With the roll-back and collapse of Soviet-Russian power in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many Europeans and Americans told themselves that things would get better. With the old Soviet enemy vanquished and Russia reduced to a feeble husk, Western power expanded on all fronts. Where resistance to this power was found to be particularly stubborn – such as in Ba’athist Iraq or Milosevic’s Serbia – British, French and American missiles and jets were used to extend the new order with overwhelming military force. Westerners tried to hide the expansion of their power through the mantra of ‘globalisation’: this was construed and articulated as a benign, natural and unstoppable force, which would eventually benefit the whole world.
Indeed, many Europeans and Americans even came to believe their own propaganda, and forgot that they alone were responsible for what they had unleashed. What is more, market economics, liberal values and constitutional democracy ceased to be historically and culturally grounded ideologies, which emerged under certain – and arguably unique – circumstances in Britain, France and the Low Countries, and suddenly became ‘natural’ and ‘universal’ forms of social organisation that could swiftly be implemented anywhere, irrespective of existing cultural and political specificities.
It was good while it lasted. Unfortunately, in recent years, this post-Cold War worldview has started to reveal itself as a dangerous fantasy. For globalisation is no longer under European and American control; it may not even be serving Western interests anymore. With a polarised political system and the rise of a health-industrial complex in the United States, the Americans have become mired in debt. They have also allowed their manufacturing base to haemorrhage to China, leaving them increasingly reliant on foreign imports. In the European Union, acute economic and financial difficulties have manifested themselves, as the hens have finally come home to roost in a number of politically irresponsible and economically profligate Member States, such as Britain, Germany, Greece and Italy.
In Britain, the financial heart of the European continent, the uber-liberalisation of the economy and the transformation of politics into administration – policies pursued by successive Conservative and Labour governments since 1979 – has led to an unprecedented economic crisis. This has compounded the gross and structural inequalities and social polarisation (producing the background conditions for widespread civil unrest to break out in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester), which has been rising since the 1980s. Consequentially, British military power has been eroded, leaving the country in a shrunken position on the world stage. In the industrial core of Europe – Germany – the peculiarities of insularity, nativism and pacifism have come together, leaving Berlin with a short-sighted strategic mindset more suited to a small power than a manufacturing giant heavily dependent on overseas trade. Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean states, especially Greece, tax systems have been allowed to become dysfunctional, while central governments descended into corruption, becoming either unable or unwilling to enact the necessary reforms in order to keep their countries well-governed and economically competitive.
Self-duping ourselves with our own propaganda – the ‘pixie dust’ of globalisation – has thus sapped the West’s own power-base, the very power that facilitated globalisation in the first place. As Julian Lindley-French argues:
For too long Western leaders have stuck to the mantra that globalisation is westernisation. This is now patently wrong. Globalisation has no inherent values and eschews structure. There is patently no inherent link to the open, liberal model of government and governance the West espouses. No, globalisation simply enables those with the most (and most liquid) financial clout to access and influence societies. In that sense extreme globalisation works much likes a computer virus.
Furthermore, globalisation might indeed work as once envisaged as a vehicle for the promotion of wealth and freedom if all the key actors played by the same rules on a level playing field. That is clearly not the case. Asian powers such as China are manipulating the naïve openness of many Western states by demanding access to markets that they deny others. By such an approach China is constructing a huge network of sovereign influence over Western states. Put simply, the trade imbalance between China and the West is leading to a power imbalance that unless addressed soon will permanently eclipse the West.
How to respond? First, the time has come for European and American leaders to re-think their adherence to globalisation. We must face facts: liberal values are emphatically not natural or universal; they are as contingent and socially constructed as any other political grammar or value system. There is no teleological force guiding humanity towards the supposedly sunlit uplands of constitutional democracy and free markets. When constitutional democracy and liberal values did spread, they did so on the back of European and American geopolitical power. Their existence depends on that power; if Western – and arguably, more precisely, British, French and American – national power declines, liberal values will fade with it. This should focus our minds: once we realise that our own political and economic system is ultimately as contingent and malleable as any other, we should think harder about our collective responsibility for the defence of it.
Second, we may need to re-think certain elements of our own system in order for it to survive in the twenty-first century. To begin with, free trade and free markets should not be adhered to at all costs, but only when they suit us. We should bar authoritarian foreign regimes or their companies from purchasing our infrastructure, especially if it benefits them at our own expense. And we may need to re-empower the State, so that important decisions can be taken to keep our economies and societies dynamic and competitive, preventing them from becoming mired-down in social inequalities, petty interests or not-in-my-back-yard mentalities. That China can build an entire high-speed railway system faster than a country like Britain can even decide to develop – let alone build – a single high-speed railway line, and only between two relatively proximate cities, should really be a wake-up call.
• Image credit: NASA.