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Can the West Answer China & Russia’s Challenge to the West’s Claim to Embody Universal Values?
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That China and Russia share a cultural and social antipathy toward the West is well known.  We may be inclined to perceive Russia as European, but as Dostoevsky observed: “’Gratttez le russe et vous verrez le tartare’, they say scratch a Russian and you’ll find a Tatar.” [1]  To this, he added the poignant comment that Europeans do not “recognize [Russians] as a part of ‘civilization.’”[2]  China evokes a similar Western response.  The former director of policy planning in the US State Department said of China just last year: “This is a fight with a really different civilization.” [3]  She added that China represented “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”[4] Such racist views represent a thread in 20th-century diplomacy that harkens back to the Racial Equality Clause debate at the end of World War 1.  Western rejection of the clause “was not forgotten in Japan. In 1946, Emperor Hirohito cited it as a prime cause of the Second World War.”[5]

As a result of the West’s belief in its cultural superiority, “some stereotypical generic attributes became firmly associated with the notion of the East:  Barbarism, primitivism, backwardness, Asiatic cunningness, cruelty, Oriental despotism, servitude, inability of self-governing, femininity, submissiveness – the entire spectrum of which is traceable in the representation of Russia in English culture from the early accounts of the Elizabethan travelers to the late nineteenth-century writings.”[6] Edward Said  expounded upon this Western view of the East more generally in his classic 1978 work, Orientalism.

Its belief in the superiority of Western Civilization became one of the West’s arsenals of weapons, which it used to colonize what it saw as the feminized and irrational East. Britain used it to justify its imperialistic ambitions in India, as did a plethora of nations to exploit and rule African nations as part of the “Scramble for Africa” in the nineteenth century. American neo-conservatives have deployed this belief in the West’s superiority, adding in a dash of Christian millennialism, to legitimize the use of warfare to spread democracy in the Middle East.

Now, “the non-Western world, led by Beijing and Moscow, is pushing back against the West’s claim to embody universal values.”[7]  My essay examines whether or not the West has a response to this challenge, particularly following what Ferdinand Mount, the Head of the Policy Unit when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, calls the loss of its legitimacy after the global financial crisis.  It also questions the interest of many Western leaders in maintaining a political system that offers an alternative to authoritarianism.  Finally, it asks, in light of the West’s loss of its moral voice in 2008, who will speak for it as we struggle to create an ethical framework for dealing with the potential cataclysmic consequences of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic?

The Increasing Appeal of Authoritarianism

Gradually but systematically, China and Russia are weaving together a growing string of like-minded countries to create an authoritarian tapestry from South America, through Africa and the Middle East, to Central Asia and the Far East.  They are simultaneously attracting an increasing number of leaders (some in the West’s own backyard) interested in migrating from liberal democracy to authoritarianism.  Xi and Putin are achieving their successes through an impressive array of geopolitical and geoeconomic strategies, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the Eurasian Economic Union, The Greater Eurasian Partnership, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to name just a few of the most prominent. 

In the meantime, Western organisations are becoming weaker particularly the EU as a result of Brexit, and the existence of illiberal democracies within it; and NATO, due primarily to America’s attempts to undermine its stature.  China and Russia also benefit from America’s lack of a coherent foreign policy, despite Japan having handed the U.S. its Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy on a silver platter.  Beyond this, America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has given China the opportunity to replace the U.S. on the world stage as the global champion of solving major climate change issues through its substantial investment in cutting-edge green technology.  It has also made major strides in reducing poverty in what in 2017 World Bank President Jim Yong Kim called ”one of the great stories of history.”[8]  Finally, America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has contributed to bringing to an end “one major theme in American strategic culture as it has been applied to the Far East since the [eighteenth century]” that it “will not tolerate any other power establishing hegemonic control over Asia or the Pacific.”[9]   As Yinan Jin, a Chinese military strategist recently observed, “[President Trump] has given China a big gift…as the U.S. retreats globally, China shows up.”[10]

Lifting the Veil on Western Values: Increasing the Momentum Towards Authoritarianism

