The emergence in the early 1990s of India’s ‘Look East’ policy confirmed an important shift in thinking about the future direction and aspirations of major developing countries, in this case the former jewel in the British imperial crown. Looking East suggested that India would find its future destiny not primarily in relations with the West but instead with its economically and geo-strategically ascendant Asian neighbours. This thinking and embryonic strategy for a re-orientation of global relations was inspired by the successful post-colonial modernisation of Singapore, transforming that tiny country into one of the world’s most competitive and therefore successful economies under the guidance of its late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. To redefine strategies and aspirations, statesmen must first reconsider and, where necessary, discard existing assumptions about the global order and what constitutes models for success.
The terrifying spectacle of European powers decimating entire generations of its young men and laying its industries and cities, indeed its civilizational patrimony, to waste in the first and second World Wars, combined with the experiences of colonial subjects participating in these wars, cracked the veneer of European civilisational superiority. These experiences became an important catalyst for many nationalist and anti-colonial movements in Africa and other parts of the colonised world, leading eventually to the end of empires and the inauguration of a post-colonial order. Today, the economic crisis engulfing Western developed societies and which also threatens to implode the Eurozone, that supposedly towering achievement of post-European progress and a pillar of the wider EU project, is yet another watershed in global relations. It is, among other things, symptomatic of a permanent shift in the gravity of the global economy away from the West towards the East and the major emerging markets. These new regional powers comprise first and foremost the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and, somewhat peculiarly, now also South Africa). They may also come to include what Goldman and Sachs, whose then analyst Jim O’Neill coined the BRIC concept in 2003, now identify as the Next-11 (or N-11) countries with a potential for high and sustained economic growth transforming them into major emerging markets alongside the BRICS. These include, among others, Mexico, Nigeria, Indonesia, Vietnam and Turkey.
In this context the Eurozone crisis, and the decline of Western economic fortunes generally, is turning into a global manifestation of the West’s increasingly apparent inability to retain economic (and moral) leadership and confidence in its political and socio-economic arrangements as constituting ‘best practice’ for guiding and governing, however loosely, the global economy and international politics. The notion of the West as exemplar, a manifestation of all that to which developing regions ought to aspire is fading fast. When asked about China’s reluctance to commit funding to the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) designed to bail out the Eurozone countries, Jin Liqun, Chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation, made blunt reference to something which is now a common sentiment across rapidly growing and increasingly cash-rich emerging markets. For Jin the source of Europe’s troubles is ‘the worn out welfare society’ and in particular ‘labour laws [that] induce sloth [and] indolence, rather than hard working’. Impatience with Europe, on account of its difficulties to contain and resolve the economic crisis and the very real risk of global contagion it now poses, was likewise evident in recent comments by Guido Mantega, Brazil’s Finance Minister, on the eve of the November G20 meeting in Cannes, voicing frustration at ‘the Europeans always [taking] too long to find solutions’.
The world is watching. The desperate attempts of Western countries to find new solutions for reversing declines in economic strength and political influence, and to somehow sustain mass consumption and high standards of living on the basis of profligate borrowing, public spending and redistribution, will have fundamental implications for the reshaping of global order. It may well be that sustained economic growth among emerging markets can rescue Western societies from self-inflicted problems, following the assumption that a rising tide lifts all boats. But the future will also be one in which the assumptions underpinning the twentieth century Western welfare state are no longer paramount. An increasingly crowded and competitive global economy is emerging, transformed by many new and able entrants. Only those Western states able to discard the ballast of unaffordable incentive systems, keeping them, as Jin would have it, ‘totally out of whack’, while at the same time encouraging increased efforts in areas where comparative advantages still exist, will have a chance of reversing their declining fortunes. If Europe and the USA now descend into wholesale social unrest, fuelled by populist extremism, labour militancy and an inability to compromise and reform, decline will simply accelerate as potential solutions become ever more elusive.
Stefan Andreasson is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics in the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast. He is the author of Africa's Development Impasse: Rethinking the Political Economy of Development, published by Zed Books in 2010, and is currently writing a book on Conservatism and Postcolonial Politics to be published by Routledge. His current research is on Anglo-American conservatism and its impact on African development.