Scents of faded grandeur in the ‘West’?

Posted on 06 October 2010

Have you noticed the number of times news report that the ‘West’ is fading? How many times do we hear of the decline of the West, and of the rise of the ‘rest’? There are indeed many indicators underlining this gradual power shift. Only recently, I’ve read that China is willing to buy Greece’s debt – getting much sought-after transfer of skills in maritime know-how in the deal; that Saudi Arabia and Brazil are both becoming heavy weights in the realm of humanitarian affairs; that Bollywood increasingly invests in Hollywood; that eastern companies are increasingly buying shares and controlling western companies – think the Indian Tata owning Jaguar and Land Rover; and that even Ben Laden is warning about climate change while Bush junior has probably not face this reality yet from the cosiness of his ranch! These random examples constitute only a glimpse of East-West dynamics but can be still interpreted as underscoring this gradual shift.

While some authors compare the US to the declining Roman empire and others praise the rise of a multipolar world, most agree that the future of geopolitics remains uncertain. Some increasingly fear a confrontation between the US and China, notably over the control of natural resources, others believe that shared interests will prevent the US to fall completely and China to take over it. Nevertheless and despite these uncertainties, few however dispute the power shift from the West to the East.

One scholar however – Michael Cox from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) – argues in the latest edition of the LSE Research magazine (p.24) that we shouldn’t write off the West yet. Although he acknowledges that transpacific flux outnumber transatlantic ones, that the global economic centre of gravity indeed moves eastward, he contends that  “a sharp headline and dramatic assertions are not substitute for the facts, and the facts remain that the western powers overall still retain some structural advantages.

He then recalls some facts such as that the US’ GDP still reaches 14 trillion USD compared to  China’s 8 trillion; that many in China, Russia, India, Brazil or South-Africa remain extraordinarily poor by western standards; that the hungry of the world – along with the South’s brains – continue entering the West – not China; that in terms of hard power, US’s investment in military affairs gives them a dramatic advantage that will last for many more decades; and that in terms of soft power, countries all around the world are still copying the US model – not the Chinese weak dictatorship. As he says, outsiders “are now knocking very hard at the door, indeed they have even entered the room itself. But the room, we should note, was designed by the West. And when they got inside they have all tended to behave on most, if not all, issues like those who had been sitting on the high table for some time.”

The West in other words, is not dead yet. Sick, weak, and shaken certainly. But not dead yet. A point in case: what foreign language would you first teach your kids: English or Mandarin?


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