2011 Student Essay Contest Winning Entry

A Tale of Two Wests

By Erik Mortensen

Summary: The decline of the West seems inevitable only through the confining lens of "the West and the rest paradigm," which ignores the intricacies of interdependence. Although the importance social construct of the West will diminish as "Western" characteristics spread worldwide, the United States and Europe will remain decisive world powers.

ERIK MORTENSEN is a student at Georgetown University in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.

The fate of the West actually involves two questions: What is the West as an historical construct, and what is the West as a particular set of countries? Although "the West and the rest paradigm" is outdated, the United States and Europe can continue to play decisive roles on the world stage.

The idea of the West corresponds less and less to political, social, and economic realities. As the sociologist Stuart Hall explains, the notion of the West arose in the Age of Discovery to embody a cohesive European identity and legitimize European superiority over the societies that the continent increasingly encountered around the world. In other words, Europeans regarded wealth, capitalism, Christianity, and later, industrialization and democracy as normative markers of progress and modernity dividing the world into the West and the rest.

Today, however, this line is irrelevant. The defining characteristics of the West are no longer limited to the West. India is the largest democracy. The World Bank's latest Ease of Doing Business rankings place Singapore on top in terms of capitalism, with Thailand outranking Germany and France. The subway in Seoul seems much more developed than New York's. The U.S. State Department's 2010 report on international religious freedom cites one estimate that puts China's Christian population at nearly 90 million, more than that of Italy and Spain combined. In the age of the global city, some business meetings in London have more Indian than British businessmen, and some classrooms in Tokyo have more American than Japanese students. In short, the idea of the West will inevitably decline as its boundaries become increasingly ambiguous.

Still, the term "the West," as it refers to only the United States and Europe, retains some utility. Recognizing the rise of the rest, many pundits have predicted the inevitable decline of the West. This will not happen. The United States and Europe will remain world powers by exploiting and servicing the growing pains of emerging powers and by profiting from emerging markets.

India, for example, seeks to translate growing wealth into military capacity. In June, New Delhi agreed to a $4.1 billion deal with the United States for cargo aircraft. In April, it made an $11 billion deal with the European Union for fighter jets. These agreements benefit the U.S. and European economies and will strengthen relationships among all three. In the future, the United States and the European Union will be able to draw on relations to advance common interests. Although China can also develop military planes, India turned to the West, not only because it still manufactures the highest-quality aircraft but also because of uneasy Indo-China relations. The United States and Europe must continue to exploit these tensions around the world in order to remain competitive -- even as developing countries expand their manufacturing sectors and produce inexpensive goods. To be sure, this often requires walking a tight rope. In this case, the United States and the European Union must avoid inciting an arms race, but the India-China case refutes the common misconception that cheaper goods from emerging powers mean inevitable U.S. and European irrelevance.

Those convinced of Western decline have cited the middling NATO campaign in Libya as evidence of, at the very least, Western stasis. But causing or preventing regime change proved elusive throughout the whole of the twentieth century -- efforts failed in Cuba, Vietnam, Iran, Haiti, and so on. Even so, many analysts point to historical examples such as the Roman or Byzantine empires, concluding that the United States and Europe will eventually go the way of Byzantium at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, only this time at the hands of China. But the Ottomans did not hold nearly a trillion dollars in Byzantine bonds. The world operates at an unprecedented level of interdependence, and emerging powers create new markets for U.S. and European industries.

Apple, for example, brought in $3.8 billion in revenue last quarter from the greater China region, outpacing its Chinese counterpart, Lenovo, for the first time in over a decade. And as Steven Rattner points out in his analysis of German economic success ("The Secrets of Germany's Success," July/August 2011), Germany's industrial renaissance depends on Chinese patronage. The small to medium-size businesses of the Mittelstand have thrived on exporting high-tech machine tools to China, contributing to one of the lowest unemployment rates in Germany in decades.

Beyond economics, emerging powers offer the opportunity for cultural exchange. A new, broad program of cultural diplomacy can expand the reach of the United States' and Europe's unique cultural exports -- from jazz and dubstep to bruschetta and gouda. A 2005 U.S. State Department report asserts that the United States' culture has contributed at least as much as military might to establishing U.S. leadership and cultivating trust and social capital around the world -- an influence that transcends changes in government. The proliferation of everything -- Pop Idol spinoffs and Hollywood to symphonies and techno music -- demonstrates that the world still demands U.S. and European cultural productions. And the digital age makes these exchanges more accessible than ever. Whereas half a century ago the State Department chartered jazz musicians around the Middle East, today it is experimenting with (and should expand) a "virtual jazz ambassadors" program that includes online concerts and panel discussions.

The United States in particular cannot take for granted the opportunities created by emerging powers. Washington must invest in the United States' future, lest it actually decline. Although companies such as Apple and Google show increasingly high demands for U.S. products, this trend will not necessarily continue in perpetuity, nor will other countries stand idly by as consumers. Lower corporate taxes may be part of a solution to enhance U.S. competitiveness, but as Michael Spence discussed in "Globalization and Unemployment" (July/August 2011), the United States lags in education. The United States' test scores are sliding in global rankings, and a solution must combine higher funding on the federal and state levels with a recommitment from families and communities.

A more effective education system would also work to ameliorate one severe consequence of increased global exchange: unemployment due to the migration of manufacturing overseas. The United States' continued pivotal global role, as measured by GDP, technological prowess, or military strength, matters little to the tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans who struggle to put food on the table. A 2010 survey by the U.S. Department of Labor found that the unemployment rate among those with an associate's degree was half that among those without a high school degree, while their average weekly pay was more than 70 percent higher.

The decline of the West seems inevitable only through the confining lens of "the West and the rest paradigm," which ignores the intricacies of interdependence. From this zero-sum worldview, the rise of China and India, for example, comes at the expense of the West. Although the social construct of the West will inevitably decline as "Western" characteristics spread worldwide, the United States and Europe will remain decisive world powers through their ingenuity in navigating the diplomatic channels of and developing products for emerging powers.

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