November 9, 2023
SEOUL – The images and news coming out of Gaza are so horrific that I cannot think of anything hopeful or constructive that can come of this cataclysm.
Using Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members as a crude proxy for the West, it accounts for 63 percent of world GDP, three-quarters of world trade, over half of the world’s energy consumption, and 18 percent of the world’s population. The Western world sees itself as a paragon of civilizational progress and modernity, whereas the Rest (the East and Global South) is much more diverse in terms of culture, ethnicity and civilizational identity.
Last year, the Ukraine war sharply divided world opinion. The Western world, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) united behind Ukraine, with the March 2022 UN resolution on Ukraine passed by 141 countries, with 5 voted against, 35 abstained, and 12 did not vote. However, in terms of UN vote by population, 59 percent of the world’s 7.9 billion people live in countries that did not support the resolution and only 41 percent live in countries that did.
The Oct. 7 Gaza conflict drew stark lines of differences, with the UN General Assembly voting 120 in favor to 14 against, with 45 abstentions, on the Jordanian resolution to “Protect civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations.” In this case, only 411 million people or 5.2 percent of the world’s population, led by the US and Israel, voted against a resolution that asked for a humanitarian truce and reaffirmed that “a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only be achieved through peaceful means.” Just under 95 percent of the world voted for peaceful resolution of the conflict. Sounds democratic enough?
Since the Ukraine war, which has cut off objective reporting on what is really going on in terms of who is winning or losing, I discern a thought pattern that differentiates the contemporary West from the Rest.
The West rose because it pushed science and technology since the Industrial Revolution, what former Economist editor Bill Emmott called the balance between two ideals of “openness” and “equality.” His thesis in his book “The Fate of the West” is that “we are in our current trouble because too many of us have lost that balance.” Perhaps the balance has been lost because of the recent cancel culture, in which those who disagree with the “politically correct” views are excommunicated, ostracized or canceled. We are losing the right to have open debate and the ability to disagree.
Debates today over Ukraine and Gaza are painted in highly emotive binary terms of good versus evil, in which events are judged immediately, without taking into consideration the context that gave rise to the event. This religious streak has created such a feeling of righteousness that anyone who gives an alternative interpretation is considered an enemy of good or a supporter of the devil.
Israel is so determined to go its own path that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak admitted in an interview with the magazine Foreign Policy, “We know that within a week or two we will probably lose the support of public opinion in many parts of the free world, and within another two or three weeks we might lose the support of many of the governments in the free world. I think that America will still be with us, but it will be more and more complicated for them to stay behind us.”
The real geopolitical question is whether the US is willing to lose the opinion and support of the free world, perhaps the Rest, in its staunch support of Israel. It is one thing to have might and power, and another to lose moral leadership.
How did the West lose its way? Professor Michael Brenner, a historian of Jewish culture, has argued in a recent YouTube interview on Europe, the Jews and the Muslim World that the West is going through a psycho-pathological period of mass hysteria, in which those who disagree with the extreme right or left views are excommunicated. These non-West views are to be rejected, and since they are evil or wrong, they are no longer seen as equals. Thus, Emmott saw correctly that “without the openness, the West cannot thrive, but without equality, the West cannot last.”
Going back to more recent history, in his influential 1944 book, “The Great Transformation” (of 19th century Europe), Austrian philosopher Karl Polanyi (1886-1994) argued that market liberalism, very closely associated with the Judaic-Christian belief in the power of open free markets, would eventually transform back towards the need for social protection and justice. Democracy and capitalism are not on the same side if there is gross injustice and inequality.
In his book, posthumously published in English only in 2014, “Towards a New West,” Polanyi reflected presciently that “the West is held responsible for the industrial, scientific, and economic road on which our world has embarked. We are in the dock.”
“Western universalism — this is the Jewish-Christian inheritance — was the claim to a way of life of universal validity. This received a massive topic content when the West became a bearer of an industrial civilization which, whether capitalist or not, soon comprised almost half of the planet. We were somehow thinking about and for the rest. It was not a conversation, rather a spirited monologue. Since no answer came, we carried on in our train of thought — unsustained, but also uncontradicted. No one was overruled, bossed around, or made to listen. It was just that we were without a partner.”
Events in Gaza and Ukraine have put the West on the dock. The Rest is now thinking for themselves because the West is longer thinking for everyone. Once the moral standing is no longer in place, then the West is no better than any other barbarians at the gate. At best, just another barbarian claiming to be civilized; at worst, a West that seeks only to hold onto to its golden past of colonialism and mental superiority.