Alex Lo: Even the West no longer thinks Western values are universal

Alex Lo: Even the West no longer thinks Western values are universal

From: Une artiste confronte les différences entre l’Orient et l’Occident

Alex Lo

May 12, 2023

“Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,/ Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;/ But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,/ When two strong men stand face to face though they come from the ends of the earth!”
The Ballad of East and West,

Rudyard Kipling

When I was in university and the Asian tiger economies were just starting to roar in the 1980s, political leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad started promoting what they called “Asian values”, that is beliefs, practices and norms that they claimed, underpinned the region’s success.

They were mercilessly hounded. Western critics said there were no such things as Asian values, and Lee and Mahathir were just trying to justify Asian authoritarianism. There were only “universal values”, many said and still say today, which of course were all of European origins. Western values were universal while Asian values were at best of limited value and at worst were of no value except for political propaganda.

How times have changed. Lately I notice the talk of values is back on the lips of Western politicians while commenting on foreign threats, but especially “the China threat”. However, their rhetoric has fundamentally changed. It is now our (Western) values vs theirs. I did a quick Google search and immediately came up with some juicy quotes, all from the past two months.

Originally published by the South China Morning Post, December 8, 2022

Speaking at the G20 summit in Bali, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “China unequivocally poses a systemic threat – well, a systemic challenge – to our values and our interests.”

An official document laying out Canada’s new Indo-Pacific strategy said: “China is looking to shape the international order into a more permissive environment for interests and values that increasingly depart from ours.”

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said global norms in the 21st century must be defined by “American values”.

So, they are not even Western or European values but American values.

Today, it’s back to “us vs them”, and that’s why it’s our values against theirs. And, given the often difficult transatlantic relationship between the European Union and the United States, their current professed brotherhood over Ukraine notwithstanding, it’s not surprising that Austin cited American values specifically.

How different it was back then. The late 1980s and 1990s were heady days for the West. The Cold War had been won. After centuries of war and genocide, Europe was becoming one big family. The US emerged as the most powerful nation ever in history, not only for its military might, but for what contemporary Chinese scholars have called its dominant “discourse power”.

The universal West then defined the purpose and goal of the rest of the world, which was to be more like it.

In his bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the famous US journalist Thomas L. Friedman called it “the Golden Straitjacket”. You want to become rich and free like the West, you’d better put it on. He wrote: “Unfortunately, this Golden Straitjacket is pretty much ‘one-size fits all’ … It is not always pretty or gentle or comfortable. But it’s here and it’s the only model on the rack this historical season.”

That was why what the West believed and held sacred must be of universal value and applicability. After all, History with a capital H has already passed judgment; it’s “the end of history”.

Since then, though, the West, but especially the US, has been humbled, not least by “the rise of the rest”, but by their own internal conflicts, collapses and contradictions. The unipolar moment has passed, and a more chaotic period has followed as the world tries to establish a multipolar international order.

While collectively, it is still the richest and militarily the most powerful, the confidence of the West in its historical mission and destiny has evaporated. It has effectively declared: “If we can’t make them like us, then we will have to treat them as a threat.”

The universality of triumph has been replaced by the defensive particularity of insecurity. Instead of spreading the Gospels, the most you can do is to defend them. But when you feel insecure, having 1,000 military bases worldwide and all the nukes in the world won’t help.

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About the author

Alex Lo has been a columnist at South China Morning Post, SCMP, since 2012, covering major issues affecting Hong Kong and the rest of China. A journalist for 25 years, he has worked for various publications in Hong Kong and Toronto as a news reporter and editor. He has also lectured in journalism at the University of Hong Kong. More of his excellent columns can be found here.

5 Responses to "Alex Lo: Even the West no longer thinks Western values are universal"

  1. smalltalkrenaissance   June 8, 2023 at 8:23 pm

    It is laughable that America is trying to push its political values as supreme. We can see how well these values have served the American people in recent decades…

    – deep, chronic political division and turmoil (January 6, 2021)
    – crushing national debt
    – crumbling infrastructure
    – unaffordable health care
    – rampant homelessness
    – rampant gun violence and mass shootings
    – systemic racism (“I can’t breathe”)
    – mass incarceration
    – opioid epidemic
    – increasing poverty and food insecurity
    – declining public education

    Just to list the obvious ones.

    So Asian countries should adopt American values to obtain the above outcome? Why???

    China vastly outperforms America, economically, technologically, socially, politically. The Chinese people are much happier than the American people. Want proof?

