In The Fate of the West, his ambitious survey of global affairs, former Economist editor-in-chief Bill Emmott confronts rising feelings of decline and resurgent nationalism. Reviewing the world economy region by region, he promises to provide alternatives to the West’s current gloom. Instead, he delivers globalism réchauffé.
The West is the world’s most successful political idea, Emmott declares at the start, locating the two “lodestars” of equality and openness within it. In his estimation, Western governments have fallen short in both departments, and as a result they are “in deep trouble.” The idea of the West is under attack for good reason, he says, since it has “failed to deliver fairness, prosperity, and security” that “citizens have come to expect of it.” The West’s biggest threats today come from Washington, D.C., Emmott suggests, not from China or militant Islam. The West’s jeopardy is self-induced.
This is a serious indictment, but is it even true?
A healthy society, Emmott insists, must be “open to new ideas, new elites, new circumstances and new opportunities whether of trade in goods and services or of culture and science,” but jingles like this don’t speak to crucial challenges facing the West. Emmott’s paeans to openness are repeatedly code for unrestricted immigration.
Emmott veers from topic to topic, and his review feels glued together. He never states exactly how the West can do much more than it has done to level the playing field or widen opportunity. While he is right to be alarmed by rising income inequality, he seems more than comfortable with the forces driving it. Indeed, Emmott is one of global capitalism’s leading exponents.
Since World War II, power has gradually shifted from sovereign governments to supra-national entities, multinational corporations, and international institutions. To globalists like Emmott, this state of affairs benefits all humankind. The Davos view shuns national identities, thinks of borders as obtrusive, and conceives of national governments as things of the past. No doubt, recent events and elections imperil reflexive internationalism. For Emmott, Brexit feels inconceivable. The collapse of the European Union is unthinkable. Trump’s presidential victory reflects deep social pessimism and self-destructiveness.
But the ruled are having second thoughts. In the Netherlands, France, and Austria, nationalist movements are robust. The United Kingdom seems intent on leaving the European Union. Russian, Turkish, Chinese, and Indian nationalism are on the rise. Focused on job losses and unemployment, globalists fail to grasp the moral psychology rooted in threats to the West’s traditional normative ideals, as New York University political scientist Jonathan Haidt has observed . Nationalists think their countries and heritage are worth preserving. And is it surprising when established residents who don’t benefit from cheap labor grow politically upset?
In Emmott’s view, of course, migrants provide a welcome, indeed necessary injection of youth and fresh ideas. They face closed, fearful societies composed of aging citizens who want to protect their self-interests. Yet for tens of millions in the U.S. and Europe, uncontrolled immigration threatens safety, schools, livelihoods, and quality of life. Increasingly, those who pay the price resent globalism’s ruling class trying to shame and scorn them into submission.
The worldwide benefits of free-trade agreements and shared advantages of international collaboration are obvious and manifold, Emmott reminds us. They have assisted world order and wealth creation, and they have promoted global cooperation and peace. The benefits of NATO or the World Health Organization are widely appreciated. But in extolling international alliances and agencies uncritically, Emmott overlooks institutional degeneration and arrogation of power. The European Union’s failure to protect nations from a flood of Mideast migrants has reinforced continental disenchantment.
Global capitalism might someday give the entire world a noisy, charmless, crowded version of Southern California. Where Economist-style views are nearly universally held, master builders might call this progress, smiling all the way to the bank. But tribalism and clashing mores are likely to endure, along with uncountable global resentments. Ardent internationalists with the best intentions cannot always will civilizations, nations, and peoples to think and act in accord—or even get along.
Fatal to his analysis, Emmott leaves out cultural forces at the heart of the West’s malaise: religion; identity politics and multiculturalism; sexuality and pornography; courtship, marriage, and family formation; music and entertainment; and on top of this, retreat from nature into electronics.
Emmott offers plenty of facts and figures and concludes that an open, free, equal Western society is better than authoritarian rule. This is an estimable but unoriginal thought.
And with professed optimism, Emmott prescribes easy-to-swallow remedies to cure the West’s angst. When he lists guiding principles for the future, for instance, he simply elaborates slogans that inside-the-box internationalists have advanced for decades: recognizing human capital’s importance in the digital age, using education as the best means of achieving equality.
The Fate of the West is a mediocre book with a great title. Nonetheless, the volume comes at a time when civil society’s future and rising nationalism are on serious minds, and the fate of the West remains a subject worth exploring.