The real momentum towards authoritarianism began in 2008 when the veil on the West’s values was lifted, exposing them as never before.  They were exposed first and foremost in the U.S.  “We are the 99%”[11] became the battle cry, not of proletarians restlessly roaming the streets of a repressed Eastern city, but of the betrayed middle class occupying a park in Lower Manhattan.  It didn’t take long for the discontent to spread to over 80 cities around the globe where the West’s scamming of its citizens became an unsettling revelation.  “Britain and the European Union” as well as the US “bailed out financial institutions, then recovered the costs by hacking away at public services, effectively punishing laborers and taxpayers for the sins of wealthy bankers.”[12]

Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orban, for one, clearly saw how rigged the West’s political system was.   In 2014, he claimed in a speech that the financial crisis of 2008 “had marked a pivot point in world affairs just as 1989 had. But in this case, power had passed from the liberal democracies that had won the Cold War to states that were not liberal nor, in some cases, democracies,” resulting in his criticism of “liberalism as the god that failed.”[13]  And so, Orban argued, the race had begun “to invent a state that is most capable of making a nation successful.”[14] Not surprisingly, Xi Jinping’s China and Vladimir Putin’s Russia became his political models, and their leaders his mentors. Lech Kaczynski, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Matteo Salvini have all been caught, to varying degrees, in the authoritarian slipstream.

Socialism at the Service of the Oligarchy

The financial failure of 2008 signaled the gradual demise of Western values as a goal for other countries to emulate. Martin Wolf, associate editor and chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, noted in its aftermath: "On the global stage, the advanced countries have lost their moral and intellectual authority.  Emerging [developing] countries might not have liked [the advanced countries] pretensions, but they did respect their competence.  That is true no longer."[15]  His criticism is systemic.  It’s about the way the system works, for whom it works, and the moral and ethical values that underpin it. 

In its attempt to recover from the global financial crisis, the West privatized profits and socialized losses.  The elite thrived and the common man suffered.  The elite in the U.S., however, only benefited from the financial collapse because the government coddled them in a protective blanket of socialism, or what the head of China’s sovereign wealth fund described in December 2008 as “socialism with American characteristics.”[16]Ironically, the battle cry of the 1% for minimum regulation when they were garnering huge returns on capital quickly mutated into a plea for government intervention to save their wealth when the financial rigging came crashing down.  Discussions within Western governments were not about fixing the flaws in democracy.  They were self-serving: How do the powerful rescue the elite to keep the oligarchic system intact?

As Jan-Werner Muller, a distinguished scholar at Princeton University, has noted, “The financial crisis of 2008 underscored what Hungarians had learned in the years since 1989: Liberalism in practice, in contrast to what the West had promised in theory, often only serves the strongest. Hungarians thought that joining the EU would secure freedom and equality. Instead, they got exploitative mortgage contracts from Austrian banks.”[17]  The universal values that in 1989 some critics saw as the culmination of Western civilization were exposed in 2008 as a fabrication.  Freedom and equality were a veil disguising the financial wizards manipulating the levers of power behind it. 

Unheeded Calls to Change the System in the West

In 2012, eminent voices in the West were scathing in their calls for a corrective to this deception.  Bishop Welby, now the Archbishop of Canterbury, commented at the time: “But one principle seems to me to be clear, we cannot repair what was destroyed in 2008, we can only replace it with something that is dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity.”[18]  Even Ferdinand Mount, ,the person who wrote the 1983 Tory General Election Manifesto, strongly expressed his contempt: "The unbridled greed of the oligarchs and their indifference to the normal obligations and restraints… engender a sense that society has lost its recognizable moral shape and, with it, its legitimacy."[19]

Nothing has changed.  “Only a dozen years later [in 2020], Europe and Britain are again dispensing enormous sums of public money to rescue large businesses from economic devastation.”[20]  In the US, Boeing “is seeking a $60 billion bailout — which, as it happens, is almost exactly the amount of money the company has distributed to its shareholders since 2013, in the form of $17.4 billion in dividend payments and $43.1 billion spent repurchasing its own shares. The major airlines spent 96 percent of free cash over the last decade buying back their own stock to drive up share prices, living in the moment with little regard to the future. Among the beneficiaries? Airline executives, who sold about $1.6 billion in shares during that period.”[21]

In the UK, the oligarchic structure of British society is a theme that we can see running through the entire twentieth century.  In 1915, a staunch critic of British culture “depicted Britain as a snobbish, class-ridden oligarchy preaching freedom to the world, even as it oppressed millions in India and other parts of the British Empire and condemned a third of its own people to poverty.”[22]  Today, the empire might be gone, but more than one in four children live in poverty.[23]

The West had a chance to recover its moral voice just as the 21st century was getting underway.  In 2005, the European Union prepared a draft constitution specifying that the EU operate a “social market economy,” which prioritised full employment, “social justice” and “solidarity between generations,” as well as a fight against “social exclusion and discrimination,” while also promising to be “highly competitive.[24]”  What could have been a revival of something akin to the social market economy under Konrad Adenauer in Germany in 1949 failed at the referendum stage.  A cynic might say that the systemic political and economic failings leading up to the financial collapse of 2008 underscored the reasons.