    Edelman Trust Barometer 2023 shows that 89 percent of Chinese trust their government. China has the most trusted government in the world.

    The Global Happiness 2023 survey from Ipsos shows that China is the happiest country in the world at 91 percent.

    Latana’s Democracy Perception Index 2023 shows that China is one of the most democratic countries in the world, well ahead of USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. China is #6 at 73 percent.

    Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School in 2020 reported that 95.5 percent of Chinese are satisfied with their government.

    A 2019 UC San Diego study shows a high level of satisfaction among the Chinese across a range of aspects up to 95 percent.

    A November 2019 Ipsos survey shows that 95 percent of Chinese believe their country is on the right track.

    Western countries, especially the United States, can only dream of having such numbers.

  2. F Jahanpour   May 29, 2023 at 5:35 pm

    There was a time when the United States was open-minded and cosmopolitan and believed in the principles of equality of all people, breaking down the barriers of class, race, wealth and status, and enabling everyone to achieve the best of his or her ability. That was the American dream and, for a while, it was hoped that the Americans would become beacons of hope and progress throughout the world, breaking down the old European colonial and imperialist norms.

    Unfortunately, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of a unipolar world coincided with the emergence of a nasty cabal of American neo-imperialists, calling themselves Neo-Conservatives. They believed in the inherent superiority of what they called American values. They preached American exceptionalism, talked of the American century and America’s right to spread its version of democracy by means of full-spectrum dominance, which was really an excuse for the establishment of a new empire.

    What is so surprising is that many European countries, heirs to great empires, surrendered totally to this new status of regarding themselves not so much as America’s allies, but as her vassals. The grotesque spectacle of the arrival of a US president in a European country, with the use of special US presidential guards, the Beast, and all the paraphernalia of the projection of power is the best testimony to this one-sided relationship. It is as though these countries do not possess any police or security forces able to protect the US president during his shot visit, and no vehicles to transport him to where he (and so far it has only been he) wants to go.

    This situation is not only absurd and demeaning for Europeans, but is completely contrary to US principles and ideals. The sooner the world grows up and demands equality with the Americans the better, because the current situation has resulted in endless wars, violence, the destruction of many countries, as well as American human and material losses. Above all, it is contrary to the spirit and the letter of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and the vision of the early fathers.

    • JO   May 29, 2023 at 7:32 pm

      Thank you soooo much, dear friend. You summarize the macro perspective so well in a tiny few phrases. Europe’s submissiveness and lack of every ability to create something new and US-independent is a tragedy beyond at least my words. The key to much of it is of curse the perverse ‘mission civilisatrice’ – the White Man’s Burden – and all that crap. Exceptionalism and hubris are other key concepts. Ther eis only one way – as you also say – that The Rest grows mature and cooperate to balance The West and that the West bows down to cooperate in its own best interest instead of losing in the attempt to continue its domination. I fear the West does not have the wisdom, the strategy or the flexibility to adapt. And that makes i very very dangerous.
      However, if we survive the West’s decline and fall – it WILL be a much better, balanced, cooperative and more peaceful world. And that is what both you, TFF and I are working on, isn’t it!?

  3. Jann Pedersen   May 13, 2023 at 4:36 am

    Western values do not exist on their own. Socalled “western values” are all based on historical chinese cultural traditions and of all other eastern cultural traditions historically of the many main cultures developed all over the east. Another main part of socalled “western values” are based on arabic cultural traditions from the arabian cultures of Africa, Saudi Arabia and over to the beginning of the eastern cultural areas. There is no independent european cultural tradition, as all european cultural tradition historically came from the east, from the arab cultures and from african cultures. Also from the many traditions of the Osman cultures.
    Socalled western values has historically to be found in the colonialization of the Indians territories mainly from 1492 and in the colonialization of the east and Africa beginning at the same time. Western values can only be defined as colonial and imperialistic historically and as they are used nowadays. Colonial to be understood historically, as neo-colonialism and of imperialism as politically repression and exploytation.

    • JO   May 29, 2023 at 7:25 pm

      Thank you, Jann Pedersen. I agree – being no historian, I must admit – that so much was inspired from, or based on as you say, various cultures around the world. But I am slightly hesitant to agree with the view that there was nothing ‘Western’ in an of itself and that what it boils down to is colonial and imperialist. Yes, that is there – pervasively – but there is something else the Western world, grosso modo, has also created for the good of itself AND the rest. But a) I appreciate your commenting on this important article and b) we do not have to agree to both be happy 🙂


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