The Upside of Western Decline

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I view the US and its western allies as very positive forces in international politics. US nation building policies during the 40s and 50s constructed much of the modern first world. The US civil rights movement, the anti-colonization movement running parallel to it in Britain, France, and other Western nations, democracy promotion efforts and trade effort have helped form a world that’s never been safer or more accountable. US led globalization has fostered a world that has never been richer. Because of the radically open society and unprecedented acceptance of immigrants- legal or illegal, it doesn’t really matter much on a practical level – the US has nurtured cultural exchange, innovation and creativity on a scale not previously seen. The US, since emerging from its isolationist bubble in the 19th century, has been an extraordinarily good, exceptionally useful thing for world politics.

That said, since the 1990s US and Western influence has waned relative to the East. This isn’t necessarily bad. Entities without competition tend toward corruption and decay. The third world is catching up and bringing billions of previously impoverished people with it. With these billions of well educated, engaged foreigners out there, it is inevitable they will feel more and more comfortable rejecting Western values, not out of patriotism, not out of ethnic pride or some other affliction, but because they genuinely have something better in mind.

This brings us to the less appealing part of the discussion. Due either to cowardice, naivete or a combination of the two, the United States and its allies prosecuted the War on Terror. The panic was so great regarding the very sad, very well publicized but also relatively minor incidents of 9-11 that American voters were happy to toss their reputation for lawfulness in the shitter. The US and its allies waged aggressive war without valid cause against Iraq, which happens to be exactly the same thing that got the Japanese war criminals of the 40s executed. We the voters declared ourselves above the Geneva Conventions and suspended habeus corpus  all the while making hypocritical accusations about lawlessness in China, Russia and pretty much every other bad actor America should have been shaming. We voters murdered civilians with our intelligence forces and then covered it up. We also supported torture.

Had the US and its close allies succumbed to those fears – what an outsider could easily call cowardice – 20 years ago, I think it very likely much of the rest of the world would have grabbed hold our failures and used it as a justification to kill people with secret police, wage aggressive war, ignore international law and torture whomever they pleased. “The Western Powers do it, why can’t we?”

So why haven’t we heard this excuse? Why haven’t we seen global backsliding in matters of law, accountability and integration? I submit that it is at least partly because the US and its allies spread democracy, globalization, cultural pluralism and international law so wide, so thoroughly before this decade long panic attack that those virtues became self-sustaining. Like diversifying an investment portfolio, having responsible nations around the world protects the whole against the failure of any one part. The US and its allies failed during the War on Terror in almost every way we could have failed and yet we did not bring the whole concept of post war, modern statehood with us. We in the West are no longer so special and that’s a good thing, because making responsibility the new normal makes everybody better off. It also makes the rest of the world more able to catch us when we slip.

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