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The Emerging World Order is Post-Western and Pre-Plural

Founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow

Russia’s war against Ukraine is set to fundamentally transform the international order. We cannot understand the new geopolitical dynamics at play in this new order without speaking directly to those who will be its main architects. Here, Chandran Nair, a Malaysian expert founder of The Global Institute for Tomorrow (an independent think tank based in Hong Kong), challenges Western centrism and warns of its dangers. His analysis follows Thursday’s publications on September 1st, 2022 for Ukraine Shifting the World Order.

Russia-Ukraine and the dangers of Western centrism

 "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion… but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do".
When discussing the Russian-Ukraine war and its implications on the polarities between the Western and non-Western collection of civilizations and the reshaping of world order, the above quote by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is important to bear in mind. Huntington is a Western historian, but his point is ignored by current-day Western leaders as they decry the actions of other nations. There is also an absence of reference to the sentiment of non-Westerners with regard to the centuries of violent colonization and continuing domination by the West; a denial that has reinforced the Western sense of superiority and frames the Western worldview.
Thus, contrary to what many in the West are claiming, the Russia-Ukraine war is not the most cataclysmic geopolitical event since World War II. Nor is it the defining inflection point for the emergence of new world order, particularly from the perspective of non-Western countries. Rather, it is one in many, several of which the West is late to recognize. To overstate the importance of this event in global power dynamics and shifting national alignments is to be caught in the trap of Western centrism. This trap is a continuation of colonial and post-colonial narrative construction to selectively retell history, downplay Western culpability in much of the horrors of the imperial era and instead positively place the West at the epicenter of key events shaping the world. Niall Fergusson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World is one such example, counterpointed by Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India.

Framing Russia-Ukraine as a struggle of "light over dark" (an actual phrase describing President Volodymyr Zelensky’s war efforts in The Economist) is Western-centric narrative creation at its finest, providing a critical opportunity to place Western geographies (Ukraine) and ideologies (democracy and neoliberalism) at the center of the emergence of the post-Western world. Yet transformations have been taking place for decades in the non-Western world that the West has not been in control of, and which it either sees as a threat or is unwilling to accept. Economically and culturally, condemnation of China as it grows in influence is the most contemporary example. Geopolitically and related to the Russia-Ukraine war, criticism of non-aligned countries - India, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria and Egypt, for example - reveals the disconnect between Western perceptions and the positions of non-Western countries. Technologically, the inability to recognize that innovation is evolving along different lines in the non-Western world - such as the rise of super apps like AliPay (China), WeChat (China), Grab (Singapore), and GoJek (Indonesia) - has led to a rejection of technology from other countries, as we saw when the US and it mainly western allies shut their markets to China’s Huawei. Japan was the subject of similar treatment decades earlier.

The colonial past has bestowed privileges on the West that will have to be relinquished if there is to be a new world order based on equity.

Non-Western countries are not unaware of this deep sense of superiority the West holds over other cultures and civilizations. Unfortunately, this ingrained aloofness suppressed the ability of many Western nations to see others as equals and to act with fairness, despite the pretext of liberalism. The colonial past has bestowed privileges on the West that will have to be relinquished if there is to be a new world order based on equity. But this is proving to be a step too far for Western powers to come to terms with, and it has resulted in widespread fear and resentment across the public and the political arena.

Despite this reluctance to shift the status quo, the world is nonetheless advancing. The conflict in Europe is both a symptom and a catalyst of the emergence of the post-Western world, which began as far back as the decolonization period post-1945. Others are a result of Western actions, such as the brutality of the wars waged in Algeria, Kenya and Indo-China, of which the Vietnam War was one part. Or, more recently, the Iraq War and Afghanistan War. These exposed the first cracks in the edifice of Western moral superiority, on full display for the rest of the world to see. What transpired during these military interventions was viewed by many in the non-Western world as crimes against humanity. For example, the use of the agent orange herbicide in Vietnam, which is to this day found in the milk of breastfeeding mothers and capable of causing cancer, or the fact that the US/UK-led invasion of Iraq had no legal basis and resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths over the course of 13 years, not to mention the catastrophe in Afghanistan.

