The West and the Rest: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the opening ceremony of the BRICS Business Forum in virtual format, 22 June 2022. Image: Yin Gang/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

The West’s influence on the Global South is waning, and Russia and China are reaping the benefits.

The Director of RUSI and I recently wrote a Commentary that noted the gap appearing between the West and the Global South over support for Ukraine. We touched on the reasons for the lukewarm response to Ukraine in much of Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and South Asia but offered nothing that could claim to be analysis. That felt like an omission, one that I will try to partially address in this piece by looking at the impact of Western colonialism and liberal democracy in shaping the relationship between the West and the Rest.

The Great Wars of the 20th Century seemed to mark the end of imperialism. Four empires dissolved in or shortly after 1918 and the remaining imperial powers bowed to the inevitable after 1945, disengaging from empire with varying degrees of bloodshed.

But, seen through the eyes of the Rest, not much changed. The Bretton Woods institutional architecture replaced viceregal rule with the hegemony of the US dollar; the four white faces sitting on the Security Council of the United Nations spoke more to the past than the future; and, a new soft power colonialism of Levi jeans, Coca-Cola and Hollywood shaped the second half of the century in the image of the West. Indeed, some would contend that, into the 21st Century, the Wars of 9/11 were essentially Colonialism 2.0. So, while we may regard empire as a brief phase in a longer history – to be revered or reviled according toone’s point of view – many in the developing world see colonialism as a defining influence on their political identity.

A country like India has good reasons not to fall out with Russia: a tradition of neutrality, a strategic priority of confronting China, dependence on Russian military equipment and, latterly, energy at bargain basement prices. There is also the near irresistible temptation to emphasise Indian autonomy and self-determination by not automatically complying with Western requirements. In the same way, Pakistan’s then prime minister, Imran Khan, may have had many reasons for signing a trade deal with Russia shortly after the United Nations voted to deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine but one was surely because he could, and in doing so assert his post-colonial credentials.

But it’s not simply a matter of cocking a snook at the West, however satisfying that may be. The more clear and present concerns of the Global South are that sanctions against Russia are driving up food and energy prices

But it’s not simply a matter of cocking a snook at the West, however satisfying that may be. The more clear and present concerns of the Global South are that sanctions against Russia are driving up food and energy prices; that vaccine apartheid by January 2022 had protected against coronavirus 9.5% of the populations in low income countries compared with 75% of the rich West; that sermons on climate change are preachy and patronising coming from Western arch-polluters; and that white Ukrainian refugees are receiving a far warmer welcome in Europe than Syrians or Afghans ever did. Seen from, say, Sub-Saharan Africa, colonialism has simply never gone away.

And this is a point not lost on Russian and Chinese propagandists. The Chinese constantly emphasise the shared experience of humiliation they and Africans suffered at the hands of Western imperialists. While Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, wrote an op-ed for syndication throughout Africa in advance of his recent visit that boldly claimed that Russia had never ‘stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism’. The African Centre for Strategic Studies has noted that between 2019 and 2022 Twitter and Facebook removed Russian disinformation networks that targeted 12 separate countries in Africa. Yet the self-regulation of Big Tech extends little beyond the English-speaking world and both Russian and Chinese propagandists get pretty much a free run in Francophone Africa and the Arab world. Meanwhile, in Latin America RT en Español has over 3.5 million followers on Twitter and 18 million on Facebook; both RT en Español and Sputnik Mundo are amongst the top most-shared domains for Spanish posts about the invasion of Ukraine on Twitter.

In all this there is little reference to the Chinese Belt and Road financial entrapment system, the triumphs of the separate forms of Tsarist and Soviet imperialism or the fact that Russian mercenary groups are plying their trade in five of the 17 African countries that abstained on the first UN vote. Unfortunately, that is a testament to the West’s failure to match the information operations of its opponents.

We tend to think that democracy has been around for ever. In fact, there was a 2,000-year gap between its inception in Athens and its development into a coherent political doctrine by the liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment. From that process emerged a system based around the individual as the fundamental unit of society, the sanctity of private property and the primacy of procedural rule of law. Even then, democracy did not hit its stride until the second half of the 20th Century when, in harness with liberal economics, it offered what the West regarded as the optimum form of human society. When in the year 2000 Freedom House classified 63% of the world’s polities as democracies, it really did feel like the End of History.

The evidence of the 20th Century suggested that liberal democracy could do two things pretty well: win wars and generate wealth. Then, in the first decade of the 21st Century, along came 9/11 and the financial crisis and we had to think again.

The evidence of the 20th Century suggested that liberal democracy could do two things pretty well: win wars and generate wealth. Then, in the first decade of the 21st Century, along came 9/11 and the financial crisis and we had to think again. The wars of 9/11 were meant to illustrate the power of the West and propagate its political system. In the event, they only illustrated its limitations as the politicians wrote cheques that the generals couldn’t cash and democracy proved to be an acquired taste. The financial crash that started in 2008 compounded a sense of disenchantment with Western forms of governance, particularly when taxpayer’s money was used to bail out the predatory form of capitalism associated with Wall Street and the City of London. The withdrawal from Kabul and the fall of Lehman Brothers are examples few would try to emulate and perhaps goes some way to explain the ‘democratic recession’ that has followed.

And it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In America, Red and Blue factions talk past each other, an opioid ravaged working class tends towards populist extremism as its living standards fall, gerrymandering is normalised, Washington seems in thrall to vested interests and gridlock passes for government. The casual observer watching the events of 6 January 2021 might even have wondered if the US was turning into a failed state. Europe is little better. Britain has the private grief of Brexit while the European Union feels free to corner and push against elected leaders who get in the way of fiscal orthodoxy, at the same time running up structural financial deficits that would be unsustainable under any system, let alone the straitjacket of the Euro.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has broken the democratic world’s monopoly on economic progress. Larry Summers, of Harvard University, observes that when the US was growing at its fastest, it doubled living standards roughly every 30 years. China has been doubling living standards every decade for the past 30 years. This comes at a price but it avoids the gridlock of Western governance and China simply gets things done, as evidenced by its response to the coronavirus pandemic. The Economist noted in late 2021 that US reported deaths from Covid stood at 780,00 against China’s at 5,697, from a much larger population. It went on to mix epidemiology with political philosophy by observing ‘what kind of democracy would sacrifice millions of lives for some individuals’ freedom not to wear masks?’ A rhetorical question, but one that might resonate in the Global South. The procedural apparatus of democracy still has the attraction of degrees of universal suffrage, but, in terms of delivering outcomes, other systems are increasingly attractive. China has problems of inequality, corruption and environmental degradation but also mechanisms to address them decisively.

All this makes for a pretty tough read. I have taken a fairly polemical line, not to score cheap points off the West but simply to imagine how the debate might look from elsewhere. Indeed, it may be that we have been suckered by the blandishments of Coca-Cola and Hollywood into believing in our own self-image; many in the developing world no longer fall into the same trap. You don’t have to look far to see reasons why much of the Global South has chosen to look away, aided and abetted by creative Russian and Chinese information operations. The requirement now is, first, to recognise that fact, and second, to address it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Lt Gen (Ret'd) Sir Robert Fry

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