Illustration: Craig Stephens
19 January 2023
– The West likes to argue that market capitalism and political liberalism go hand in hand; in reality, the former has proved far more powerful than the latter
– Having made countries around the world economically interdependent, the West should not expect them to jeopardise their global links by taking political sides
US President Joe Biden has framed the Ukraine war as a battle between “democracy and autocracy”, while also claiming that “the West is now stronger, more united than it has ever been”.
During a recent visit to Taiwan, former Danish leader and Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that, when combined, the world’s democracies represent 60 per cent of the global economy, providing an overwhelming deterrence to Beijing’s ambitions regarding Taiwan.
The irony is that, if we applied this logic to the Ukraine war, the US and Europe would have already won. In reality, the question is why there is no global democratic alliance on the war, with two of the world’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, preferring not to take sides or calling for negotiations.
Contrary to Biden and Rasmussen’s postulations, the Ukraine war is widening the global disparity between attitudes to the US, China and Russia. Cambridge University recently released a report that merges data from 30 global surveys spanning 137 countries.
It found that, “Among the 1.2 billion people who inhabit the world’s liberal democracies, three-quarters (75 per cent) now hold a negative view of China, and 87 per cent a negative view of Russia. However, for the 6.3 billion people who live in the rest of the world, the picture is reversed. In these societies, 70 per cent feel positively towards China, and 66 per cent positively towards Russia.”
Why is the world so divided over such a simple issue of political correctness in Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state? The answer lies in the contradiction between the West’s two inherent identities which tends to generate double standards when dealing with global affairs.
A screen shows results from a vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, during an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, on March 2, 2022. Photo: EPA-EFE
These two identities are “market capitalism” and “political liberalism”. The former refers to the capitalist mode of production, characterised by private ownership, capital accumulation, profit pursuit, surplus value and the like.
The latter is a system of norms and values based on individual civil rights, democracy, secularism, rule of law, and political, economic and religious freedom. Proponents of liberalism argue that the world would be peaceful if every country became a democracy, because “democratic states rarely, if ever, go to war with one another”.
Western ideologists believe there is a positive interconnection between these two systems: the success of the former will lead to the latter, while the achievement of the latter will further facilitate the former.
The West’s victory in the Cold War is heralded as a mark of the global triumph of these two systems. Regarding the first, the victory indicates that Western market capitalism is ubiquitous and powerful.
Economic growth in the form of wealth-seeking and self-enrichment is regarded as a common desire among all people. “High living standards” and “material well-being” are seen not merely as Western values but universal ones.
A shopping centre in Kunming, in southwest China’s Yunnan province, on January 1. There is widespread anxiety in the West that an illiberal China is becoming one of the world’s dominant powers. Photo: Xinhua
Since the end of the Cold War, West-driven globalisation has made market capitalism a truly global system, with every individual and state operating according to its dominant mode of functioning. Globalisation has resulted in a complex world structure characterised by interconnection, interdependence and inter-embedded systems.
It has also led to the fragmentation and decentralisation of production chains, as well as the worldwide dispersion and integration of the different segments of these chains. The rise of China’s pivotal position in global manufacturing supply chains, and Russia’s position in the global energy supply chain, are the outcomes of globalisation and global capitalism.
Regarding the second system, the outcome of the Cold War proves Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, marking “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. Liberalism has gone beyond the form of an ideology to become a tool used by the West to maintain and reinforce its status as the global hegemon.
Now, the underlying assumptions of the West’s dual identities are being challenged both by and by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Today, there is widespread anxiety in the West that an illiberal China is becoming one of the world’s dominant powers. The West suffers from “China syndrome”, a set of psychological symptoms characterised by fear, hysteria and demonisation.
This is because China’s economic success and its global rise do not conform to the interaction between the two identities. China is able not only to challenge them, but to offer alternatives with “Chinese characteristics”, making it a “systemic rival”.
When viewing the coverage of the Ukraine war, it becomes clear that major Western media outlets acknowledge the fact that the world is divided over the war, and so is Europe. Some EU countries have only implemented selective sanctions against Russia, while others have resisted joining the sanctions, especially those that are dependent on Russia’s energy supply.
Yes, sanctions hurt Russia, but they also contribute to disruptions in global supply chains, higher global commodity prices and a slowdown in global economic growth. As market capitalism’s law of value becomes the survival mechanism of every society, few countries would risk the loss of the Chinese market and the negative impact of sanctioning Russia for the sake of “defending democracy against autocracy”.
Having lived in the West for decades, I have come to the conclusion that there is nothing wrong with Western identities as such. The problem lies in the contradiction between them, so that whenever a choice has to be made between them, the law of value always takes priority, while liberal values are optional.
Many double-standard policies of the West are a result of this contradiction, which is why the world is divided today.
About the author
Professor Li Xing is the director of the Research Centre on Development and International Relations, Department of Politics and Society, at Aalborg University, Denmark.
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