The Financial Express

Westlessness: A wayward wind?

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: February 17, 2020 21:03:09

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'Westlessness' was popularised by the Munich Security Conference from Valentine's Day this year. Britain's lack of presence at Munich security conference sparked concern among allies, noted AP. US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi was one of those to lament the lack of a UK minister in Munich at the 2020 Munich Security Conference (February 14-16).

The term neither denotes nor connotes anything romantic. It has, contrariwise, spawned a cottage industry exploring what specific deficiency the last 8 alphabets expose. That the term is about some deficiency in the west informs us the meaning is not shrouded like a needle in the haystack. There seems to be mileage wherever we take it from there.

In an age dominated by China-anchored news, it is tempting to relate any western deficiency to a counterpart growth-infused Chinese dynamic. A large menu opens up. If that deficiency is about economic power, the opened can of worms could include trade, investment, currency, or growth, among other indicators. Evidence will not be hard to find.

China's tariff war with the country long recording the world's largest economy has indeed been seen through zero-sum eyes: US President Donald J. Trump imposed those tariffs because of China allegedly (and accurately) siphoning off western (in this case, US) advantages, surpluses, and resources. Its one-tracked, self-centered accumulative splurge was to blame. Over the years, these have helped reduce western trade rules and institutions into meaninglessness: note how WTO (World Trade Organisation) multilateralism, though adopted by China as part of its WTO membership, is hardly compatible with China's unilateral policy-approach. As WTO meaninglessness grows, we have been witnessing the withering of even lesser, and sometimes more effectively managed trading arrangements: many free-trade agreements can no longer command the space, attention, and credibility as they did before; and though China may not be the reason why, for example, the European Union (EU) losing a member or the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) being substituted by looser arrangements, a fear of China can be found lurking in the background.

Extending that argument, China has put a new face to global investments. On the one hand, it has toyed with low-waged production to such a degree as to render global value-chains as nothing more than a pliable Chinese policy instrument. On the other, it has begun seriously challenging global multinational institutions: whatever the Marshall Plan that revitalised West Europe and Japan after World War II still conjures have been almost comprehensively displaced by China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) scheme. Pushing that farther, the Asian Infrastructural Investment Bank (AIIB), by reducing many 'western' countries into one kind of a member or another, has become an increasingly weightier alternative to the World Bank.

Similar patterns can be seen elsewhere. China has purchased enough global debt to hold many powerful economies in its own firm hands, beginning with the United States. It can play with the Dollar as it deems necessary so as to let its own Renmibi steady its own global recognition and force. In short, it has only been with China that double-digit growth-rates have entered dictionaries and dialogues even as China itself musters far less nowadays on its own developmental scorecard. Yet, the point has been made: China carries the capacities to make or break any other economy in a way no other country ever did before.

Behind economic power often lies political weight, often manifested through military capabilities, or a string of specific values. Fortunately, China is tussling more on these fronts than economically, but the subject of 'westlessness' is in no better shape. Though the United States still remains the single most powerful military power on this planet, far greater attention has been paid civil wars or terrorism, in both of which US contributions have been far less convincing. Conflict still rages in Afghanistan almost two decades after the first US entry, while neither Iraq nor Syria show any sense of security or stability after huge US military intervention. Pushed to the extreme, the reverence acquired by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) for winning the Cold War has been lost to the many more members it has inducted, or from the growing bickering between its original members, with the United States on one side, against this or that European country on the other. Clearly the 'North Atlantic' sense of the organisation, itself a synonym of the 'west', gets more and more clouded.

If the 'west' is not cutting it with economic power and the military as it did for a few decades following World War II, then it also stands on the short end of values. Best reflected through democracy, the golden Kantian age of 'perpetual peace' (that is, democracy made cosmopolitan enough), ended too quickly after its finest historical hour, that is, the 1990s. Terrorism played a big part to bring western values down, but the secular growth of religious identities, be they Buddhists, Christian, Hindu, or Islamic, also sapped away at secular democracy, itself an expression of western values, such as those characterising the English or European 19th century Enlightenment. This pitted western values and democracy so much against Islam, for example, that depicting Islam within the same conversation as terrorism unfairly became too automatic a tendency even before China's growth stole the limelight.

Even how democracy was defined also chipped in heavily to its erosion: how US dictatorial friends during the Cold War mocked the practice and pursuit of democracy to US applause (so long they opposed communism, they were good enough to be given the accolades democracy deserves). Today, western democracy has been taking rather populist forms, and since western populism carries a heavy dosage of anti-foreigners sentiments, 'westlessness' as a global force cannot but encroach upon western societies.

Similar arguments may be made of western music, films, costumes, and the like: they are far from being trashed or outmoded, but economic growth elsewhere has also spurred these very industries along nationalistic lines over time. With 'Parasite', becoming the first non-western Oscar best-film award-winner, across-the-board changes depict the 'west' facing competition than being displaced, and often ending up as underdogs in a field too large for one/few dog/s.

This tallies with the spirit of the times: there is no top-dog anywhere. If the 'west' is losing ground, no singular opponent or alternative can claim taking its place. There may be so many different calls right across the world in just about every dimension that 'westlessness' might eventually become a synonym of emptiness. This very age of growing identity searches, with almost 200 UN members as a guide (as opposed to just 50-odd after World War II), catalyses troubleshooting occasions: identities reflect and necessitate solid anchors, not a vacuum. How we grapple our way out of that challenging circumstance may become the defining question of this century, and at the expense of the 'west' and 'westlessness' terms.

We have toyed with 'Asian Century' or 'Asianisation', even more particularly 'Sinification', without really shaping a clear global dynamic. With some major world leaders meeting in Munich to assess the status of this new term, we get a sense of the recognition of the plight, but without any knock-out answers. Unfortunately, there is neither a George F. Kennan nor George C. Marshall with a magic formula for a desperate and needy world, nor even a John Maynard Keynes or Harry Dexter White to negotiate or navigate a framework. With lots of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates in many global nooks and corners, we can also be sure technological advancements will also not help us out of this predicament. 'Westlessness' might end up signalling a human surrender to forces unknown, with victims as much in the west as in the rest of the world.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Dean (Acting), School of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences (SLASS) and  Head, Global Studies & Governance Program Independent University, Bangladesh



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