Yet the severity of these crimes is actively downplayed or denied by the West: few Western nations would support an investigation into George W. Bush or Tony Blair for war crimes. Attempts by organizations such as WikiLeaks to disclose sensitive information about what constitutes war crimes by the West have been blocked and punished by the West. The Trump administration even passed an executive order to apply sanctions to the International Criminal Court for investigating the possibility of war crimes in Afghanistan. Western interventions that cause horrific tragedies are often later labeled as mistakes by Western leaders, but in the non-Western world, they are crimes for which no justice has been delivered.

Despite the sheer severity of Western-led interventions, the invasion of a European country has now been placed on a pedestal and used to fashion quasi-Cold War narratives around imagined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides - and Western countries have been extremely fast to declare that war crimes have been committed. Distinct racial undertones exist in these narratives, which belie deep-seated norms of Western supremacy: Western media has been repeatedly criticized for reporting the Russia-Ukraine war as happening in a "civilized" country, as opposed to uncivilized, non-Western and non-white majority nations. It also goes beyond reporting, given that countries in Europe have been extremely fast to accept refugees from Ukraine, yet are disparaging of refugees from other war-torn nations.

Western media has been repeatedly criticized for reporting the Russia-Ukraine war as happening in a "civilized" country, as opposed to uncivilized, non-Western and non-white majority nations.

The ‘bad’ side is also inclusive of non-aligned countries, which are conflated by the West as being pro-war, pro-invasion and anti-Western, thereby removing invaluable space for impartial diplomacy led by non-Western actors such as China or India (which is in itself anathema to the belief that only the West is qualified to lead in global diplomacy).

In so doing, the West has let its liberal ideologies develop into a deep sense of moral superiority that its systems are the best - even the only - way for nations to operate. Moral fig leaves - democracy, individual freedoms, human rights, etc - are then used to justify Western intervention across the world, and to deny the West’s implications in causing many of the global tensions we see today. Hence the wilful intellectual rejection of a future in which the West does not dominate: if we do not have a Western world order (obscured behind and synonymous with the "rules-based" world order), then a bleak future surely awaits us. This is promulgated by political leaders, media houses, academics, business leaders, civil societies, policymakers and the public. To many in the non-Western world, this is now being perceived almost as a concerted industry effort to provide revisionist versions of global and historic events, build narratives with the veneer of academic credentials to support ideological prescriptions with the objective of arguing that only the West can be trusted to lead the world.

The West should now pay attention to these non-Western perceptions if it is to peacefully transition into and thrive in the inevitable post-Western world. This means coming to terms with new geopolitical and economic arrangements between non-Western countries, and not dismissing them with suspicion when they do not include the West. This also requires accepting non-Western countries into global power structures (such as including India and the African Union in the UN Security Council) or understanding that there are non-Western doctrines to diplomacy and trade that are different from Western norms (for example, the ASEAN Way).

The West should now pay attention to these non-Western perceptions if it is to peacefully transition into and thrive in the inevitable post-Western world.

To many in the non-Western world, the Western world order has been characterized by the horrors of the colonial period and the interventions of the post-colonial period; the post-Western world is therefore not necessarily perceived as a negative shift. Instead, the emergence of the post-Western world can also be viewed as "pre-plural": a world order in which the axis of global power will no longer be so actively tiled by a single nation or a group of common nations - the West, which comprises just 15% of the world’s population - but by many.

