The West must now look outward and inward

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Written by Anthony Kefalas 1 March 2022

The divide between the Global North and the Global South has now been shown to be conceptually naïve, economically unreliable, and politically dangerous. Democracy is now more in danger in the places where it is practiced than in regions that have hardly known it at all. It is now imperative that intellectual effort and material resources be urgently re-allocated to buttress democracy at home. This is the pre-eminent lesson to be drawn from the Ukraine fait accompli

In the last 20-odd years, Western NGOs have joined government institutions in shifting their attention to improving the social and economic problems of the large region that has been termed the Global South. Critically, this shift was to a large degree one-dimensional: it underestimated the importance of taking care of one’s home.

There are several explanations for this change of tack: pure altruism, the naïve desire to export the Western way of life, a sense of guilt about past (colonial) behavior, economic realism for the need to eventually regain commercial and investment access to developing markets, and the great competition for power.

No matter what the cause, the desired result on the part of the West was, by-and-large, the adoption of the rule of law and the respect for human rights, hopefully coupled with the operation of capitalism with a human face.

In short, the adoption of modern liberal representative democracy.

I will not argue for or against any of these reasons. For the sake of simplicity I will adopt the simplest explanation – that of pure altruism. And I will then submit the case that, in the specific way it happened, this one-dimensional shift of interest to the Global South was the wrong decision for the wrong priorities and now needs to be re-cast.  

To start with, the division of the world into the Global North and the Global South tends to paper over huge cultural differences – let alone the fact that it is inaccurate in terms of geography and has conceptually created a non-existent socioeconomic and political entity.

From one angle, it might be interpreted as an (unfortunately belated) extension of the United States’ 1950s romantic political ethic of exporting its culture and its institutions to the rest of the world in competition with the USSR model. This was indeed the case in the period from 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Empire. 

However, contrary to expectations, and with the exception of a brief 10-year period that followed, 1989 did not provide the West with a winner, but rather marked the beginning of retreat for its model. In a large swath extending from Eastern Europe to China it was shown that the adoption of an imported sociopolitical prototype runs into deep cultural differences and – more often than not – fails dismally.

One reason for this failure may be attributed to the West’s unipolar shift, coupled with the political vanity exhibited towards the losers as well as the failure of successive U.S. presidents, from Bush to Clinton to Obama, to consider the largest strategic picture as well as the shifting sands of time. Or, again, to Europe’s inability to acquire a coherent foreign and defense policy

It is out of these failures that autocracy has risen again.

It is often forgotten that in historical terms representative liberal democracy is a rather recent development. Some could validly argue that it is no more than 250-300 years old. As such, it stands against more than at least 2,500 years of autocratic rule. The latter’s roots thus run deep. The serpent’s egg has never been deeply buried. The history of the “Short 20th Century” proves it.

The critical issue today is how to avoid a disastrous repetition of the very recent past. The briefness of the interregnum between the two World Wars, shows that we are not easily adept at learning from history.

This is a road toward disaster. With the invasion of Ukraine, war is back in Europe after nearly eight decades. And democracies are in danger at home – both from within and from without. Our intellectual attention and our resources must be re-assessed and re-allocated on the basis of new priorities.

From within, with information and disinformation travelling at alarming speed, the rise of inequality in the midst of plenty has coupled with the emerging phantom of the digital divide leading to personal despair, poverty, the breakdown of social cohesion, and political instability – mainly through the rise of extremism, both on the left and on the right.

From without, the lure of autocracy that ostensibly offers everyone a chance and a minimum living standard, often proves too strong to ignore. Under different guises, extending from authoritarian capitalism to illiberal democracies, it weakens democratic procedures and institutions by exploiting the very rise of inequalities and the fear of technological progress, thus creating a vicious circle that undermines, nay negates, democracy.

It is time for liberal democratic states to engage in sincere self-criticism, identify their short-comings and act with unparalleled urgency and determination to meet them head-on. It is time, now more than at any moment since the end of World War II, to reallocate resources so as reduce inequalities, offer citizens a modicum of financial security, a new meaning to social cohesion, and a feeling of belonging and believing again.

It is time for liberal democracies to start watching their backs and to take care of their own house.

*Anthony Kefalas is the vice chair of the Board of Governors of the Democracy and Culture Foundation

Categories: Article, Multilateralism, Liberal Democracy