I can remember a time — about a quarter-century ago — when the world seemed to be coming together. The great Cold War contest between communism and capitalism appeared to be over. Democracy was still spreading. Nations were becoming more economically interdependent. The internet seemed ready to foster worldwide communications. It seemed as if there would be a global convergence around a set of universal values — freedom, equality, personal dignity, pluralism, human rights...it was sometimes assumed that nations all around the world would admire the success of the Western democracies and seek to imitate us...They’d be more driven by the desire to settle down into suburban homes than by the fanatical ideologies or the sort of hunger for prestige and conquest that had doomed humanity to centuries of war.
...this vision does not describe the world we live in today. The world is not converging anymore; it’s diverging...The 2008 financial crisis delegitimized global capitalism for many people...Global flows of long-term investment fell by half between 2016 and 2019...All manner of antiglobalization movements have arisen: those of the Brexiteers, xenophobic nationalists, Trumpian populists, the antiglobalist left...The world economy seems to be gradually decoupling into, for starters, a Western zone and a Chinese zone. Foreign direct investment flows between China and America were nearly $30 billion per year five years ago. Now they are down to $5 billion...Economic rivalries have now merged with political, moral and other rivalries into one global contest for dominance. Globalization has been replaced by something that looks a lot like global culture war.
The fact is that human behavior is often driven by forces much deeper than economic and political self-interest, at least as Western rationalists typically understand these things...First, human beings are powerfully driven by what are known as the thymotic desires. These are the needs to be seen, respected, appreciated. If you give people the impression that they are unseen, disrespected and unappreciated, they will become enraged, resentful and vengeful. They will perceive diminishment as injustice and respond with aggressive indignation...Global politics over the past few decades functioned as a massive social inequality machine. In country after country, groups of highly educated urban elites have arisen to dominate media, universities, culture and often political power. Great swaths of people feel looked down upon and ignored.
Second, most people have a strong loyalty to their place and to their nation. But over the past few decades many people have felt that their places have been left behind and that their national honor has been threatened. In the heyday of globalization, multilateral organizations and global corporations seemed to be eclipsing nation-states...In country after country, highly nationalistic movements have arisen to insist on national sovereignty and to restore national pride: Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson in Britain.
Third, people are driven by moral longings — by their attachment to their own cultural values, by their desire to fiercely defend their values when they seem to be under assault. For the past few decades, globalization has seemed to many people to be exactly this kind of assault...The problem is that Western values are not the world’s values. In fact, we in the West are complete cultural outliers. In his book “The WEIRDest People in the World,” Joseph Henrich amasses hundreds of pages of data to show just how unusual Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic values are...Many people around the world look at our ideas about gender roles and find them foreign or repellent...The idea that it’s up to each person to choose one’s own identity and values — that seems ridiculous to many. The idea that the purpose of education is to inculcate critical thinking skills so students can liberate themselves from the ideas they received from their parents and communities — that seems foolish to many.
Finally, people are powerfully driven by a desire for order. Nothing is worse than chaos and anarchy...Today, many democracies appear less stable than they did and many authoritarian regimes appear more stable. American democracy, for example, has slid toward polarization and dysfunction. Meanwhile, China has shown that highly centralized nations can be just as technologically advanced as the West. Modern authoritarian nations now have technologies that allow them to exercise pervasive control of their citizens in ways that were unimaginable decades ago...Autocratic regimes are now serious economic rivals to the West. They account for 60 percent of patent applications. In 2020, the governments and businesses in these countries invested $9 trillion in things like machinery, equipment and infrastructure, while democratic nations invested $12 trillion. If things are going well, authoritarian governments can enjoy surprising popular support.
...something bigger is happening today that is different from the great power struggles of the past, that is different from the Cold War. This is not just a political or an economic conflict. It’s a conflict about politics, economics, culture, status, psychology, morality and religion all at once. More specifically, it’s a rejection of Western ways of doing things by hundreds of millions of people along a wide array of fronts...To define this conflict most generously, I’d say it’s the difference between the West’s emphasis on personal dignity and much of the rest of the world’s emphasis on communal cohesion. But that’s not all that’s going on here. What’s important is the way these longstanding and normal cultural differences are being whipped up by autocrats who want to expand their power and sow chaos in the democratic world. Authoritarian rulers now routinely weaponize cultural differences, religious tensions and status resentments to mobilize supporters, attract allies and expand their own power. This is cultural difference transmogrified by status resentment into culture war.
...rejection of Western liberalism, individualism, pluralism, gender equality and all the rest is not only happening between nations but also within nations. The status resentment against Western cultural, economic and political elites that flows from the mouths of illiberal leaders like Putin and Modi and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil sounds quite a lot like the status resentment that flows from the mouths of the Trumpian right, from the French right, from the Italian and Hungarian right...How do you win a global culture war in which differing views on secularism and gay rights parades are intertwined with nuclear weapons, global trade flows, status resentments, toxic masculinity and authoritarian power grabs?
The critiques that so many people are making about the West, and about American culture — for being too individualistic, too materialistic, too condescending — these critiques are not wrong. We have a lot of work to do if we are going to be socially strong enough to stand up to the challenges that are coming over the next several years, if we are going to persuade people in all those swing countries across Africa, Latin America and the rest of the world that they should throw their lot in with the democracies and not with the authoritarians — that our way of life is the better way of life.
At the end of the day, only democracy and liberalism are based on respect for the dignity of each person. At the end of the day, only these systems and our worldviews offer the highest fulfillment for the drives and desires I’ve tried to describe here...I have faith in the ideas and the moral systems that we have inherited. What we call “the West” is not an ethnic designation or an elitist country club. The heroes of Ukraine are showing that at its best, it is a moral accomplishment, and unlike its rivals, it aspires to extend dignity, human rights and self-determination to all. That’s worth reforming and working on and defending and sharing in the decades ahead.