Coloniality shapes world order

Shifting the emphasis away from the West in this way is important, and not just for optics. The reality is that prevailing Western centrism is a hallmark of contemporary colonial thinking, and behaviors that still characterize the West’s view of itself and its relations with the non-Western world - this is partly why Europeans were late in recognizing that the post-Western/pre-plural world had already arrived before the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war.
Although many will claim that we live in a post-colonial era, the reality is that the past is not divorced from the present. Colonial influences preserve Western dominance in three major areas: economics, geopolitics, and culture.
Economically, it is no secret that Western businesses have collated immense amounts of wealth through the exploitation of the non-Western world. The externalization of costs through underpricing labor and exploitation of environmental resources in poorer countries with less mature regulation lies at the heart of the offshoring business model that so many Western companies adopt. Not only that, but the global command structure of multinational businesses is comprised of Western banks and rating agencies (Moody's, Standard & Poor's, and Fitch), enabled by Western auditors (the Big Four), facilitated by Western law firms (the Magic Circle), and fine-tuned by Western management consultants (the Big Three).

Geopolitically, the international rules-based system was set up and developed along Western lines of thinking. It is often credited for the peace, prosperity and interconnectedness we see today. It is predicated on the idea of sovereign equality - that every state is equal and should be allowed to conduct its domestic affairs without interference. Yet the West - America in particular - is infamous for intervening in other nations, either through sanctions or with military means.

Geopolitically, the international rules-based system was set up and developed along Western lines of thinking.

Interventions have become part of the Western discourse around the "responsibility to protect": the idea that sovereignty is conditional upon state governments not crossing human rights lines as defined by the West. If a state fails in this regard, its sovereignty becomes forfeit, and war is allowed. Multilateral machinery supports these whims. Key international institutions (i.e. the UN, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, and IMF) have evolved according to Western values. One should also not be surprised that the people involved who are decreed most qualified and elected to leadership positions are Western, establishing a permanent ‘ruling class’ when it comes to global and elite institutions.

Culturally, the selective use of education to immortalize Western successes - ranging from wars to the evolution of science, technology, and philosophy - as well as common narratives in Western media, and even the cultural weight of Western films, music, sport, and fashion, all prop Western civilization up.
Taken together, these brief examples of contemporary Western colonial behavior help describe how Western centrism is actively maintained and reproduced, even in areas such as climate change mitigation and adaptation. Recognizing this is essential for Western leaders looking to navigate the pre-plural world, because this is a norm that must be dismantled. If left unaddressed, it will make the initial onset of the pre-plural world an immensely divisive period - it has contributed to the pain being felt in Europe, and the consequent deepening of existing polarities.

How Europe should respond

Given that Europe is late in responding to the new world order, it must now promptly chart a new course if it is to thrive in the pre-plural world. There are three main shifts it can make.

With the Russia-Ukraine war, Europe is now in a position of subservience to the US.

The first is to decouple itself from increasing American belligerence in foreign policy and security (including Nancy Pelosi’s reckless and goading visit to Taiwan in the midst of geopolitical tensions courtesy of Russia-Ukraine), to which Europe has historically attached itself to varying extents to buoy its declining position of power in the world pecking order.

But the nature of this special relationship is now changing. With the Russia-Ukraine war, Europe is now in a position of subservience to the US. By colluding with the US and its ambitions for NATO’s eastward expansion and in the process putting Putin in a position to justify invading Ukraine, Europe’s leaders have abdicated responsibility and failed to protect their citizens. This is by no means excusing Vladimir Putin’s actions, but war is avoided through diplomacy, communication and an acute understanding of the fears and concerns of others. This means forging relationships, especially with adversaries, to avoid catastrophic outcomes. The arrogance borne out of imperial history and thus believing in being masters of the universe meant that this age-old logic was cast aside, and now Europe finds itself embroiled in war, with its largest industrial power, Germany, arming itself for the first time since the World War II, while Finland and Sweden scrambled to join NATO, further isolating the region from Russia. Simultaneously, the Euro has plummeted to be on par with the US dollar for the first time in 20 years, giving the US even greater financial leverage over Europe.