If Not Now, When?  Could Solidarity be the Universal Value We are Seeking

But, if we are right in not wanting to follow the Xis, Putins, Obans, Kaczynskis, Salvinis, Johnsons, and Trumps, we may find the moral response we are seeking by following what Abraham Lincoln, on the eve of the American Civil War, called “the better angels of our nature,” as symbolized by Welby’s call for a system “dedicated to the support of human society, to the common good and to solidarity.”  Could solidarity, in fact, be the universal value we should strive towards?   Solidarity is one of the pillars of the Green New Deal, as it was of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s original New Deal program, with its coalition of labor unions, liberals, religious ethnics, and racial minorities (Catholics, Jews, blacks, southern whites, poor people, and those on relief).  It is one of the “mantras [WHO head] Tedros goes back to in his [coronavirus] briefings: “Test test test” and “solidarity solidarity solidarity”.[25]  Solidarity also represents UNESCO’s goal in finding a universal response to global warming: “Facing the challenges of climate change, the world today is more in need of a framework of ethics and an ethically informed practice of international solidarity than ever before.”[26]

But, if we need it, how do we achieve it?  Years ago, in response to the global financial crisis, Gao Xiping said: “Why don’t we get together and think about this? If China has $2 trillion, Japan has almost $2 trillion, and Russia has some, and all the others, then—let’s throw away the ideological differences and think about what’s good for everyone.”[27] Sadly, there were not enough adults in the room to put his suggestion into practice. 

We face a similar problem now.  Global warming, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “has exacerbated systemic racial, regional, social, environmental, and economic injustices.”[28]And, coronavirus “is deepening the consequences of inequality, pushing many of the burdens onto the losers of today’s polarized economies and labor markets.”[29]  We are, in fact, back to where we were in 2008.  Society is still subordinate to the markets, with all the attendant negative consequences that that entails.  Ironically, big business, or at least a segment of it, is contributing to the narrative for social change. 

In their Report on Integrated Thinking of January 2020, the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), comprising 50 businesses scattered across the globe, stated that “Financial capital…is just one capital of many,”[30]the others being natural, social and relationship, human, manufactured, and intellectual.  If particularly from the Reagan/Thatcher years onward, under the guiding principles of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, it was clear that society was subordinate to the market, the IIRC seem to be encouraging business to upend this relationship, and return society to a dominant role.  To achieve this, they recommend toppling Friedman’s view that business has no obligation either to people or to society.  “A favored few,” they say, “have benefited from the system at the expense of a heavily-exploited ‘bottom of the pyramid’ underclass.”[31] This sentiment closely mirrors the Occupy Movement’s call for social justice, setting the IIRC against the very governments that kowtow to them, and aligning them with those who argue for placing the needs of society above the needs of the market.

These are the voices, those of Welby, of the Green New Deal, of UNESCO, of the WHO, of the IIRC, and of the exploited underclass, from which we should create a global narrative that promotes social justice and the common good.   As Yuval Noah Harari has argued, “If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”[32]

In our search for a universal value, independent of civilizational clashes, we could do worse.

Tim Bovy has been teaching Japanese diplomats at EJEF, formerly the Euro-Japanese Exchange Foundation, since 2010, and is an elected member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London. Tim is also the CEO of Six Sentinels, an international consulting firm, located in London.  He has over 35 years of experience in designing information and risk management systems for organizations in Europe, the Middle East, and the US.  Tim has a BA, magna cum laude, from the University of Notre Dame, and MA and C.Phil degrees from the University of California, Davis.




[1]Fyodor Dostoyevsky “My Paradox” (Extract), available at https://russianuniverse.org/2015/04/16/my-paradox/

[2]Please see Footnote 1 above

[3]Evan Osnos, “The Future of America’s Contest with China,” The New Yorker, January 6, 2020, available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/13/the-future-of-americas-contest-with-china

[4]PLease see Footnote 3 above.

