The Western world is currently at a turning point signified by Donald Trump’s controversial administration in the United States, the Brexit crisis between Great Britain and Europe and shattering legitimacies of multi-national bodies like the United Nations working at the mercies of individual governments. But many of these notions are spun as positive by the states and their media and have only reinforced the West’s sense of exceptionalism and supremacy.
The predominant narrative in the West has tended to describe the fall of Soviet Union and victorious end of the Cold War as the most important development of the late 20th century. But this train of thought underestimates the other more important evolutions of the rising Asian countries at the time.
In the Western imagination, the Cold War was a triumphalist moment that reinforced their power and hegemony in the world. This may have been the case temporarily, but the Western world has never stopped believing they hold the most power.
The West further humiliated the already disgraced Russia by expanding NATO, but the move also provided a strong political ground for Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and surrounding areas at the time.
Similarly, the Asian financial crisis of the late ‘90s gave powers in the West a sense of financial supremacy over the rest of the world. It seemed they had found the magic formula for economic growth and political stability.
But these supposedly struggling economies managed to become engines of growth and within two decades became the influential states they are today. Much to the West’s dismay, Asian states have disproved the belief that democracy is a necessary condition for economic success.
Additionally, in its supposedly benign interventionism, the West has often assumed that economic and social development combined with globalization and modernization would lead to a spread of secularism.
This underestimates the influence of Islam especially and the proliferation of goods and accesibility of information is actually leading to a spread of religiosity in Arab countries. The Arab world is a case study in how the United States specifically is ignoring historical trends of countries to develop more successfully when left to their own devices, such as in Vietnam.
Western leaders have failed to inform their populations of the consequences of these fundamental changes, blindly claiming the West is still the only great power in the world. Their newspapers and commentators missed the monumental shift of power away from the West. While the West shared its wisdom with the rest of the world, it has been very unwilling to take any wisdom from it.
The West needs to accept the new reality of its diluted power and changed mindsets of non-Western populations. Its policy of self congratulation and ignorance about anything not involving the hegemony of the West have been catastrophic for the world and for itself.
The global East is facing an attempt at a unified and fiercely independent Korea, but Chinese expansion of naval infrastructure in the Indian Ocean, East Asia and Africa suggests a divergence rather than an alignment. Whether the Chinese would appreciate a fiercely independent country on their doorstep is anyone’s guess.
But this analysis misses the immediate neighboring influence of China that a unified Korea will inevitably face. The more immediate question would be what full Korean independence from the West would entail for the rest of Asia.
In the West, a set of economic policies such as the expansion of free markets and subsequent loosening of government control on markets, known commonly as the ‘Washington Consensus’ has dictated how the West treats developing countries since the ideals became popular in the ‘80s.
The Washington Consensus goes hand in hand with attempts to spread democracy. Such systems are certainly viable, but Western societies miscalculated their execution to the point that democratic failures are now dominating their politics.
Challenges to Western politics will test the longevity of democracy all over the world, especially in the context of global challenges managed and worsened by individual governments. The way West responds to this dilution of its power will ultimately cast the mold for the next superpower to fit in.
All of this raises the question, what will the new ‘Beijing Consensus’ be, if there is one? Is China capable of being a benign hegemon? What role will the rest of Asia play?
If history is any guide, the very idea of a sole superpower means rules become perfunctory. Yes, the West has lost their total grip on power, but the East cannot afford to revel in others’ downfall, and China may prove to be just as costly to them.