A Geopolitical Mirage: the “De-westernization” of the World

Analyst and political philosopher Philippe de Lara examines the complexity of the notion of the “global South”. The growing disenchantment with the West that can be observed in several regions of the world does not mean that the countries of the South have defined a united position in the face of Russia and China, the main disruptors of the international order. According to the author, democratic principles remain more mobilizing and effective than the authoritarian model.

The decline of the West is once again on the agenda. The strange alliance between Russia and China and the refusal of many countries of the South to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be the expression of a loss of influence of liberal democracies, and the rise of a “global South” led by the BRICS and particularly China, which is rejecting “neoliberal globalization” in favor of other political models. Some even go so far as to say that the invasion of Ukraine has exposed a lasting isolation of the West. Putin’s Russia, despite its military setbacks, despite its damning crimes, would be in the process of realizing its dream of “de-Westernizing the world”, i.e. establishing a new international order that would break with Western supremacy1.

This order, called “multipolar”, is in reality the reign of uninhibited force and the inflation of border conflicts. This does not prevent “de-Westernization” from seducing a large number of countries. Liberal democracies, torn by their cultural contradictions, no longer offer a triumphant model, and the liabilities of the “global West” (another of Putin’s favorite expressions) are overwhelming for the rest of the world: African countries are reviving anti-colonial resentment after decades of independence, others (Gulf countries) are fed up with the lack of consideration and the withdrawal, voluntary or not, of the American gendarme (Sudan, Egypt), while others still (Iraq, Afghanistan) have been victims of the erring ways of its hyperpower. Finally, some countries (Brazil, Turkey) believe they have reached a degree of economic or strategic power that allows them to aspire to a regional hegemony free from the tutelage of the G7. Third World Marxism, thought to be buried, is resurfacing and reviving old links with the former Soviet sponsor, as far as South Africa, with the resurgence of the ANC’s pro-Soviet tropism during the Cold War. Last but not least, China’s immense power is an irresistible pole of attraction, spearheading the shift of the center of the world from the Euro-Atlantic space to Asia.

Public opinion in poor countries is particularly receptive to the promise of de-Westernization. The West is accused of all the evils of the world. Sanctions, not Russian aggression, are responsible for the food crisis. Putin is admired because he stands up to the West. The invader of Ukraine is seen as an anti-imperialist. China is praised for the infrastructure it has built in Africa, and its predatory policies — the grabbing of mineral resources and farmland to feed the Chinese, the debt trap — seem to be ignored.

In a recent column, insightful as always, Alain Frachon, notes that “the global South is diverse and behaves differently, sometimes backing the Sino-Russian bloc, sometimes the West. At the UN, in September 2022, the global South voted massively against Russia’s annexation of part of Ukraine.” But he adds: “Nevertheless, in the face of Putin’s aggression, there is a lack of political solidarity in the South, an absence of shared indignation, if not purely and simply the resumption of Sino-Russian propaganda (everything is always the fault of the West). Why?”2

As he left Moscow on March 22, 2023, Xi Jinping greeted his “friend” Putin with these words: “Geopolitical changes are now at work in the world, changes that have not been seen for a hundred years (…), and when we work together, we take the lead in these changes.» “I agree,” Putin replied soberly. The account (the narrative, as they say) of the de-Westernization of the world is a balm for Russia, which has gone from being a declining power entangled in an infamous and unwinnable war to being on the right side of history and claiming to be an equal partner with the Chinese giant. In Putin’s vision of the world, the pitiful performance of the Russian armies in Ukraine is a mere detail compared with the global geopolitical upheaval of which the war in Ukraine was the catalyst.

Alain Frachon hit the nail on the head when he warned us about resentment against the West in the countries of the South. But should we graft it onto the global narrative of de-Westernization? If we take one by one the facts that support this narrative and add them up without asking ourselves whether they are cumulative or not, we can believe that they represent a major trend. Add to this a dose of historical gravity — look at the demographic decline of the West, the growth of the BRICS, etc. — and a pinch of self-hatred — the global West is guilty, it is well deserved — and there you have the irreversible de-Westernization, whatever the fate of the weapons in Ukraine. The announcement of the decline of the West, although repeated by fine minds, is nonetheless premature. The signs that seem to attest to this are too recent to allow one to infer a lasting trend from the atmosphere of the moment. The decline of the West could well last as long as the definitive triumph of liberal democracy in 1989, one moment.

