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Reports of the West's decline are greatly exaggerated

Recently, the West seems in utter disarray: even support for Ukraine, once a unifying force, is now splitting allies apart. Just this month, following an embarrassing leak of a German military phone call discussing highly-sensitive NATO secrets, former British defence secretary Ben Wallace declared that the leak showed that Berlin is “neither secure nor reliable”, leading Germany’s ambassador to the UK to accuse Wallace of falling into a Russian trap intended to divide the West.

The West seems able to spark division on its own: the prolonged war in Ukraine has shaken Western self-confidence to the core; a decidedly disunited United States doesn’t help; and China and India’s growing influence often seems unstoppable. Are we truly facing the decline of the West—an end of an era?

For decades, while the West has certainly made mistakes, it has put forward an attractive societal model that in many ways has built the international order that has yielded significant progress since the end of WWII –innovation from the free flow of ideas, surging life expectancy or unprecedented increases in GDP and concomitant drops in poverty.

Times have changed, however, and non-Western countries evidently want a new order, with newly reorganized relationships between states. Rather than being frightened by this drive towards this new model, the West must adapt to a more transactional, multilateral world to thrive throughout the 21st century.

The West must adapt to a more transactional, multilateral world to thrive throughout the 21st century Quote

An enduring attraction and resilience

It is vital to distinguish between the opportunistic anti-Western strategies deployed by authoritarian regimes and deeper, more genuine shifts in international public opinion. The Sino-Russian duo – it’s not an alliance – and their proxies, Iran and North Korea, are continuously fighting the West through destabilization campaigns that have been alarmingly successful in many cases, especially in Africa. At the same time, the rise of anti-Western ideologies like radical Islamism adds to the feeling that the West is headed for decline, a sentiment which pundits and politicians have regularly espoused.

Behind this surface-level narrative—the West is losing its footing in a fragmented and conflict-ridden world— there is a more nuanced reality. For starters, the West’s global attractiveness, both in terms of business appeal and in terms of power and influence over minds, has proved remarkably resilient despite the aggressiveness of the dictatorial bloc and its illiberal allies.

A November 2023 study contradicts the narrative that the West’s enemies have tried to install, that the Western world order has perpetually declining appeal. Instead, most citizens surveyed worldwide, other than in China and Russia, reported that they prefer the Western way of life along with the associated values, freedom, tolerance, and rights. Beijing, rather, only prevails in its appeal as an economic partner—likely because its loans and investments are perceived to come with less strings attached. In Turkey and Russia, meanwhile, those aged 18 to 34 are more inclined than their elders to favour the West, including with respect to the West’s human rights attitude.

Rise of the à la carte world

It's clear that the West remains the most attractive development model and the most sought-after security partner. What has changed, however, is that most countries don’t want to be obligated to pick a side, aligning themselves definitively with either the West’s sphere of influence or with another, competing model. Instead, they want to freely choose alliances that best suit their interests and circumstances. Outside the West, most people view China, the United States and Europe as powers with which one can both compete and cooperate, case by case.

Perceiving this shift towards transactionalism and opportunistic partnerships as an affront to Western leadership is overly simplistic. Ultimately, the world is trying to tell the West that it remains the most desirable partner in many ways— but that other partners and other models can be desirable as well. The West is not being rejected by the world—but it has to recognise that it has competition; that the West’s problems are not necessarily the problems of everyone, and that the world has some problems to which the Western model may not be the most obvious solution.

The authentically plural world that is emerging does not signal the end of the longstanding international order, but will spark a tectonic adjustment, in which new relationships and new types of relationships are forged— rapports not only of force but rather of interests, which call for a revitalized multilateralism.

Matthieu Creux 1

Matthieu Creux is the founder and president of Forward Global, one of the largest business intelligence and cybersecurity firms in Europe.

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