in a society in which the cult of the hero has been replaced by the ideology of the survivor and victim. Most Western societies have no required military or national service but constant appeals to one’s entitlements. Today’s professional armies are asked to protect the nation while being disproportionately manned by impoverished and non-citizen soldiers.
Debray notes that in the West, the language of rights has triumphed over that of responsibilities. Debray — as well as conservative writers like David Brooks — present this ideology as one that permeates all of society. In fact, the discourse of rights and self-interest emanates from the top 1 per cent. The unwillingness of the affluent to have their children fight in the wars that they plan while also demanding that working people provide them with tax cuts and bailouts because they are “too big to fail” ineluctably erases the morale from morality and the valour from the values of the West.
During World War I, a thousand soldiers were on average killed every day. Eric Hobsbawm points out that the British lost half a million men under the age of 30. Many of them came from the upper classes and had gone to the front out of conviction and the desire to be a model to the rest of society. Twenty-five per cent of Oxford and Cambridge students who fought in World War I were killed. The elite at the beginning of the 20th century had an attitude to the relationship between power and responsibility very different than that of elites at the beginning of the 21st century. The resilience of the West will depend on the attitude, actions and example of its leaders. Unless there is a shift in the outlook of the privileged, the ethos of self-absorbed self-expression will continue to reign across Western societies. A leadership that lacks self-mastery lacks collective legitimacy, and without the admiration and support of its own population, it will not be able to sustain Western hegemony past the current era.
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: Humberto Moreno, picadilly