The contraction of the West

Image: Suzy Hazelwood


It is just as difficult to imagine the West as a subaltern space as it is to imagine it in an egalitarian and peaceful relationship with other geopolitical spaces.

What Westerners call the West or Western civilization is a geopolitical space that emerged in the 90th century and continuously expanded into the 1917th century. On the eve of the First World War, about XNUMX% of the globe was Western or dominated by the West: Europe, Russia, the Americas, Africa, Oceania and a good part of Asia (with partial exceptions of Japan and China). From then on, the West began to contract: first with the Russian revolution of XNUMX and the emergence of the Soviet bloc, then, from the middle of the century, with the decolonization movements.

Terrestrial space (and soon after, extraterrestrial space) became a field of intense dispute. However, what Westerners understood by West has been changing. It had started out as Christianity, colonialism, then capitalism and imperialism, to metamorphose into democracy, human rights, decolonization, self-determination, “rule-based international relations” – always making it clear that the rules were established by the West and only fulfilled when it served the interests of this – and, finally, in globalization.

By the middle of the last century, the West had shrunk so much that a number of newly independent countries made the decision not to align themselves with either the West or the bloc that had emerged as their rival, the Soviet bloc. Thus, from 1955-61, the Non-Aligned Movement was created. With the end of the Soviet bloc in 1991, the West seemed to be experiencing a moment of enthusiastic expansion. It was the time of Mikhail Gorbachev and his desire for Russia to integrate Europe's “common home”, with the support of George W. Bush Sr., a desire reaffirmed by Vladimir Putin when he took power.

It was a short historical period, and recent events show that, meanwhile, the “size” of the West has suffered a drastic contraction. Following the war in Ukraine, the West decided, on its own initiative, that it would only be Westerners who applied sanctions to Russia. They are currently around 21% of UN member countries, which is less than 15% of the world's population. Continuing down this path, the West could even disappear. Several questions arise.


Contraction is decline?

One might think that the contraction of the West favors it because it allows it to focus on more realistic goals with more intensity. A careful reading of the strategists of the hegemonic country in the West, the USA, shows, on the contrary, that, without apparently realizing the flagrant contraction, they show an unlimited ambition. With the same ease with which they foresee being able to reduce Russia (the largest nuclear power) to a ruin or a vassal state, they foresee neutralizing China (on its way to being the world's first economy) and soon provoking a war in Taiwan (similar to to that of Ukraine) for this purpose. On the other hand, the history of empires shows that contraction goes hand in hand with decline and that this decline is irreversible and entails much human suffering.

At the current stage, the manifestations of weakness are parallel to those of strength, which makes the analysis very difficult. Two contrasting examples. The US is the largest military power in the world (although it has not won a war since 1945) with military bases in at least 80 countries. An extreme case of domination is that of its presence in Ghana where, according to agreements established in 2018, the US uses Accra airport without any control or inspection, US soldiers do not even need a passport to enter the country, and enjoy of extraterritorial immunity, that is, if they commit any crime, however serious, they cannot be tried by the courts of Ghana. On the contrary, the thousands of sanctions against Russia are, for now, causing more damage in the Western world than in the geopolitical space that the West is building as a non-Western. The currencies of those who seem to be winning the war are those that are devalued the most. Inflation and the approaching recession lead the CEO of JP Morgan, Jamie Dimon, to state that a hurricane is approaching.


Contraction is loss of internal cohesion?

Contraction can effectively mean more cohesion, and this is very visible. The leadership of the European Union, that is to say the Commission, has for the last twenty years been much more aligned with the US than the countries that make up the Union. We saw the neoliberal turn and the enthusiastic support for the invasion of Iraq by Durão Barroso and now we see Ursula von der Leyen transformed into US undersecretary of defense. The truth is that this cohesion, if it is effective in producing policies, can be disastrous in managing their consequences.

Europe is a geopolitical space that since the 10th century lives off the resources of other countries that it directly or indirectly dominates and to whom it imposes unequal exchange. None of this is possible when the partner is the US or its allies. Moreover, cohesion is made up of inconsistencies: after all, Russia is the country with a GDP lower than that of many countries in Europe, or it is a power that wants to invade Europe, a global threat that can only be stopped with the investment that is already around about XNUMX billion dollars in arms and security by the US in a faraway country of which little will be left if the war continues for a long time?

Does the contraction occur for internal or external reasons? The literature on the decline and end of empires shows that, except for the exceptional cases in which empires are destroyed by external forces – the case of the Aztec and Inca empires with the arrival of Spanish conquerors –, in general, internal factors dominate, even if the decline may be precipitated by external factors. It is difficult to disentangle the internal from the external, and the specific identification is always more ideological than anything else. For example, in 1964 the well-known American conservative philosopher James Burnham published a book entitled The Suicide of the West. According to him, liberalism, then dominant in the US, was the ideology of this decline. For the liberals of the time, liberalism was, on the contrary, the ideology that would allow a new world hegemony for the West, more peaceful and more just.

Today, liberalism has died in the US (neoliberalism, which is its opposite, dominates) and even the old-guard conservatives have been totally overtaken by the neoconservatives. This is why Henry Kissinger (for many a war criminal) upset anti-Russian proselytes by calling for peace talks in Davos. Be that as it may, the war in Ukraine is the great accelerator of the West's contraction. A new generation of non-aligned countries is emerging, in fact aligned with the power the West wants to isolate, China. The BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Forum are, among others, the new faces of the non-West.


What's next?

We do not know. It is just as difficult to imagine the West as a subaltern space in the world context as it is to imagine it in an egalitarian and peaceful relationship with other geopolitical spaces. We only know that for those who rule in the West any of these hypotheses is impossible or, if possible, apocalyptic. This is why meetings have multiplied in recent months, from the Davos Economic Forum (May) to the most recent meeting of the Bilderberg group (June). In the latter, in which 5 Portuguese participated, of the 14 themes, 7 had to do directly with Western rivals. We will know what they discussed and decided by carefully following the covers of The Economist, of the coming months.

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).


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