The West, how many divisions?

I will begin by recalling a massive contrary fact, which is nevertheless overlooked in the picture of de-Westernization: the strengthening of NATO, moral as well as material. Not only have two important countries, Finland and Sweden, decided to join the Alliance, but the Alliance has shown remarkable military efficiency and unfailing solidarity in defending a democracy under attack. Military effectiveness is not only due to the decisive material aid given to Ukraine, but also to the organizational and tactical excellence of the so-called NATO standards. Ukraine’s successes on the ground have indeed demonstrated the unity and courage of a people, but also the quality of the command, coordination and tactical intelligence model developed by NATO, which Ukraine has been able to assimilate for years, including since before 2014.

If decoupling between Europe and the United States is still possible, Euro-Atlantic solidarity appears revitalized, or rather, radiant: it has shown that it stands firm on principles, while China and Russia display their cynical disregard for the law and for promises. In doing so, it attracts Japan and the democracies of the Indo-Pacific, not only as a security asset, but also because of what I would like to call its moral consistency.

In terms of military strength, NATO’s superiority will remain overwhelming for a long time, given the destruction suffered and the weaknesses revealed by the Russian army. Moreover, the sanctions and the embargo on advanced technologies are already hitting and will durably impair Russia’s weapons production and export capacity. For this reason, it is not clear that its most loyal customers, starting with India, will remain so. Further east, China’s military-industrial growth is commensurate with its economic power, but a large number of nuclear submarines does not compensate for its lack of experience in warfare3.

The West, the EU in particular, has shown a unity and resolve in the face of war that was not necessarily expected. It has put an end to the disarmament that had been going on for 30 years, in the name of the “peace dividend”4. Democracies, supposedly consumerist, weakened by their divisions and loss of confidence in the elites, and incapable of thinking beyond the very short term, have mobilized for principles: international law, but also political freedom, “so that government of the people, by the people, and for the people will never disappear from the face of the Earth”. These principles are not only “values”, they are concrete forms of life that are threatened in their very existence by Russian imperialism. For the time being, Ukrainians alone are shedding blood for these principles. But the admiration they arouse could well awaken our democratic languor5.

Contradictions within the global South

As Alain Frachon writes in his column, disenchantment with the West observed in the global South does not make it a united front. India, which has just dethroned China as the most populous country in the world, is conducting a subtle Realpolitik. It has refused to impose sanctions and does not condemn Russian aggression, which seems to reinforce its pro-Russian tropism — in reaction to the supply of arms by the United States to Pakistan, a hereditary enemy —, but this does not put an end to its old conflict with China, on its borders and at sea. Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier has underlined the high level of these tensions for Desk Russie: among many other frictions, India intends to oppose Chinese maritime claims in the Indian Ocean. To this end, it has joined the informal Indo-Pacific alliance (United States, Japan, Australia, ASEAN states).

The BRICS claim to be the vanguard of the fight against Western “domination”, but will they be able to draw the poor countries into this crusade in the long term, given their divergent interests? The Brazilian ogre’s compromise with Putin will not be enough to win over the Bolivarian and Peronist countries of Latin America.

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The most fragile link of the global South is its keystone, China. Xi Jinping’s global ambition impresses and worries, but it stumbles on all sides with dilemmas. The alliance with Russia seems solid in terms of big strategic ideas, much less in detail: China wants to stop the war quickly, but Putin does not want to know and is ready for endless war, even without victory; China would like to see the lasting weakening of Russia — which is the goal of Ukraine and its allies — but fears its collapse; it has important positions in Iran as well as in Russia, but it certainly does not want to come across as the third thief of the axis of evil. Finally, “systemic rivalry” with Europe and the United States is a very narrow path for China, which diminishes the threat: it cannot push too far its hostility toward the West, by far its most important customer, at risk of losing the main driver of its growth. Similarly, it must be careful to keep up appearances with the poor countries it plunders and pollutes, or it will appear as a new form of imperialism. Several specialists analyze Xi’s dictatorship as a return to totalitarianism, all the more radical because digital technologies make it possible for the fantasy of total control over the population to come true. These analyses are convincing, but we know that totalitarianisms are vulnerable because of their propensity to replace reality with a self-destructive surreality, to overdo their goals beyond what is achievable.

