“The west is the best
Get here and we’ll do the rest” – The Doors, The End (1967)
Jim Morrison couldn’t have foreseen that those words would ring with more irony today than they did when he wrote them over 50 years ago. At present, Costa Ricans enjoy a higher life expectancy than US citizens, Belarus has a lower poverty rate than Canada, Jordan has a higher literacy rate than Portugal, South Korea scores higher on the HDI than France, Thailand has a lower crime rate than Sweden, Uruguay is less corrupt than Italy, Israel has a lower infant mortality rate than the United Kingdom and Morocco is greener than Australia… The West (commonly defined as North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand), historical torchbearer of prosperity, health and harmony, is now regularly put to shame by countries it had long since relegated to the “Third World” (so far behind, they were an entire “world” away no less). The undisputed champion at the turn of the millennium, the past 20 years have doled out knock after knock to this haughty image. The high horse of the West, already on its last legs, was slain by the coronavirus pandemic, and everyone saw the mighty fall. Once the virus becomes banalized and the economy’s health is restored, the condition of the West’s reputation will long remain fragile: can it really defend its claims of superiority any longer?
Calling the 1900s “tumultuous” would be the understatement of the century. The ideals of Western capitalist democracy definitively thwarted the evils of fascism and the misery of communism, emerging victorious into a new millennium that radiated prosperous modernity (so long as the computers running said capitalist system could switch from 1999 to 2000 without killing us all). They don’t say “party like it’s 1999” for nothing. The hangover slumber was short-lived: 9/11 proved a rude awakening, and no matter how willing the coalition or how many seeds of democracy were sewn, the pain endured. The 2008 financial crisis was a whole new kind of humiliation, all the more embarrassing as it was self-inflicted, striking at the heart of capitalism itself in the Western Mecca of Wall Street. The recovery is slow and painful as the public writhes under torturous austerity. After more than 20 years of hibernation, the Russian bear awakens and annexes Crimea in 2014. A righteous Western chorus barks, but does not bite, a detail that does not pass unnoticed. Besides, Europe, barely having recovered from a sovereign debt crisis, now has a migrant crisis on its collective hands: hands preoccupied with passing responsibility around like a decaying platter of fruit. Fundamental character differences within the idealistic European marriage begin to flare up. As an idle threat, British PM David Cameron casually suggests divorce…
Throughout modern history, there have been years that stand out as particularly eventful critical junctures: 1945 marked the end of WWII and the advent of the Atomic Age, 1989 the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent undoing of the Soviet Union. 2016 was (much like 2020 is undoubtedly set to be) “one of those years”, perhaps most aptly characterized as that of the West’s identity crisis. Where had the good old days gone when the rest of the world knew its place and looked up to us? Donald Trump wins on a platform of “Make America Look Great Again”. During his presidency, the moniker of “leader of the free world” has been debased, perverted and hollowed to the point of sarcasm. Brexit, framed as a restoration of unified great Britishness standing up to the Continent once more, divided the country more than ever. Once an Empire over which the sun never set, now an isolated kingdom crumbling from within. Both events transpired as an unravelling before a global audience. As dejection and discontent blended with repressed feelings of apathetic nationalism, the world caught a glimpse of the ugliness behind the curtain of these former bastions of humanism. The West’s moral hegemony was merely a façade after all.
Cue coronavirus. The world was subjected to a standardized test, and the supposed A-team, caught off-guard, failed to perform: slow implementation of prevention measures, mistrust of experts, incoherence of strategy, incompliance from the general population… most countries on the technological cutting-edge couldn’t even muster a palatable contact-tracing app. South Korea had an effective tracing program operational back in April, Vietnam has suffered only 35 deaths in total. Surely, we can no longer belittle these countries as “developing”, as if one day they will be fully formed in our sublime image. By virtue (or curse) of social media, there is no longer any way to stop every item of dirty laundry being aired on the international stage. Like many a movie-star, despite its stellar image the West was revealed to be just as tragically flawed as the rest. Akin to what befalls teenagers constantly judging their worth from surface values they encounter on social media, the insecurity of the West over its image was aggravated by the inescapable successes and perfections of other nations as a mirror was held up to its own foibles. Internally, there was no shortage of turmoil either: the European marriage was cast onto the rocks over who should front the common bill. Opening a joint account to weather the crisis uncovers some chilling divisions. At the state level, populist regimes in Eastern Europe were reinforced during the fog of war. Add to this painful reminders of systemic racism and continued resistance to climate change consensus despite the ever-more tangible impact of increasingly frequent wildfires. All these shortcomings combined paint the dreary picture of a West that is lagging behind, sluggish in its reactions yet somehow maintaining a pretentious superiority: a colossus with clay feet it would rather not use.
None of this is to say that on average, the countries that count themselves among those of the West aren’t better off: the introductory run of statistics are merely cherry-picked outliers not representative of the overall trend (for now). I simply intend to shed light on the fact that our longstanding causticity and self-awarded untouchable dominant position in global affairs is no longer justifiable. The bruises of the past twenty years, painfully exposed by the coronavirus crisis, have irreversibly blurred the lines that once delineated the West from the rest, the “developing” from the “developed”, and the archaic notion of a “Three World” system. After all, semantics and geography are being more than a little bit stretched when seeking to showcase the brilliance of “the West” one can usually do no better than point to New Zealand.