The claims of western values are mocked by Iraq and the rise of Asia
Underpinning the argument in support of the invasion of Iraq has been the idea of the moral virtue of the west. In contrast to Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship, the “coalition” espouses the values of democracy and human rights. The invasion of Iraq represented the high watermark of western moral virtue. In retrospect, it is clear that the idea had been gaining momentum since two coincidental events in the 1970s: the end of the Vietnam war, which profoundly scarred the reputation of the United States, and the beginning of the modern era of globalisation. With Vietnam out of the way, and globalisation the new bearer of western and, above all, American values, the latter found an ever-expanding global audience, a process enormously boosted by the collapse of communism.
Democracy and the market became the new western mantra, applicable to every society, wherever they might be and whatever their stage of development. Following its implosion, the former communist world, at least in Europe, gratefully embraced the new philosophy, even though in Russia it was to prove a disaster, as Roman Abramovich’s monstrous, ill-gotten wealth only serves to illustrate. The process of globalisation came to be seen, during the 90s, as virtually synonymous with westernisation. There was one model of modernity – the western model – and globalisation was its natural vehicle. As East Asia has modernised at breakneck speed over the past three decades, its progress has almost invariably been interpreted as a simple process of westernisation.
After the collapse of communism, the victorious US increasingly came to see itself as the saviour of the world, and the arbiter – in extremis – of each and every nation’s future. If this proposition was less explicit during the Clinton era, it became the organising principle of the Bush regime. Where nations were not prepared to bend to the American will, they were classified as “rogue states” and threatened with force. Barely had the world entered the 21st century when it found itself returning to a century earlier and the exercise of naked imperialism – all in the name, as a century earlier, of western moral virtue.
Such was the shift in the ideological climate that the new imperialism gained a band of adherents from the liberal wing of politics, as it had in the late 19th century. They not only regarded the US as the only game in town; more importantly, they saw it as the embodiment of virtue in a failed or failing world. Michael Ignatieff, one of this new breed of liberal imperialists, argues in his recent book, Empire: “The movements of national liberation that swept through the African and Asian worlds in the 1950s, seeking emancipation from colonial rule, have now run their course and in many cases have failed to deliver on their promise to rule more fairly than the colonial oppressors of the past.” And later: “For every nationalist struggle that succeeds in giving its people self-determination and dignity, there are more that only deliver their people up to a self-immolating slaughter, terror, enforced partition and failure.”
Historically speaking, this is nonsense. Asia is home to 60% of the world’s population and has few failing states: in East Asia, where one-third live, there are almost none, and many extremely successful ones. But let that pass. Ignatieff perfectly illustrates the belief in western moral virtue: the newly-independent world (viz, the societies of other races and cultures) has largely failed, consequently it is the US’s moral duty, and historic mission, to save these nations from themselves. For half a century, following the second world war and the rise of the anti-colonial movement, only diehard colonialists would have voiced such sentiments – such has the ideological wheel turned.
But for how long? Iraq has proved a rude awakening. Already the west has been reminded by growing Iraqi resistance of the forgotten lesson of the anti-colonial period, that people of different races and cultures do not want to be ruled by an alien power from the other side of the world. Meanwhile, the revelations of widespread criminal behaviour by American and British troops are a poignant illustration of the fact that “western moral virtue” is only one element of the western story.
President Bush claimed last week: “People seeing those pictures didn’t understand the true nature and heart of America.” On the contrary, they are an integral part of its “true nature and heart”: a society that was built on the destruction of the indigenous peoples; that practised racial segregation until 40 years ago; that still incarcerates many of its young black people; that killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese; that has a messianic belief in the applicability of its own values to the rest of the world; that is willing to impose its model by force; that believes itself to be above international law. These too are American values. In this light, the behaviour of the US forces, nurturing a deep sense of racial superiority combined with a disdain for international law, is entirely predictable.
The growing sense of crisis that now pervades the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq could well herald a global shift in perceptions about the “moral virtue of the west”. The idea that the coalition was a force for liberation rather than occupation is already a distant memory and is becoming more absurd by the day. There is, though, another and different reason that may lie behind such a growing shift in perceptions. The emergence of the US as the world’s sole superpower, which has commanded such worldwide attention, represents only one aspect of a much more complex global picture.
The sudden collapse of European communism, together with US military might and the emergence of the Bush doctrine, has served to highlight the extraordinary power of the US. But another trend over the past quarter-century, which is at least as important – and, in the longer run, is likely to be more important – is the economic rise of East Asia, above all China, and also India, which between them constitute almost 40% of the world’s population. The power and influence of western values was a consequence of, and has ultimately always depended upon, the economic strength of the west. The rise of China as a key global player, and probably the next superpower, will be the prelude to the growing global influence of Chinese values. Further down the road, the same can be said of India.
Western hubris hitherto has seen the economic growth of these countries as simply an affirmation of growing western influence. Countless BBC news items coo about how western the Chinese are becoming. Well, yes, in some respects, but in others not at all. Modernity is not just composed of technology and markets, it is embedded in and shaped by culture. We will slowly wake up to the fact that the west no longer has a monopoly of modernity – that there are other modernities, not just ours. The story of the next quarter-century will not simply be about American hyper-power, but the rise of Asian power and values.
The invasion of Iraq may well come to be seen as the apogee of the idea of the “moral virtue of the west”. One year of occupation has already profoundly eroded that claim. If 9/11 and its aftermath – not to mention Ignatieff and kindred spirits – suggest that we have entered a simple world of American power and moral virtue, a more balanced view of global development suggests that we stand on the eve of a very different world, in which western values will be contested far more vigorously than at any time since the rise of Europe five centuries ago. It is true, of course, that communism, especially in its heyday, represented a profound challenge to western values, but the nature of this threat was always political rather than cultural: and culture is far more powerful than politics.