The feeling of transition and transformation generally comes gradually more often than with a shocking revelation. The world may have changed at an unprecedented speed over the last couple of decades, but for most people it will take a while to depart from the habitual conceptions and internalize the notion that the world order today is very different from that of just twenty years ago.
For almost two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War it may have looked very reasonable to think that the entire world was destined to become like the West. The West had triumphed and that was because the West was just, humane and right. The 1990s were the era of the euphoria about globalization. It may well have been the most optimistic era in history.
Not even 9/11 and the painful realization that there was a large part of the world that was fundamentally different and possibly unreconcilable with the Western ideals of good changed much of that. The West was still strong and very self-confident and, having been under attack, arguably had a legitimate claim to the moral high ground.
At the turn of the millennium the West had a virtual monopoly of technology and like no-one else could win the hearts of minds of billions of people around the world. The West stood for progress, the West alone could altruistically stand for freedom and democracy for all. It has a global appeal that others could not come close to. The globalized world was undoubtedly going to be a Western, that is mostly American, world. Over the next few years, however, a serious of events were to change that and undermine the West in the eyes of many.
The first of these events was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The US accused its former ally Saddam Hussein of hoarding chemical weapons. The picture of Colin Powell, then US Secretary of State, exhibiting what he purported to be a sample of Iraq chemical weapons at the UN general assembly became iconic. The toppling of Saddam Hussein set Iraq and the entire Middle East in a state of chaos. The dream of exporting democracy and Western values to the Middle East, as if they were a universal good that could make nations proper anywhere and at any time, turned out into death and destruction for millions of people.
Then the 2008 financial crisis destroyed the promise of Western economic hegemony. Millions of people lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands lost their houses and in the most prosperous region on earth, millions could not afford a decent standard of living any more. The dream of shared prosperity, in the face of the increasing divide between the rich and the not so rich, began to look like a chimera. The middle class was suddenly a thing of the past. The Millennials and generation Z may well be the first two generations in many years who will end up being poorer than their parents, in spite of generally being more educated and living in a richer world. 13 years have passed but many Western countries have not yet recovered from the 2008 Great Recession.
For years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Western model seemed to have no rival. Communism as an alternative way of organizing economic and political life had shown all its terrifying limits and had led to shameful poverty and failure. Communism was inhumane and belonged to the dustbin of history. China began to enter the perception of the Western public around the time it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Its rise has been steady and powerful and it looked and still looks unstoppable. If before China was just the cheap factory working mainly Western companies and had a reputation for low quality goods, in the space of two decades China has become a leading player in technology. China has grown more confident and now there are several respected Chinese brands that have become successful in the West too. China, a country with a culture that goes back thousands of years and an identity so very different from the globalized ideal the contemporary man, historically never had ambitions of world domination. It has learned however to prosper thanks to trade with the world and it has sought to expand its influence with investments in many country and the Belt and Road Initiative, the largest infrastructure investment project in history.
The upheavals that shook the Arab world in 2011 promised a new era of justice and democracy in this part of the world. Since the beginning, the narrative of the popular protests against the tyrannical rule of old oppressive regimes was romanticized. The phrase “Arab Spring”, a direct reference to the Springtime of nations of 1848 and Prague Spring of 1968, caught on very early on. The romantic revolutions, which enjoyed the moral and later military support of the West, led to two still ongoing civil wars, in Libya and Syria, hundreds of thousands of deaths and the near collapse of the two states. In Egypt, the revolution first brought Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood, to power, but twelve months later he was forcefully removed when the army, once again, took the reins of government after a coup. In Syria, the US support for the “moderate” Islamists against Bashar Assad, ended up unintentionally strengthening the more radical elements of the opposition that formed the core of ISIS, the Islamic Caliphate. Different people have different romantic dreams. War and destruction in the Middle East led to an unquestionable loss of authority of the West in the region.
The Ukrainian crisis starting in 2014 is another tale of betrayed hopes and disillusionment. Unhappy with their standards of living and hoping to better their lives through an association with the European Union, Ukrainians brought down a President that after careful consideration, had decided to associate himself and his country with Russia, mainly for economic reasons and historical ties. The revolution that initially looked like another triumph of the west, led to Ukraine losing part of its territory to Russia and a war in the East of the country. Seven years on, the dreams of Western easy prosperity have failed to materialize and the country is stuck in a conflict that periodically goes through cold and warmer phases. Europe and the Unites States, at the beginning ecstatic about the prospect of Ukraine joining the Western block, now seem not to be willing to pay too high a price for it.
But the most transformative moment of the last few years could be the pandemic that has wrecked the world for the past year and a half. While the disease originated in China, China appears to be the country that recovered quicker than the rest of the world. The West and much of the world was going through a cycle of lockdowns and reopenings well into 2021, one year and a half after the beginning of the pandemic, while China dealt with the emergency in a few months. It was one of the few countries that showed economic growth even in 2020, while in many Western countries 2020 saw a contraction of almost 10%.
Being a world power is of course not just about economic growth but in a capitalist world order, needless to say, money is power. China is a respected business partner for many Western countries but compared to the West it probably lacks what can be referred to as a global credit of trust. Many countries are in general suspicious of China and see it exclusively as an authoritarian and repressive alien regime. But if China emerges from this crisis on a much better footing than the West, there will be nothing to do about it other than dealing with it. The new world may not become a Chinese world. China does not try to shape the world in its image the way America has tried to do. But in an interconnected world where economic prowess and technological edge matter more than vague promises of freedom and democracy, China could be the true rational and technocratical maker of the global future.