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22 November 2023

The West’s dominance is a dangerous delusion

Hubris and ignorance might prove decisive in its proxy wars in Ukraine and Israel, and in its economic contest with China.

By Wolfgang Münchau

David Cameron has promised that the UK will support Ukraine for “however long it takes”. For someone with an estimated political afterlife of approximately one year, this is a promise bordering on delusion. There is always an election or some other intruding event on the wrong side of our allies’ time horizon.

The future in Ukraine and the Middle East holds many possibilities. A glorious victory is one. But so is total defeat. The West might lose its proxy wars in both Ukraine and Israel, and its economic war against China too. The meltdown scenario is not a prediction, but a plausible outcome.

How can this even be? The West is so much wealthier than China or Russia. Its militaries are superior. The US is still the global leader in tech, with a lot of impressive gizmos in development. We have stable political systems. Why does this not settle the debate?

[See also: Spain’s amnesty for Catalan separatists is a dilemma for the EU]

There are several reasons. First, the West’s social fabric has been disintegrating. Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump were not the anomalies that liberal defenders of the status quo predicted they would be. Brazil has had Jair Bolsonaro. Argentina has just elected Javier Milei, the ultra-libertarian who wants to abolish his country’s central bank. Trump is once again a serious contender for the US presidency. I see the combination of financial crises, monetary bailouts, fiscal austerity and overzealous globalisation as the deep reasons for the West’s political instability.

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Second, the West’s share of global economic output has been steadily falling, from 60 per cent in 1980 to around 40 per cent today (according to the IMF’s measurement based on purchasing-power parity between countries). It is projected to fall further. What has not been deflated is our ego – and nor has our sense that we, in the West, still run the world.

Third, our excessive use of economic coercion has created a backlash – from those against whom our sanctions are directed and by non-aligned countries as well. Also, our sanctions are not working. Western luxury goods remain widely available in the shops of Moscow and St Petersburg. They arrive in truckloads from third countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The Western-imposed price cap for Russian oil is failing too, because Russia and its buyers have found ways to circumvent it. The original goal of the sanctions was to prevent Vladimir Putin from financing his war against Ukraine. Almost two years into the conflict, Russia has transitioned into a war economy whose arms production may soon be outstripping the West’s military supplies to Ukraine. This is the exact opposite of the situation Western experts had predicted. The sanctions have been an utter failure, the result of hubris and ignorance.

Fourth, we keep on underestimating our adversaries’ sophistication. China managed to respond to US sanctions on high-performance semiconductors by building its own. I well recall the shock expressed by US administration officials in late August when they found out that Huawei was able to use an advanced microchip in its latest smartphone. Chris Miller, the author of the 2022 book Chip War, poured ridicule on China over its failed attempt to build a semiconductor manufacturing facility. His narrative, too, underestimated China. When you take tens of thousands of dollars and pounds from Chinese students each year for their studies at prestigious universities in the UK and the US, do not be surprised that they learn something. There were 150,000 Chinese students in the UK alone last year.

In electric vehicles, China has already overtaken both Germany and Japan to become the world’s largest car exporter. There is a pattern here, reflected in politics, business and academia. Western leaders and intellectuals are underestimating the parts of the world they know little about.

Together, these failures add up. In Ukraine, the war’s outcome is totally open. On 18 September, the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni admitted on a prank call – made by a pair of Russian comedians, one of whom was posing as an African politician – that there was “tiredness on all sides” and that she had a plan to end the war.

Putin may have registered that comment with interest. At this point, his most rational course of action is to keep fighting for as long as possible. This is partly because warmongers are safer in their jobs while their wars last. But it is also because, having reframed the purpose of the war as a battle against the West, it would not make sense for him to settle for an acquisition of land, and accept the idea that the rest of Ukraine will become a member of Nato and the EU. In Xi Jinping, Putin has found a new partner in the battle against the West – albeit a senior partner. And why seek peace before the US elections? If Trump wins, Russia will undoubtedly get a better deal. Especially now that the West is distracted by Israel, it would make sense for Putin to hold out.

Meanwhile, the West has been losing allies in the non-aligned world. France’s former African colonies are in revolt. The EU has lost the Middle East. The US has lost parts of Latin America. These used to be strategic partnerships. China has become the number one investor in Chile. China and Russia have been very active in Africa. They are not playing on our team any more.

I am reminded of Norma Desmond, the ageing film star in Sunset Boulevard and one of the most delusional characters ever created by Hollywood. “You used to be big,” she is told. “I am big,” she responds. “It’s the pictures that got small.”

[See also: Countries can bear the West’s sanctions – but not its moralising]

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style