This year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Francis Fukuyama’s famous book about the ‘end of history’, the triumphant proclamation of the eternal victory of western liberal democracy. In The End of History and the Last Man from 1992, Fukuyama saw the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the endgame of ideological conflicts. With the undisputed domination of Western liberal democracy, the last ideological phase of humanity would have arrived. “Only liberal democracy offers individual citizens leeway to live in accordance with their preferences and the ability to determine their collective destiny. This is the source of its enduring appeal, and the reason why history eventually tends to its triumph.”
The context of this anniversary is heavily loaded. More than ever, the West is besieged by authoritarian forces. It is being challenged by a highly successful China and it is literally under attack from Putin’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin thought he could rewrite the post-war security order, but encountered uncalculated unity and steadfastness from the West. The transatlantic partnership of Europe and America responded with an unprecedented heavy sanctions package, isolating Russia, and with political and military support for Ukraine.
Putin’s Ukraine war can be said to have been totally counterproductive. He has revived and united ‘the West’. The transatlantic link is back alive and kicking after Donald Trump’s frozen relations and President Macron’s feints toward a “brain dead” NATO and “European strategic autonomy.” The end of the West seemed in sight.
The representation of a European all entrance – of a European Union without a close partnership with the United States – is not only historically risky, but has also proved very naive from a security policy point of view. Post-historical Europe is in a geopolitical shock after the invasion of Ukraine and is still completely underdeveloped in terms of strategic culture and deterrence. More serious: in a world where the West is besieged and challenged by authoritarian regimes, in which there is less concern with ‘the freedom and dignity of the individual citizen’ – what the German historian Heinrich August Winkler has called ‘the West’s normative project’. mentioned – we cannot afford a distance between America and Europe at all.
Also read this essay: Crusaders of universalism: Afghanistan had to become like us
No longer the measure of things
In still other ways we can identify a ‘return of the West’. For example, the West has largely fallen back on itself, as Western universalism has hit its limits in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Propagating the Western values of democracy and the rule of law by force of arms has not proved very successful, to say the least.
More importantly, the Western, multilateral, rules-based, international order is no longer the measure of things. The West is an illusion poorer: great powers like Russia and China ‘are not going to be like us anyway’. The idea of Walk through Trade, autocratic countries change through economic ties to the West, has failed. There is no obvious global convergence to the Western model. That’s the hangover from Fukuyama’s idea of a universal Western liberal democracy.
Yet the West (in a broad sense: including Japan, South Korea and Latin America) is now redefining itself against assertive autocracies. Under President Joe Biden, the so-called Alliance of Democracy called in life. Initially, Germany and France in particular refused to join, fearing that they would end up in a new bipolar world order, a new Cold War. After the invasion of Ukraine, it remains to be seen whether such a Cold War between democracies and autocracies can be prevented. The role of China in the further course of developments is crucial.
The greatest threat to the West is the West itself, the authoritarian winds don’t just come from outside
The corona crisis and the Ukraine war have highlighted how strategically vulnerable global economic chains have become. Masks and medicines from China, oil and gas from Russia, the international payment system Swift as a sanctions weapon: geo-economic interdependence encourages countries and companies to operate more autonomously. According to several observers, the so-called return of Great Power Competition to a process of deglobalization and strategic decoupling of economies. The IMF warns that the global economy could disintegrate into geopolitical blocs, with their own technological standards, payment systems and reserve currencies.
The West is also back in reflecting on its core values. The greatest threat to the West is the West itself. The authoritarian wind doesn’t just come from outside. The ubiquitous popular uprising of populism shows that in recent neoliberal decades the West has been disloyal to its own ideals of “optimal life chances and equal respect”, creating a risky divide between globalization winners and losers. In the words of journalist Bill Emmott: “Without openness the West cannot thrive, without equality the West cannot last†
The greatest strength of the West has always been a combination of intellectual self-criticism and optimistic belief in progress. The main internal threats to this at the moment are a continuation of the technocratic market society, which is ruining the post-war middle class society; an apocalyptic, human-indifferent climate policy; and an identity politics wokism, in which the West is merely reduced to the burden and scars of its history (colonialism, racism, sexism).
Also read this article by Ian Buruma: What does Donald Trump actually mean by ‘the West’?
It is far too early to make a stable analysis of the fallout from the Ukraine war – we have no idea how it will end. We must also be careful that the longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the unity of the West is preserved. Yet the war could provide a new momentum for the Western world, a momentum to re-defend and strengthen the idea of the free democratic society both internationally and domestically.
How can we find new political energy against both the external authoritarian and internal populist threat? How should we deal with the (left-wing) self-hatred of the West? How to restore pride in the social rule of law and western middle-class society? To this end, the sharp social dividing lines between theoretically and practically educated people must be Anywheres and Somewheresglobalization winners and losers, center and periphery, are being overcome as a new foundation for a robust Western democracy, able to withstand the heat of this ‘authoritarian 21st century’.