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The West’s decline? I don’t think so

By Chris Lewis - posted Tuesday, 23 December 2008


Given concern about income disparity and environmental degradation, I remain very much interested in any article that offers a better understanding of how greater international co-operation occurs.

So how plausible is the recent suggestion that declining US hegemony can be offset by multipolar power relations, as suggested by Coral Bell’s article The End of the Vasco da Gama era.

Bell argues that we are now entering an era where the unilateral power of the US is waning for the first time since the demise of the Soviet Union, but that “There should be no difficulty at all with regard to India, and very little with regard to China”.

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Notwithstanding the possible decline of the US, this article argues that events may get worse should Western influence wane, although there are considerable policy differences between Western nations.

I do not want to imply that Western leadership is perfect. As history tells all, the promotion of liberalism has not been without coercive tactics. Even Britain, which has done more than most nations to promote liberalism, was determined to dominate the seas with its navy at the height of its power during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Even today, Europe is exploiting the fishing stocks of West African nations. Though the number of boats run by locals in Senegal has fallen by 48 per cent since 1997, resulting in its government refusing to renew its fishing agreement with the EU in 2006, European fishermen (mostly from Spain and France) now register their boats as Senegalese, buy quotas from local fishermen, and transfer catches at sea from local boats (George Monbiot, The Guardian, August 26, 2008).

And Western nations, with their greater per capita resources, unquestionably have a greater capacity to embrace new ideas to help people both within and beyond their society, although foreign aid by the richest nations has hardly been extensive for any lengthy time period.

But Western nations can be proud of their achievements in this competitive world, despite the many remaining problems associated with income disparity and environmental degradation. Their own societies have evolved to find a better balance between the public and private sector, though this balance will always fluctuate given that innovation and the business sector always remain crucial to national economic success.

Furthermore, it has been Western societies, especially the US, which has done most to promote freer trade by accepting trade deficits as being just as important as trade surpluses to promote the international economy, thus giving opportunities to poorer nations (even one-party governed nations).

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So I ask Bell and critics of liberalism, including various authors contributing to the December 2008 On Line Opinion feature who still fail to recognise policy limitations in any liberal democracy, to explain how the world will be a better place if the West was to lose its influence, despite the need for extensive policy reform as a result of the current economic and environmental crisis?

Take India. Limited debate allowed Monsanto to sell GM seeds to Indian farmers, and did little to help prevent tens of thousands of Indian farmers from committing suicide after the failure of these GM cotton crops. GM seeds were sold for up to £10 for 100 grams by “unscrupulous merchants”: equivalent to 1,000 times that of conventional seed, and required double the water of conventional seeds. The GM crops were ruined by two years of drought and bollworms, a voracious parasite (Andrew Malone, Mail Online, November 3, 2008).

Further, the Indian anthropologist Amita Baviskar noted that compensation was given to only 20 per cent of the Indians who lost their homes because of construction for the athletes’ village for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, as the rest could not produce official records of having lived there (ABC radio Saturday Extra December 13, 2008).

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About the Author

Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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All articles by Chris Lewis

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