Western dominance of global power is undeniable. The West’s success and appeal for much of the world has rested on its ability to sustain global prosperity, security, development and innovation.
The United States has been the largest trading partner of most of its allies for close to two generations, and the dollar is the world’s reserve currency. The West has projected power and provided security across the globe, intellectually dominated the atomic, computer and knowledge transitions; and its culture has spread across all societies.
During the Cold War the western liberal democracies were seen as the answer to the Soviet Union’s dehumanizing empire. It seemed natural therefore that the European Union and NATO would expand in response to its collapse.
Cold War muscle memory
The Cold War ended but the muscle memory endured. The architecture that successfully regulated global order for more than 70 years – such as NATO, the G7, the EU, the World Bank and even the United Nations – reflects a geography centred on the prevailing Euro-Atlantic states of the like-minded, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan and often South Korea. With the exception of Apec – Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation – the institutions and structures of the Euro-Atlantic world have remained only for the like-minded.
The expansion of the G7 to include Russia failed to convince it to behave responsibly; the adhesion of China to the World Trade Organization saw it better the West at its own game more often than we had anticipated; and EU integration has been uneven.
In all cases, the West took for granted that the Euro-Atlantic advantage was self-evident – people wanted to be like us. And, therefore, they were willing to accept a trade-off on other aspects – the smugness with which we often approached partners, the conditions to our development assistance, placing social issues above economic development, and a perceived double standard on human rights. Yet, the Euro-Atlantic bargain remained the best option.
That premise no longer holds true. As the West clings to 20th century institutions, the rest of the world reflects a new geography, creating institutions for, and perspectives of, prosperity and security. This will require the Euro-Atlantic world to be diplomatically and intellectually uncomfortable in order to continue to shape the global order for its citizens and private sector. Economic power has reverted to Eurasia stretching from the Gulf States in West Asia to Central, South and East Asia.
For the first time in history China is the largest trading partner for the US and for the EU, decoupling their commercial link and complicating the idea that global relations can be neatly divided between democratic and authoritarian states. China now trades more with the Global South than the US, Japan and the EU combined, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is the top trading partner for 120 countries.
The IMF expects India to be the world’s fastest-growing major economy in 2024. In 2021, Asia contributed 42 per cent of world GDP – at purchasing power parity – more than any other region; and accounted for 53 per cent of global goods trade.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has 155 countries signed up, representing 75 per cent of the globe’s populations and more than 50 per cent of its GDP, stretching from East Asia to the EU. It is a problematic development model but delivers results on infrastructure that the Euro-Atlantic model has never achieved and is largely unable to counter.
While the US and others still lead on innovation and technology, China is catching up fast. Seventy-four per cent of the world’s patents in AI were Chinese between 2011-2020; it has 50 per cent of the world’s installed robots; and 70 per cent of the global market for drones.
The US has the world’s pre-eminent military capability by far but its uneven political decisions – for example the Syria red line or the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan – have made it a less than reliable partner for some.
Decline of the western liberal democratic order
Internal crisis in the US and polarization elsewhere, strong-state models in Africa such as Rwanda and some relatively benign Gulf monarchies have weakened the appeal of the western liberal democratic model. In the latest survey, the United Arab Emirates is the country where most Arab youth would like to live. Western countries still rank in the top five. However, Saudi Arabia and Britain tie for 5th. Things are changing.
New institutions will compete with the Euro-Atlantic institutional framework. The BRICS states – Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa – and their decision in 2023 to expand to include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, Egypt, Ethiopia and Argentina should not be dismissed easily. Criticism from the West has seemed desperate. But the numbers speak for themselves. BRICS+ would represent around 30 per cent of global GDP, 46 per cent of the world’s population, 43 per cent of its oil and 25 per cent of global exports.
This broad coming together is reflected in other Eurasian groupings: SCO – the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, including China, India, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan; and ECO – the Economic Cooperation Organization, including Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Critics deride the lack of cohesiveness in these organizations but they miss the point. Eurasia is coming together despite its differences. It has learnt to navigate diversity.
Consequently, the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic world deliver the outcomes it seeks less easily. The West saw Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine as a threat to the global order. Others resented the West’s conscription into sanctions regimes, boycotts and its ‘with us or against us’ diplomacy.
At the UN, the West pressed the majority of the General Assembly members to vote with them. But it missed the important number. The handful of countries that voted against or abstained – China, India, South Africa and others – represented the majority of the world’s population.
Despite sanctions and censure, Russia sustained its lucrative oil revenues, including through exports to China and India. Even over Hamas’s terror attack against Israel, much of the world disagreed with the West’s positioning.
The limitations of like-mindedness
Like-mindedness has its limitations, and we have reached them. A handful of important ‘pragmatic states’ – including India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, South Africa and Turkey – are key to any credible management of global issues such as climate change, food insecurity, the global digital platform, and regional and transport security to name a few.
They are not prepared to pick sides. Saudi Arabia seeks security engagement from both the US and China. Turkey as a NATO member has purchased weapons systems from Russia, shared drones with Ukraine and attends summits with Russia and Iran. This group of countries now commands some of the world’s largest pools of available capital, demographic advantage, strategic territory and clout with the so-called Global South.
The West, therefore, should rethink how it navigates the new geopolitical order and move beyond like-mindedness. It should implement strategies to engage organizations in which Euro-Atlantic countries are not members such as the SCO and BRICS+.
Just as China sought observer status at the Arctic Council, so too should countries like Britain, Canada and France seek to engage organizations where they will never be full members in order to protect their interests. The West should strengthen institutions where non-like-minded states come together. Committing more political time and resources to the G20 will be consequential.
The Commonwealth should be reformed meaningfully. Eyes roll at the mention of this organization. But its time has come. Free of the US/China rivalry, it now represents countries that are essential to global growth, security, climate change and to countering China.
For the G7 to be more than a club, invite India as a new full member.
We no longer control enough market share to circle the wagons. Our ability to protect and spread our democratic and economic model depends on a more strategic engagement of those who disagree with us.