Indonesian President Suharto signs a new letter of agreement as IMF Director-General Michel Camdessus looks on

Indonesian President Suharto signs a new letter of agreement as IMF Director-General Michel Camdessus looks on at Suharto's residence in Cendana 15 January 1998. (Photo: Agus Lolong, AFP)

The End of Western Triumphalism and the Return of the Sovereign State

Published

The limitations of Western political and economic models signal the resurgence of a pluralist international society of states.

The Western world’s abysmal handling of the Covid-19 pandemic has laid to rest any idea of organizational or political superiority or universality. The resistance to following public health rules, the existence of “anti-maskers” and others who couch their refusal to act for the collective good in the assertion of individual rights speak to major flaws particular to Western societies. While these problems are most pronounced in the United States, they exist, to varying degrees, across many other Western states.

The United States, the United Kingdom and France, the three Western states that are veto-wielding permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, account for 6 per cent of the world’s population. According to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Dashboard, together, they account for almost a third of all confirmed Covid-19 cases and over a quarter of related deaths globally. 

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s led to a powerful sense of triumphalism in the Western world. It was fashionable to argue that the West, led by the United States, had proven the superiority of its political and economic systems over the communist ones of the Soviet Union and its satellites. Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” was widely, and simplistically, read as celebrating this historical achievement. Fukuyama argued that there were no longer any viable or legitimate political and economic alternatives to liberal democratic capitalism. Eventually, the entire world would adopt some form of this model. Universality beckoned.

Even before the Berlin Wall fell, it was apparent that this triumphalism was badly misplaced. Susan Strange had written about the dangers of “casino capitalism”, but this did not stop ascendant neoliberals from pushing their flawed theories of market fundamentalism on an acquiescent world. The Asian economic crisis of 1997-1999 was an early indicator of systemic flaws. Many Western commentators reinforced the myth of Western superiority by explaining that the crisis was a failure of Asian heterodox economic models. Rather, the West had created an inherently unstable global financial market, one regularly punctuated by crises, as neoliberal orthodoxy lowered barriers to capital flows around the world.

The 2007-2008 global financial crisis, driven by the deregulation of the American banking sector, contaminated the global system. It was predictable, in its general shape if not specific form, as the inevitable result of radical deregulation. This crisis capped a period of accelerated American decline.

George W. Bush began his presidency in 2001 with the US at the peak of its post-Cold War power. By the time he left office in 2009, the US was weaker than it had been in decades. The US’ disastrous war in Iraq underlined the considerable limitations of the American military. The US ignored the lessons learnt from Vietnam, foremost among these the near impossibility of defeating a strongly motivated insurgency. It is learning the lesson again in Afghanistan, where it is leaving defeated after the longest war in US history.

The 2007-2008 global financial crisis, driven by the deregulation of the American banking sector, contaminated the global system. It was predictable, in its general shape if not specific form, as the inevitable result of radical deregulation.

It is taking Western states years to recover from the global financial crisis, largely because of ideological rigidity. In its aftermath, the European Union struggled to act in a concerted manner, then Brexit further soured its regionalist aspirations. The US demonstrated its political fragility by electing Donald Trump as president in 2016, leading to four years of political dysfunction and institutional erosion as he pushed American democracy to the breaking point.

These are evidences of Western decline, not collapse. They underline the dangers of triumphalism and herald the re-emergence of a multipolar world. Universalist approaches to political and economic development have never worked in the international system. Post-Cold War Eastern Europe has learned this lesson in a way that has inspired a self-destructive and regressive backlash against Western liberalism. Southeast Asia has been considerably more skeptical of Western models from the outset, even as it was caught in the fallout of these models’ failures.

Over the past two decades, ASEAN has made concerted efforts to create a more unified institutional profile. The ASEAN Community and its different pillars are primary examples of this. Even so, ASEAN member states have maintained a strong sense of individual state sovereignty. Perhaps as a side-effect of being (mostly) former colonies, the states of Southeast Asia have been conscious that states need to develop in response to their own particular economic, social and political environments. The fragility of democracy recently has manifested in political instability in Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines. The solutions for these states must be found within their respective borders.

The waning of Western triumphalism has laid the groundwork for the re-assertion of a pluralist world order built around sovereign states. The international community will not collapse in chaos and division. Sovereign states exist within an international society within which they cooperate out of habit, reinforced by enlightened self-interest. It is to the advantage of the vast majority of the states of the world to operate within a rules-governed system.

The problems facing the world today require state cooperation and coordination through multilateral institutions. They also require the recognition that different states at different levels of development, facing different historical, political and economic conditions need to find their own ways forward.

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