Martin Leet emailed me the link to my first Brisbane Line article of 2011 about the decline of the West. It was written before the Arab spring, but appeared after the overthrow of the despotic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and, inter alia, reflected my concern that the Arab people showed no sign of rising up against their rulers. You can read the article here.


Nothing lasts. Intellectually I knew that the centuries long global dominance of the west, which is the context for much of my life experience and from which I have derived immense benefit, was bound to decline. For decades I never imagined I would see it begin in my life time. Over the years, I recognised the record of capricious voting patterns on human rights issues in the UN as a tell-tale sign of a dent in western influence. At first glance, the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup with its dubious voting procedure and Qatar’s puzzling victory, could be regarded as a further instance. A fundamentalist led, revitalised Islam, presents a challenge, though not only to the west. But it is the economic rise of China which provides incontrovertible proof of the west’s incipient decline.

Perhaps this is why I now have a bleak sense that for much of the world’s population, achieving prosperity may always have counted for more than achieving political freedom. That until the rise of China, the values associated with advanced democracies had a world-wide appeal because they were the wealthiest countries. The fact that China acquired its economic strength without having democratic values, is bound to diminish their appeal. For a substantial part of the post war period material well-being was identified with liberal democratic capitalism, rather than soviet communism. Chinese communism prevails thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s master stroke of embracing economic freedom while shunning political freedom. For the past 30 years everyone who thought that economic freedom would inevitably lead to political freedom has been proved wrong.

When I was on holiday in China in October 2007, Hu Jintao, addressing the five yearly Communist Party Congress, stated that his government’s aim was for China to be a ‘moderately prosperous country by 2020.’ By this he meant that the per capita income would be at a tipping point guaranteeing the kind of prosperity now enjoyed by the world’s advanced economies in Europe, Asia, North America and Australasia. These economies all belong to countries which have more or less embraced democracy. There is no sign that China, having opted for a politically authoritarian way to wealth, is set to join them. It is for the future to reveal whether China will attain the per capita level of income enjoyed by Australians and Germans and whether this would liberalise its politics.

In my November 2008 article ‘Ridding the World of Tyrants’, I wrote about a systemic failure of liberal democracies to develop a concerted policy of answering peoples’ cries for freedom wherever in the world they might occur. I cited European colonialism and the Cold War as among the reasons for this failure. Significant European colonialism lingered into the late 1970s and the US supported successive Central and South American dictators because they opposed Communism. Tragically, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the liberal democracies, by now including Germany and Japan, did not have the resolve to usher in a genuine new world order by together supporting global cries for freedom. This lost opportunity may have reflected the failure of leaders and people in the liberal democracies to sufficiently value their own freedoms.

Instead, the Chinese seized the initiative and brought about the new world order which had eluded the American-led west. The phrase is not as recent as it might appear, having been used in hope after the first World War. The advanced liberal democracies share and with varying degrees of success, uphold the principles of freedom of speech, freedom from discrimination, accountability through free and fair elections and judicial independence. In their evolved form, these principles owe much to the enlightenment with its secularising influence on society. In its deep hostility to this heritage, the religious right in the US is a persistent threat to democracy.

I am not aware of any other contemporary system of government which I would find more acceptable and which offers individuals, in their hundreds of millions, a happier life. Chinese communism is one of the alternative systems. Anti-secular government, occurring in  varying degrees in the Middle East and Asia and  at its worst, akin to the theocratic government of Iran, is another. Dictatorship is a third. To complicate matters, anti-secular government may exist in large parts of a notionally secular state, as in Pakistan. For me the defining question in assessing a system of government is: what happens to dissent?, meaning overt and profound disagreement by citizens with the actions and decisions of government, particularly concerning basic human rights. In the case of the aforementioned alternative systems the answer is that dissent is not tolerated and is unlikely to occur. This is a hard to imagine and intolerable state of affairs for anyone who cherishes fundamental liberal democratic principles and sees them as representing universal political and human values. In Russia, the government seems to be reverting to type by keeping an increasingly tight rein on dissent. It could end up like China.

In a recent and timely Guardian Weekly article, Turkish Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk wrote about the fading of Turkey’s dream of ‘a rosy-pink Europe’. One possible reason he gave is that ‘Turkey is no longer as poor as it once was’. Another is that it is ‘a dynamic nation with a strong civil society’. He knows from his travels ‘that Turkey and other non-western countries are disenchanted with Europe’. He mentioned France as ‘the country most vehemently opposed to the idea of Turkey in Europe’ and the feeling of betrayal this elicited because France, with its understanding of secularism, its education, literature and art had  inspired Turkey’s elite for the past century. But mainly he cited Europe’s complicity in the Iraq war (in which, ironically, France took no part) as the main reason why non-western countries are disappointed with Europe. The risk with an article like Pamuk’s is that it could become an apologia for countries with societal faults of a totally different order to those that exist in Europe. I suspect that many of the non-western countries to which he refers may not have Turkey’s wealth or dynamic civil society.

This is much more the case with Pankaj Mishra who writes (also in a Guardian Weekly article)  in combative anti-western and anti-secular terms, about Muslim politics. He makes a telling point about how they helped to guide Indonesia and to a lesser extent Malaysia towards democratic government after a period of rule by a post-colonial establishment. Mishra understandably resents colonial and subsequent western intrusion in the affairs of the developing world, particularly Islamic nations. It is fair for him to question the ‘expectation that societies entering the modern world will and should grow less religious’. But in so doing he is not acting in good faith. He claims that the expectation ‘has always rested on the narrow experience of a tiny minority of Europeans’ and then writes dismissively of ‘the secularising phases experienced by a few European countries – Reformation, Enlightenment, whatever’. He rejects, or at best pays no more than lip service to the universal values on which the very same democracy he praises in Indonesia and Malaysia, is based. He apparently has a higher regard for parochial values. He refers with sublime equanimity to Islam remaining ‘defiantly vital in economically resurgent and democratic south-east Asia as well as among the Middle East’s struggling despotisms’.

I have a deep concern that from now on, the values I hold dear will have less and less sway in the various world forums (political, economic, military and sporting) than they had in the past. Their spiritual home is in the old democracies whose population, already a minority, will form an ever smaller percentage of the world’s people. The west emerged from the Cold War on the winning side. Barely two decades later it seems destined to end up on the losing side. Like Brasil and India, China is still a develpoing country. Its now considerable influence will increase as it forms alliances with like-minded countries. Its immense trade surpluses finance much of the current US deficit as well as strategic investments in resources, many located in the developing world where China’s economic clout is likely to pay political dividends. The democratic values dear to me whose influence appears to be on the wane, co-exist with other, harsher, less tolerant ones whose influence threatens to prevail. If this  is the future, we had better start getting used to it.

Peter Kuttner

January 2011