If you orbit the earth in the International Space Station – fourteen times a day, going eight kilometers per hour – you cannot distinguish between East and West. Only a few relicts, reminiscent of the time when the two culturally and politically opposing blocks vied for influence, are still in place. Flying over Southeast Asia at night, you’ll notice a large spot, completely blacked out: North Korea, land of darkness, lies dead between the glowing shapes of China, Japan and South Korea. A few flickering lights in Pyongyang – that’s all you can see.
We can witness a new world order taking shape. Old structures conflate with new ones, and long forgotten phenomena – e.g. fanatic nationalism – rise from their graves, just like zombies. Take Putin’s Russia: The country, running on fossil fuels, is as much an anachronism as it is a future project. The rising strength of “elected dictators” has an inner logic that reminds us the history of the West: Democracy and tolerance, we learned through experience, do not stand at the beginning of a country’s development. They are the results of a long history of conflicts, fights and failures. The West failed many times during the 20th century, and today’s emerging countries face the same difficulties and challenges.
Bitter anti-Western resentments
We Westerners have no right to put ourselves on a pedestal and judge others for their failures and, thank God, doing so is becoming less and less trendy. “The West” has always been a chimera, a paradox construction, an idealistic imagination. Of all things, the West was born out of the Second World War, mankind’s biggest catastrophe. Later, the binary logic of the Cold War concealed the fact that the West never was a monochrome cultural sphere like those established by the Romans, the Mayas and the historic Khmer (and even these cultures were more diverse than we believe today). The term “Occident” – which Oswald Spengler, that overblown paranoiac, saw in decay – was a myth as well: one linked to colonialism and the cruel plundering of whole continents that went with it.
The new world order unveils all these illusions and false explanations in a paradoxical way: it shows the West’s weakness, but also points in the direction of a new understanding. The bitter anti-Western resentment that is still widespread in places like China, Russia and other emerging countries is driven by the unfair advantages that history has granted the West, allowing it to prosper. Moreover, the West tends to arrogantly confuse this historical privilege with superiority.
The democratic ideal tends to end where cooperation with dictators begins. Deals are done because common interests exist. Sadly, it is as easy as that. The last great experiment ended when war was thought to have the ability to bring democracy to Iraq, Afghanistan and (partly) Syria. These experiences have taught the West to be humble and to doubt itself. This situation could be used to build bridges between East and West, North and South. In Africa, for example, new alliances form with the purpose to end civil wars. And that’s just one example out of many.
History tends to rhyme
If we understand “Western” as the capability to constantly question oneself; to have creative doubts; to constantly overhaul; to foster the complexity of one’s own thinking and acting, then the current weakening of the West is indeed a necessary step in its evolution. “The more a culture understands that its current worldview is just fiction, the more its scientific level rises”, wrote Albert Einstein. In the upcoming world of networks, we all have the same problems and opportunities: to build intelligent cities, to produce new energies, to organize mobility, to cooperate more effective.
If we understand “Western“ as the adventure it actually is – with art, culture, technology, knowledge and politics entering new relationships – then history does not end, as Francis Fukuyama once wrote, but actually begins. We are at a point in history comparable to 1914, the time when the fate of so many nations was decided. History does not repeat itself, “but it tends to rhyme”, as Mark Twain put it.
And this new world, in which the West finally dissolves in its very own universalism, can best be seen from outer space.
Translation from German.
Read more in this debate: Holger Rust.