Every day we hear that Western hegemony, begun with the Portuguese rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, is ending. Some rejoice, others mourn, but all are writing the West’s obituary. The West, however, is in a period of expansion, not retrenchment.
The West has no clear demarcation line, nor is its ideology set in stone. Policies such as institutionalized racism, which were perfectly acceptable in the West until well into the mid-20th century, now condemn its practitioners to pariah status in the Western community, as happened to apartheid South Africa starting in the 1970s.
Today, the West comprises two groups. One is made of European nations and their overseas offshoots, which share the same socio-political order and roots. Another comprises countries, primarily in East Asia, which have adopted the Western liberal model, with Japan and South Korea being the biggest examples.
Has the West declined? The question depends on the baseline. In the late Victorian Era, except for the still tiny (economically and militarily) Japan, the world consisted mainly of Western nations, their colonies, and declining non-European empires. Since then, the West has lost some of its relative power.
However, looking at the more recent past, since the demise of the Soviet Union, the evidence points in the other direction.
The West is in a much better military position. The challengers are China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, al-Qaeda and a few minor players. Even combined, they are less dangerous than the Soviet Union was alone.
The Soviet breakup brought about a geopolitical revolution. All of the former Warsaw Pact satellites, the Baltic Republics, and parts of former Yugoslavia are now part of NATO. The East-West line of confrontation has moved from central Germany to eastern Ukraine and the Caucasus. India, once close to Moscow, is developing a defense relationship with the U.S., as is Vietnam.
Second, the ideological West has also grown outside of Europe. Most of Latin America was undergoing a shaky democratic transition in the late 1980s, but is now much closer to Western liberal norms. Some countries in Africa and Asia have changed along the same lines. This does not, unlike what happened in Central Europe, necessarily indicate support for U.S. goals, but it is part of a process of the growing influence of political concepts that are the core of Western societies. Regardless of “Asian values,” most of East Asia, including China, is closer to Western political and societal norms than half a century ago.
On the economic front, the key change has been the growth of China. In 1988, Western states, broadly defined, accounted for around 80 percent of global GDP, the same states today account for about 61 percent. The decline is partly accounted for by China’s rise from below 2 percent of global GDP to more than 11 percent. But the balance comes mostly from new U.S. allies (Central Europe), nations that are geopolitically close or closer to the U.S. (Mexico, India, some Southeast Asian states, etc.), or states that are at least not anti-American.
As for China, we should note that it does not challenge the West ideologically. Unlike Maoists, the People’s Republic in 2014 does not offer an alternative socio-political ideology to the outside world. The Communist Party’s business and political establishment is predisposed towards educating its children in the West and keeping some of its assets overseas. This in no way precludes a war with the U.S. It does, however, set the stage for greater inroads by Western ideology into China in the long-run, and for U.S.-instigated subversion in the short-term.
There is a long history of declinism in the West. This is more productive than complacency, but it is misplaced. The West’s strength is its ability to continuously evolve and absorb. There are now hundreds of millions of non-Europeans who willingly live under Western-designed political and legal institutions in countries that freely decided to ally with the U.S. The West continues to act as a magnet for immigrants, including some of the most dynamic and educated individuals on the planet. The 21st century may yet see its continued expansion.
Robert Dujarric is Director, Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies, Temple University Japan, Tokyo. [email protected]. Leila Wang contributed to the research.