Why the Western World Model needs reinventing

Inequality levels are alarming. Democracy is under threat. If the West is in crisis, is it a global priority?
By: /
June 16, 2015
Former ambassador of Canada to the OECD and current president of the New School of Athens

“The Western world is ending and we are witnessing the last season of the Faustian Civilization.” — Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West (1918)

"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” — Francis Fukuyama, The End of History (1989)

Which of these statements is true? Now? Later? Is the demise of the West a foregone conclusion?

The New School of Athens (NSOA), an international think tank which I have the privilege of leading, is launching a three year, multi-stakeholder initiative jointly based in Montreal and Paris to try and answer these questions.

Here is our thinking behind the project.

What do we mean by the ‘West’?

In a geographical sense, the West is centered on the Atlantic Economy, with Europe on one side and North America on the other. If extended to include Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, we end up with the 34 member countries of the OECD. These account for 60 percent of the world economic output vs. 17 percent for China and 6 percent for India.

Therefore if there is decline, it has not happened yet.

Straight line extrapolation may tempt us to conclude that China’s growth rates will continue indefinitely into the future, but wise forecasting teaches us that growth rates rarely remain constant and, usually, reach natural ceilings. It follows that the relative decline of the Geographical West is indeed possible but is not a foregone conclusion.

Beyond the Geographical West is what we call the Western World Model (WWM). Its foundations are, as Arnold Toynbee once pointed out, Greek Philosophy, plus Roman and Common Law, plus Judeo-Christian values. In turn, these have spawned subsidiary ideologies such as capitalism, socialism, the defense of private property, the Westphalian World System of national sovereignty, etc.

Decline or not, for most intents and purposes the WWM is, today, the de facto world constitution. It applies to most of Planet Earth and is only challenged by rogue states such as ISIS seeking to establish a rival ‘caliphate’ whose long-term sustainability in the face of modernity is very much in doubt. Beheadings and governing are not the same thing.

What about China? Is there a Chinese Model? Some will argue that contemporary China is just an adaptation of Western state capitalism, a form of Colbertism, which was the type of mercantilism practiced under Louis XIV by his chancellor Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The latter promoted the use of state companies to further the economic expansion of his country which is what exactly what Chinese State Capitalism seems to do.

Even if we were to claim that there is an authentic contemporary Chinese Model, this same model is designed to apply just to China. As far as we can tell there is not, at this point, a CWM (Chinese World Model). We must therefore conclude that the WWM (Western World Model) is, for good or for ill, the only credible world model for now.

What is wrong with the West?

In spite of all the positive achievements of WWM in the last two centuries, the model is in crisis. A number of areas need to be, at least updated, if not reinvented. To accomplish this, the NSOA is setting up 12 multi-stakeholder task forces in four focus areas, (1) Socio-economics, (2) Governance (3) Values and Culture and (4) The West and the Rest of the World, in order to propose improvements and solutions.

We obviously cannot describe each of these 12 task forces here, but what we can do is point out some of the more critical ones.

In the socio-economic field, the nexus around growing income inequality and rising structural unemployment is the most dangerous. Inequality has reached a level that is truly alarming. Trickle down economics is not working. A ‘winner takes all’ dynamic is concentrating wealth in a quarter of one per cent of the world’s population. At the same time, automation is advancing by leaps and bounds and eliminating jobs. By 2030, some estimates claim that 47 percent of industrial jobs in the West will be taken over by robots. We are not institutionally equipped to deal with this double threat. Something must be done and soon.

In the governance field, probably the greatest source of concern is the crisis of Western Democracy. In the United States, the influence of money is so great that we seem to be moving away from the original ideal of ‘one person, one vote’ to the plutocratic alternative of ‘one dollar one vote,’ including ‘one corporate dollar one vote.’ In Europe the representativeness of elected officials is increasingly challenged and perceived “democratic deficits” are gaining ground.

The flagship of the West is Democracy. If it is corrupted, how can we hope to export it to the Rest of the world?

In the values and culture focus, there are at least two crisis points: (a) How do we deal with multiculturalism? What Western cultures must be preserved? How much accommodation should be given to other cultures such as Islam? (b) How do we deal with immigration? In Europe there is a distinct backlash against migrants and anti-immigrant parties are flourishing. In the U.S., immigration is an even hotter issue since the influx of newcomers, legal and illegal, may well determine the future shape of the electorate and America’s political future.

As far as the West and the world is concerned, there are, at least, three problem areas: (a) Geo-economics: how can the West cope with globalization and its consequences (b) Geo-politics: how can global security be ensured in an era of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare? Should NATO, a Western institution, become global? (c) What is the West’s responsibility in promoting sustainable development and mitigate climate change?

Why should reinventing the West be a global rather than a regional priority?

The cumulative effect of these vulnerabilities, if ignored, can lead to system breakdown. If 60 percent of the world economy were to collapse, as it almost did in 2008, the effects will be truly global. In addition, if our proposition claiming that the WWM is the dominant world model, reinventing the West will imply reinventing the world system, hopefully for the better.

This is why it should be a global priority to be undertaken very soon.

But we have to warn against two misinterpretations of the Reinventing the West initiative.

The first is the mistaken assumption that it does not recognize the major contributions of Western Civilization to world history and that we are ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The very notion of ‘reinvention’ as opposed to say, ‘revolution’ is to acknowledge our debt to the past and propose renewal, restructuring, repositioning, when these are necessary, while preserving the cultural DNA of the West.

Reinventing the West means changing what has gone bad while preserving the good.

The second is to wrongly believe that Reinventing the West could become a new form of Western imperialism. On the contrary, the reinvention process implies a major mea culpa. Change is needed. Subtle change to be sure, not in opposition to other cultures but in symbiosis with them. This is why it would be imperative to include in the reinvention process itself, non-Western stakeholders who could act as critics and outside observers.

In fact, we believe that the success of the Reinventing the West Project will be its ability to inspire alternative models, not in the context of the clash of civilizations but in that of a convivial competition of philosophies of life.

Let a thousand flowers bloom. Let Chinese, Indian and other world models emerge.

The more the merrier.

This piece is based on a recent talk at the Canadian International Council’s Montreal branch.