Mary Dejevsky: Don't bank on the eclipse of the West

Obama's thesis - that social progress is not just measured in GDP - can't just be dismissed as simplistic American cheerleading
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The Independent Online

After President Obama addressed MPs and peers in Westminster Hall, one of the most substantial and significant speeches heard in London for years was picked over for evidence of cracks in bilateral relations. That was not wrong, and the evidence was there. But this was a big speech, a speech that flattered the Mother of Parliaments with its scope and cried out to be read as a statement less on US-British relations than on the state of the world – as observed by one of the most thoughtful presidents the US has produced.

Contrary to what some headlines might have suggested, its central theme was not division and weakness, but strength – the strength of what has traditionally been seen as the Western way, but is really something much broader. As such, it offered an upbeat prelude to the G8 summit which concludes in Deauville today, a prelude as fitting as it was unfashionable.

Unfashionable, because the prevailing transatlantic mood is pessimism. The philosophical consensus has been that the West, as embodied by the US, is in terminal decline and the future belongs to the emerging economies, chief among them China, with India snapping at its heels. Viewed from this perspective, the only realistic task for the "old" countries is to slow their decline and use the last years of their ascendancy to fix international rules to guard their way of life.

The very composition of the G8 serves only to exacerbate the defensiveness. With only Russia – the most sluggish of the "Brics" (Brazil, Russia, India, China) – invited as of right, and only out of post-Soviet sufferance, the annual gathering of the advanced industrialised countries more and more resembles an old-world fortress.

In London, Mr Obama struck quite a different note. He insisted, in effect, that the advanced countries were advanced because they shared certain values and aspirations which made them what they were. Yes, they had their ups and downs and, yes, they made mistakes, including insufficient regulation of the free market. But on balance, these countries – our countries – still stood for progress. The West's decline was by no means written in the stars.

There will be those who dismiss Mr Obama's thesis as simplistic new-world cheer-leading. But that would be to ignore his supporting arguments, not least the arrival, seemingly out of nowhere, of the Arab Spring. And what appeared a paean to this country's institutions, starting with the Magna Carta, was designed to make a wider point. "What began on this island would inspire millions throughout the continent of Europe and across the world", said Obama, including, as he put it "your rabble-rousing colonists on the other side of the Atlantic".

He went on to the economic and social aspects. Countries like China, India and Brazil, he said, were growing so rapidly – "because in fits and starts they are moving towards market-based principles that the US and the UK have always embraced". Competition, he said, favoured societies that were "free-thinking and forward-looking", but that also offered decent living standards and a social safety-net – a "commitment" to their citizens.

All this might give the impression that Mr Obama presented an idealised view of our two countries. He did not. What he did was point out the multifarious elements that make up social progress, and demonstrate that progress is not just national GDP, nor yet "the reach of our militaries or the land that we've claimed". It has been "the idea that all human beings are endowed by our Creator with certain rights that cannot be denied".

Of course, that is a very American way of putting it, not necessarily appealing to the European ear, but the sentiment is a salutary corrective to the doom-laden acceptance that the days of what the West stands for are numbered. In a full-court defence of "the West", Obama argued that, on the contrary, vast numbers of people elsewhere were seeking, and envying, what our countries have, however imperfectly, already found. If there is progress, it will be in "our" direction.

Now maybe Obama is a congenital optimist. But this does not preclude his being right, or at least more right than those repeatedly predicting our imminent eclipse.

Take the big one: China. This enormous country appears to be the success of our age, but its economic growth is accounted for in part by the rapid increase (until recently) in the population and a liberalisation of economic policy – towards the market. That its GDP recently overtook that of Japan, and is forecast to exceed that of the US before long, does not mean that the US, or the advanced world as a whole, is in absolute decline. It means rather that China's economy is starting to catch up. But it has a very long way to go before its living standards, as measured even by the limited gauge of per capita GDP, approaches those of Japan; IMF estimates put it at $7,400 against $34,000 for Japan. Most people in China are, by Western standards, still very, very poor.

And development brings its own difficulties. Wages in the coastal areas are already being forced up, by inflation and worker discontent. This in turn reduces China's advantage as the global workshop. Any sudden shock is potentially destabilising, in the economic, as in the political, arena. Urbanisation still has very far to go, with all the social upheaval that entails. Meanwhile the secondary effects of the one-child policy are being felt: China's new demographic problem is too few people to sustain current growth rates without technological – and political? – change, not too many mouths to feed.

Then take India. It may be the world's biggest democracy, but that democracy is disorderly; society is hobbled by convention and caste. There is no social safety-net. Education is patchy, and even higher education is criticised for producing graduates who are "trained" – and able to staff call centres and program computers – but not trained to think. Business and science are the losers.

Finally consider, as Obama did, the Arab Spring. For decades the Western assumption was that, in the unlikely event of political ferment, the "masses" would embrace conservative Islam. That, it transpires, was not so. Young Arabs and Iranians want pretty much what we want – until and unless, that is, we thwart their ambitions. The fear, after Syria withdrew from Lebanon six years ago, was that Damascus and Tehran would simply exert their influence from further away. In fact, the ideological "contamination" went the other way. The relative freedom of Lebanon and Jordan has infected the outlook of Syrians.

Of course, the Arab Spring could also give way to a chaotic winter, which is why the international response has been at once welcoming and wary. The economic strides made by China and India also pose risks – for the stability of these countries, and our own. Yet the fatalistic acceptance that the West has had its day is too bleak. We should adopt a little of Obama's optimism and rejoice that today's West could be tomorrow's world.