The outcome is a Europe that is increasingly beholden to the hegemonic direction of the US, through the funding it provides, the weapon it sells - the one nation that has a military-industrial complex so large that it is central to its economy -, the sanctions it implements, the trade deals it favors, and the enemies it chooses to pursue. It should have been clear to European leaders that since the turn of the millennium, America’s political system was beginning to become a destabilizing global force, its political leaders captive to private interests, rather than unifying ones. If Europe is to disentangle itself from the US, then the natural next step Europe should consider is to repair and renew its relationships with certain non-Western nations. This is the second shift and requires working hard for peace with Russia, rather than creating a future that rejects the nation as a pariah state, as unsavory as that may sound to European leaders. It also means reaching out to the rising powers in the Middle East and large Asian and African countries in the spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding, to create a new trajectory that works with the pre-polar world order, rather than against it.

For example, Europe has traditionally perceived China as a trading partner rather than a geopolitical ally and, more recently, as a threat, in step with the US’ fears. Yet this stance is a position that is singularly unsuited to guarding Europe’s self-interest in the pre-polar world, given that China will inevitably play an extremely pivotal role. It is critically important that Europe discards this approach (and in the US’ case, which should re-evaluate its post-war self-declaration as the leader of the "free world") to embark on a new geopolitical direction, given the pre-plural world will be multipolar in ways that the current global system is not.

Herein lies the third shift. Europe - and the West more broadly - should learn to accept political plurality as part of the transition into the new world order. This requires the West to recognize that its interpretations of democracy can no longer be weaponized to push geopolitical agendas or declare superiority over non-Western nations. The United Nations Charter, signed in 1945, gave no mention of "democracy" - because it is each nation’s sovereign right to pursue varying political systems, solely legitimized by "We the Peoples".

Europe - and the West more broadly - should learn to accept political plurality as part of the transition into the new world order.

Democracy is just one approach to this. As such, dividing the world into two camps along the axis of democracy is limiting, regressive, and reflects a Cold War mentality that is counterproductive - particularly as the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues. After all, in all academic studies of social systems, ecosystems, and economic systems, diversity is recognized as the norm and efforts are made to accept them. But with regard to political systems, the West seemingly rejects plurality.

Thus, the West should work to recognize that diversity in political systems is the natural order of things in a complex and changing world that, as a global community, we must learn to accept and work with to make multilateral cooperation more effective. The responsibility of the members of this community of nations is to learn from each other, encourage, even teach, and seek to make the community stronger. This process of learning is what will define the pre-plural world order. Of course, this is not to take away from the very legitimate concerns surrounding dictators and repressive political systems. However, contemporary non-democratic systems are not equivalent to their 20th-century counterparts. They are not as morally bereft as the West believes, not least given that the vaunted democratic systems that operate in the West are also extremely flawed - the US is more a plutocracy than anything else. Yet Western populations have great difficulty accepting this most liberal of ideas: that plurality should be respected, in line with the Westphalian values that are still quoted to this day.

It is also idealistic and the height of arrogance to push other civilizations to adapt one norm of governance, wholly unsuited to them, while also weaponizing these same ideals to ratchet tensions.

Some will say in defense of the status quo that simply embracing plurality is naïve, idealistic, and at worst, condoning the actions of bad actors. But equally naïve is imagining there are no bad actors in the collective West. It is also idealistic and the height of arrogance to push other cultures and civilizations to adapt one norm of governance, wholly unsuited to them, while also weaponizing these same ideals to ratchet tensions, impose sanctions, and even directly intervene through war - and at the same time claiming all of this is to make the world a safer place.

For many Western nations, the concept of the post-Western/pre-plural world evokes images of a world divided. But to non-Western countries, it is not something to be feared nor fought. To them, it presents a rare opportunity for global unity. The world will continue to advance, and the West should recognize that the new world order will be one of de-Westernization, not of de-globalization or regression. To many in the non-Western world, it will be a fairer world order, given that de-Westernization is synonymous with a struggle for liberty from their history’s longest period of oppression. The new world order offers an opportunity to have sovereign rights respected at last.
Importantly, this does not imply that the non-Western world is rejecting the West; rather, non-Western nations are forging new trajectories for their identities and cultures and want to see the West support them in this process: for Western and non-Western nations to work together in the pre-plural world order - as true members of the international community of nations - for the best outcomes at national and international levels.

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