Requiem of “The West”?

Crisis of Western Democracy – Source: Stock photos

In the Atlantic Charter of 14 August 1941 the United States and the United Kingdom set out the goals for the world, after Nazi Germany had been defeated. Later, when the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was regarded as primary enemy, the two Western powers worked hard to preserve their values, based on human rights and the rule of democracy.

The Origins of Western Democracy

New global and regional institutions were created: the United Nations to keep global peace, the Bretton Woods system to foster economic development, the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-devasted (Western) Europe, the Council of Europe to preserve Western values and, finally, the North Atlantic Treaty to “keep the Americans in (Europe), the Germans down, and the Russians out (of Western Europe)” – (quote said to be from the first NATO Secretary General, Lord Ismay).

In 1955 the Federal Republic of Germany joined NATO, thus formally becoming part of “The West”. Following Winston Churchill’s suggestion for French-German reconciliation and European unification, France’s Robert Schuman initiated the European Community for Coal and Steel, incorporating Western Germany, the BeNeLux countries and Italy, thus starting the European integration which later became the European Economic Community and the European Union.

As all these institutions demonstrate, it was the principle of multilateralism – binding like-minded states in a web of common values, principles, and activities. When the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire collapsed in 1989-91, the Western institutions seemed to have triumphed. Peace, if only highly armed, had been preserved without a shot fired.

With the Soviet empire gone, Western values and principles seemed to have prevailed world wide. This is what political writer Francis Fukuyama claimed in his ‘End of History’.

Challenges to Western Democracy

However, by expanding the Western system to the east – with Poland and other East European countries joining both NATO and the EU – new problems, tensions and even conflicts appeared. Poland, Hungary and others were anxious to keep their newly won sovereignty. This challenged the EU, which aimed at deepening integration with the introduction of the Euro and the Maastricht treaty. Also new wars erupted, in former Yugoslavia and in Georgia. NATO was not able to prevent Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and its war in Eastern Ukraine.

On a global scale, Deng Xiaoping’s decision in 1978 to radically change China’s economy had a far-reaching impact. By the turn of the century, economists predicted that within 20 to 30 years China’s economy would be bigger than that of the USA.  The financial crises of 2007/08, which started in the USA, highlighted the darker side of “globalism” and the vulnerability of Western economies and societies. It also accelerated China’s ascent.

Rising unemployment and severe economic losses for large segments of society reminded some observers of the situation in the early 1930’s, after the financial crash and world economic crisis of 1929. Fascist movements and parties took advantage of the economic deprivation and political frustrations.  After 2008, one could observe a somehow similar rise of authoritarian leaders and proto-fascist movements in several new and old “Western” countries. The list includes Victor Orban in Hungary, the Kaczynski party and then government in Poland, Marie LePen’s party in France, Geert Wilders movement in the Netherlands, and the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD) in Germany. The AfD particularly benefited from the migration crisis of 2015.

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In the United States and Britain a similar move to the right occurred. Barak Obama’s presidency had not succeeded in minimizing the gap between the extremely rich minority and a growing majority of impoverished people. The frustrated, often unemployed workers in the “rust belt”, the farmers in the mid-West, and many people fearing more immigration from Latin America provided the majority (not of voters but of electors!) for Donald Trump’s presidency.

The rise and success of this corrupt business man is a truly unique event, only comparable with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany: both were/are by origin completely non-political figures who managed to cut through the political system by directly appealing  to the masses – Hitler, by using the radio, air planes and mass rallies; Trump by using TV channels like Fox News, organized mass rallies and the internet. Their message was/is aggressive and divisive – always looking for scapegoats and enemies, appealing to the lowest instincts of basically unpolitical people. By systematically producing and shamelessly spreading “fake news”, both Hitler and Trump aimed at destroying the political system of their respective country. (The only real difference between the two is that one succeeded whereas the other’s success is still unknown.)

The Rise of the Hard Right

In Britain, the Conservative Party’s “austerity” policy also aggravated the division between “The Rich” (in London and the South of England) and the neglected parts of the country, particularly in the North. The immigration problem became the trigger point. Never mind that the Labour Party governments had strongly supported Eastern enlargement of the European Union and had not prevented East European workers from immediately working in Britain. In contrast Germany for example had negotiated a 7 year grace period! Never mind that Foreign Minister Boris Johnson had promised the Turkish president Erdogan that the UK would support Turkish membership in the EU. In the EU referendum of 23 June 2016 immigration and frustration about the state of internal affairs became the decisive factors of the “Leave” vote. Never mind, that the EU was not responsible for the shortcomings and problematic decisions of previous UK governments. Still, it served as a useful scapegoat for the power-hungry arch-Conservatives.

Like Alexander Gauland, the AfD leader in Germany, Nigel Farage had been a member of the Conservative Party. Gauland had been in the conservative CDU. Sensing the growing frustrations among voters, they set up a new ultra-right party. In Germany, the AfD has an open fascist wing; in Britain, Farage used his UKIP party to promote himself and an ultra-nationalistic programme. Ironically, the late descendant of immigrants (just pronounce his name ….!), presented himself as the bulwark against foreigners, particularly from the EU. Because of the British electoral system, he never had a chance of gaining a significant representation in parliament. However, he managed to split his former (Conservative) party and thus help to expel its leading pro-European members. Dominic Cummings, determined to radically change his country’s political system, became for Boris Johnson what Joseph Goebbels was for Adolf Hitler – a devious man who advised his master of how to mislead and corrupt the masses.

This is how the ultra-nationalists in the UK and proto-fascists in the USA managed to weaken and partly destroy the principles of “The West”. Honest rule at home, solidarity among the democracies and their common institutions and concern for world-wide human rights were all undermined. This is why Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Dominic Cummings, and Boris Johnson rightly deserve to be called “Gravediggers of the West”.