[5]David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, W. W. Norton & Company (2014), Kindle Edition

[6]Olga Soboleva, “The east wind of Russianess,” LSE Research Online, May 2017, available at : http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/75181/

[7]Adrian Pabst, “China, Russia and the return of the civilisational state,” 8 May 2019, New Statesman, available at https://www.newstatesman.com/2019/05/china-russia-and-return-civilisational-state

[8] Graham Allison, “China's Anti-Poverty Drive Has Lessons For All.” China Daily, August 11, 2018.

[9]Michael J. Green, By More than Providence, Columbia University Press, 2017, p.5

[10] A video clip of his speech can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqgQo-tTVTY; quoted in Xiangfeng Yang, “The great Chinese surprise: the rupture with the United States is real and is happening,” International Affairs, Volume 96, Number 2, March 2020, p. 424

[11] Brian Stelter, "Camps Are Cleared, but ‘99 Percent’ Still Occupies the Lexicon," The New York Times, November 30, 2011, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/us/we-are-the-99-percent-joins-the-cultural-and-political-lexicon.html

[12]Peter S. Goodman, “Europe’s Leaders Ditch Austerity and Fight Pandemic with Cash,” The New York Times, March 26, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/business/europe-economy-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare

[13]James Traub, The Regression of Viktor Orban, FP, October 31,2015, available athttp://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/31/the-regression-of-viktor-orban-hungary-europe/

[14]Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Baile Tusnad (Tusnádfürdo) of 26 July 2014 (https://budapestbeacon.com/full-text-of-viktor-orbans-speech-at-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/)

[15]“New Global Economics: The Shock & the Shift,” BBC World Service, 22 November 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02rspkt

[16]James Fallows, “Be Nice to the Countries that Lend You Money,” The Atlantic, December 2008, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/12/be-nice-to-the-countries-that-lend-you-money/307148/

[17]Jan-Werner Muller, “Moscow's Trojan Horse,” Foreign Affairs, August 6, 2014, available at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/central-europe/2014-08-06/moscows-trojan-horse

[18]Archbishop of Canterbury contender criticises banks,” The Telegraph, 27 October 2012, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/banksandfinance/9638148/Archbishop-of-Canterbury-contender-criticises-banks.html

[19]“The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy,” The Guardian, 29 April 2012, available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/apr/29/new-few-ferdinand-mount-review  

[20]Peter S. Goodman, “Europe’s Leaders Ditch Austerity and Fight Pandemic with Cash,” The New York Times, March 26, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/26/business/europe-economy-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare

[21] Editorial Board, "How to Avoid Complete Economic Destruction,"The New York Times, March 20, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/opinion/coronavirus-economy.html

[22]Neil Berry, “Insult to Human Reason,” TLS, January 4, 2017, available at https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/insult-to-human-reason/

[23]“Child poverty facts and figures,” available at http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

[24]Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crisis Changed the World, London: Allen Lane, 2018, p. 112

[25]Stephen Buranyi, “The WHO v Coronavirus,” The Guardian, 10 April 2020, available at https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/apr/10/world-health-organization-who-v-coronavirus-why-it-cant-handle-pandemic

[26]Johan Hattingh, “A question of international solidarity,” The UNESCO Courier, March 2019, available at https://en.unesco.org/courier/2019-3/question-international-solidarity

[27]James Fallows, “Be Nice to the Countries that Lend You Money,” The Atlantic, December 2008, available at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/12/be-nice-to-the-countries-that-lend-you-money/307148/

[28]Eric Klinenberg, “The Great Green Hope, The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2020, available at https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/04/23/great-green-hope/

[29] Max Fisher and Emma Bubola, "As Coronavirus Deepens Inequality, Inequality Worsens Its Spread," The New York Times, Published March 15, 2020 and Updated March 16, 2020, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/world/europe/coronavirus-inequality.html

[30] “Integrated Thinking & Strategy”, January 2020, available at https://integratedreporting.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Integrated-Thinking-and-Strategy-State-of-Play-Report_2020.pdf

[31]Please see Footnote 30 above..

[32] Yuval Noah Harari, “The World after Coronavirus,” Financial Times, March 20, 2020, available at https://www.ft.com/content/19d90308-6858-11ea-a3c9-1fe6fedcca75

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