The Contraction of the West
Critical Legal Thinking
Boaventura de Sousa Santos
What Westerners call the West or Western civilization is a geopolitical space that emerged in the 16th century and expanded continuously until the 20th century. On the eve of World War I, about 90% of the globe was Western or Western-dominated: Europe, Russia, the Americas, Africa, Oceania and much of Asia (with the partial exceptions of Japan and China). From then on, the West began to contract: first with the Russian revolution of 1917 and the emergence of the Soviet bloc, then, from mid-century on, with the decolonization movements. Terrestrial (and soon after, extraterrestrial) space became a field of intense disputes. Meanwhile, what Westerners understood by the West was changing. It began as Christianity, colonialism, then capitalism and imperialism, and then metamorphosed into democracy, human rights, decolonization, self-determination, “rules-based international relations” – always making it clear that the rules were established by the West and were only followed when they served its interests – and finally, globalization.
By the middle of the last century, the West had shrunk so much that a number of newly independent countries made the decision to align themselves neither with the West nor with the bloc that had emerged as its rival, the Soviet bloc. This led to the emergence, from 1955-61, of the Non-Aligned Movement. With the end of the Soviet bloc in 1991, the West seemed to go through a time of enthusiastic expansion. It was the time of Gorbachev and his desire for Russia to join the “common home” of Europe, with the support of President Bush father, a desire reaffirmed by Putin when he took power. It was a short historical period, and recent events show that in the meantime the “size” of the West has shrunk drastically. In the wake of the Ukraine war, the West decided, on its own initiative, that only the countries applying sanctions against Russia are Westerners. They comprise now about 21% of the UN member countries, which is not even 15% of the world’s population. If it continues on this path, the West may even disappear. Several questions arise.
Is contraction decline? One might think that the contraction of the West favors it because it allows it to focus on more realistic goals with greater intensity. A careful reading of the strategists of the hegemonic country of the West, the USA, shows, on the contrary, that, without apparently realizing the flagrant contraction, they show unlimited ambition. With the same ease with which they foresee being able to reduce Russia (the largest nuclear power) to a ruin or a vassal state, they foresee neutralizing China (on its way to being the first world economy) and soon provoking a war in Taiwan (similar to the one in Ukraine) for that purpose. On the other hand, the history of empires shows that contraction goes hand in hand with decline, and that decline is irreversible and entails much human suffering.
At the current stage, the manifestations of weakness are parallel to those of strength, which makes analysis very difficult. Two contrasting examples. The US is the largest military power in the world (even though it has not won any wars since 1945) with military bases in at least 80 countries. An extreme case of domination is its presence in Ghana where, by agreements made in 2018, the USA uses the Accra airport without any control or inspection, USA soldiers do not even need a passport to enter the country, and enjoy extraterritorial immunity, meaning that if they commit any crime, no matter how serious, they cannot be tried by Ghana’s courts. In the opposite direction, the thousands of sanctions on Russia are, for now, doing more damage in the Western world than in the geopolitical space that the West is constructing as non-Western. The currencies of those who seem to be winning the war are depreciating the most. The looming inflation and recession lead JP Morgan CEO Jamie Baldwin to say that a hurricane is approaching.
Is contraction a loss of internal cohesion? Contraction can actually mean more cohesion, and this is quite visible. The leadership of the European Union, i.e. the Commission, has in the last twenty years been much more aligned with the USA than the countries that make up the EU. We saw this with the neo-liberal shift and Durão Barroso’s enthusiastic support for the invasion of Iraq, and we are seeing it now with Ursula von der Leyen transformed into a USA undersecretary of defense. The truth is that this cohesion, if it is effective in producing policies, can be disastrous in managing their consequences. Europe is a geopolitical space that since the 16th century has lived off the resources of other countries that it directly or indirectly dominates and to whom it imposes unequal exchange. None of this is possible when the partner is the USA or its allies. Moreover, cohesion is made of inconsistencies. After all, is Russia the country with a lower GDP than many countries in Europe? Or is it a force that wants to invade Europe, a global threat that can only be stopped with the investment that is already around 10 billion dollars in arms and security by the US in a distant country of which little will remain if the war continues for a long time?
Does the contraction occur for internal or external reasons? The literature on the decline and end of empires shows that, with few exceptional cases in which empires are destroyed by external forces – such as the Aztec and Inca empires with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors – internal factors generally dominate, even though decline can be precipitated by external factors. It is difficult to distinguish the internal from the external, and the specific identification is always more ideological than anything else. For example, in 1964 the well-known American conservative philosopher James Burnham published a book entitled Suicide of the West. According to him, liberalism, then dominant in the USA, was the ideology of this decline. For the liberals of the time, liberalism was, on the contrary, the ideology that would enable a new, more peaceful and just world hegemony for the West. Today, liberalism is dead in the USA (neoliberalism dominates, which is its opposite) and even the old-school conservatives have been totally overtaken by the neoconservatives. That is why Henry Kissinger (for many, a war criminal) upset the anti-Russia proselytes by calling for peace negotiations in Davos. Be that as it may, the Ukraine war is the great accelerator of the West’s contraction. A new generation of non-aligned countries is emerging, in fact aligned with the power the West wants to isolate, China. The BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Forum are, among others, the new faces of the non-West.
What comes next? We don’t know. It is as difficult to imagine the West as a subordinate space in the world context as it is to imagine it in an equal and peaceful relationship with other geopolitical spaces. We only know that for those in charge in the West either of these hypotheses is impossible or, if possible, apocalyptic. This is why the number of international meetings has multiplied in recent months, from the Davos Economic Forum (May) to the most recent meeting of the Bilderberg group (June). In the latter, of the 14 themes, seven were directly related to the West’s rivals. We will find out what they discussed and decided by following closely the covers of The Economist over the forthcoming months.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.