The aging of the population is a strong argument for the declinist thesis, because demographic trends are considered the most inexorable. In reality, there are surprises or effects known only to specialists: China has just entered a phase of aging and rapid population decline, which will threaten its growth model in the coming decades. India has become the most populous country in the world and it is impossible to say whether this is good or bad news for it.

Who really wants to reform the UN?

The UN has bad press. It is in the hot seat both for its impotence in the face of Russian aggression and because it represents an outdated and unjust international order, “Western domination”. The stalemate at the UN is indeed overwhelming: the composition of the Security Council and the rules for permanent members to exercise their veto power are no longer justifiable. The countries of the global South no longer accept being excluded from the group of permanent members, and Russia and China have stirred up this discontent[7]. In September 2022, two important states pledged before the General Assembly to promote the opening of the Security Council to new permanent members from all continents, and the reform of the veto power. It is tempting to assume that these are countries of the global South, India, for example, or Brazil. But they are France and the United States, which have proposed in similar terms to open the Security Council to new permanent members, “so that it is more representative” (Emmanuel Macron), and to limit the use of the veto power. Before the General Assembly, Joe Biden invited the permanent members of the Council, “including the United States”, to “refrain from using their veto power, except in rare and extraordinary situations, to ensure that the Council remain credible and effective”. France was more specific: it proposed a reform of the Council limiting the use of the veto power in cases of mass crimes. So far, France and the United States do not seem to be more popular with the countries of the South as a result of these proposals. We know that reforming the Security Council is very difficult. But if there is ever a broad enough coalition to decide on this reform, the poor countries and the BRICS will stand with the West.

The bad faith of the global South

I would like to end with an argument that is perhaps the most powerful against the thesis of de-Westernization of the world, although it is a moral argument — we know that morality in international politics arouses the sarcasm of “realists” even more when they are pro-Russian. The countries that play the card of the global South against the West on the side of Russia are forced, so to speak logically, to ignore, i.e. to tacitly accept, the crime of aggression committed by Russia and the assorted war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of genocide that resulted from it. These crimes are not “blunders” that a country can pretend to ignore in the name of its interests. They cannot be considered as collateral damage inherent in international politics. They will be judged one way or another. For now, the inherent immorality of Lula da Silva and Xi Jinping’s attitude is covered by the fog of war. But the global South and its promoters will one day be held accountable for choosing evil. Their bad faith and their evasions in the face of Russian crimes and lies will then become politically untenable, condemned even by international justice6. Realism in international relations cannot be reduced to the cynical acceptance of the law of the strongest: if force plays an undeniable and ineliminable role in international relations, the same is true for legal and ethical principles. The absolute evil embodied by Putin’s imperial dream is, in short, the experimental demonstration of the effectiveness of principles in international life.

Lecturer at the University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas. Teaches philosophy and political science. Regular contributor to Commentaire and columnist for Ukrainski Tyzhden magazine. His work focuses on the history of totalitarianism and its aftermath. He has published works such as Naissances du totalitarisme (Paris, Cerf, 2011), Exercices d’humanité. Entretiens avec Vincent Descombes (Paris, Pocket Agora, 2020).

Footnotes

  1. In an article mistakenly published in March 2022 and immediately withdrawn (it was supposed to appear after Russia’s lightning victory in Ukraine), the official Novosti agency stated: “Russia has not only defied the West, it has shown that the era of Western world domination can be considered completely and definitively over.” The article was picked up and translated by Fondapol.
  2. Alain Frachon, “A question should be on the minds of Westerners: why doesn’t the South mobilize more against the imperialist adventures of Putin’s Russia?”, Le Monde, May 4, 2023.
  3. Since its armed intervention in Tibet in 1950-1951, China has not waged any real war. Its most recent experience of naval warfare dates back to the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and ended in defeat.
  4. Even the United States, which has maintained considerable military budgets since 1991, is suffering from a lack of troops and ammunition stocks.
  5. The war in Ukraine has entered its second year, and we are still waiting for the announced turnaround in Western public opinion against the risks and costs of supporting Ukraine.
  6. South Africa, compromised with Russia, and even Israel who refuses military assistance to Ukraine, will also be smeared by scandal when Russian crimes will be put on trial.

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