Hazem Saghieh

The Weakness of the Western Model or the Absence of any Other?

Many are eulogizing the West’s liberal parliamentary model today. They are armed with an array of arguments: its foreign policies- especially its position on the war in Gaza, the results of the recent French elections, Donald Trump potentially making his way back to the White House, and the emergence of stark economic inequalities. If Joe Biden is the most prominent current representative of the West, his performance, as seen in his recent debate with Trump, is a powerful reflection of the failure of the Western model he represents. Some take things further, arguing (rightly) that the increasing signs of the West’s weakness, as well as the declining influence of its policies on the global stage, partially stem from the weakness and diminishing appeal of this model itself.
That this model is undergoing one of the most severe and complicated crises is beyond dispute, regardless of how truly consequential this or that factor may actually be. However, this assertion reflects the dire state of the world more than it points to a viable alternative. This is not the result of a dogmatic or sentimental attachment to liberal democracy; rather, it stems from a lack of viable models that others could rally around, let alone get excited about.
Since 1917 and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, our world has seen a series of models presented as alternatives to the West’s, all of them claiming superiority. We know how much weight the communist system, since Lenin’s era and especially under Khrushchev, put behind its bet that it would compete with and surpass the West economically and industrially, as well as generate higher rates of growth. Only seven decades later, however, we heard the death bell of this model that had been imposed on a block of several European countries and imported by military regimes and police states in the “Third World.” Today, the Soviet model exists only in a few sad, isolated, and impoverished states.
In turn, the fascist model raised the second challenge, presenting values such as democracy, liberalism, enlightenment, and equality as heretical breaches that presented obstacles to the unity of the nation and prevented the people from rallying around a charismatic leader. From the trash in the dustbin of history and its most primitive and irrational ideas, Fascism created a racist ideology whose eradication, along with its armies and states, required an immensely costly world war.
While the independent Third World countries whose collective consciousness blended nationalism and socialism failed to present a model, Khomeini's Iran took on this task. Like the experiments with fascism, it positioned its "revolution" in opposition to the Western model, and also like those experiments, it presented its "revolution" as being antithetical to revolution in its modern iteration. Before modernity, the term "revolution" had no political connotation; it referred to the movement of stars and celestial bodies. Only later did it come to imply human agency and pertain to our role in making and changing history. Just as fascism confiscated this role from people, placing it in the hands of a leader and race, Khomeinism put history in the hands of absolute transcendent forces that we have no control over. Ultimately, the Iranian model resulted in an experience of spectacular impoverishment and subjugation, both of bodies and minds.
While post-communist Russia has failed to become a model, with its power reduced to relative military might that allowed it to intimidate smaller neighbors, China, the non-communist communist state, has managed to build a model often considered to be a competitor which rivals that of the West. Despite its immense successes, it seems that China continues to struggle with at least three major issues that have prevented its model from becoming a successful alternative.
It is weighed down by the total split between its economy and the absence of politics and laws, the gap between its status as a technological and industrial giant but a midget of culture and the production of images, and its tensions with neighboring countries (like the Philippines, Australia, and Vietnam...), hindering its ability to play a strong role globally.
Moreover, this list of criticisms made of the countries that follow the Western model is never directed at those who have adopted other models. Indeed, they do not have these values and standards in the first place, and so they are not subjected to the kinds of stringent evaluations that are put to the West, precisely because it is the only model.
In other words, it seems that the absence of a non-Western model is more worrying than the upheaval the Western model is undergoing, although the hasty verdicts may not be entirely justified. The recent British elections suggest that not all the paths to developing this model are closed; meanwhile, victorious populist right-wing movements, as in Italy, have committed to the peaceful transfer of power.
Nevertheless, the most significant manifestation of democracy's crisis might be the question of its universality and the contraction of its readiness to accommodate populations of non-European origins. This is not a simple matter, it grants democracy a greater focus on security and narrows its base, taking it back to an earlier, less liberal, phase in its development, but it is not necessarily the knockout blow many are predicting today.