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How the West Was Re-Won

PARIS – In 2005, at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, a prestigious exhibit sponsored by the Chinese Government, “The Three Emperors,” celebrated the greatness of Chinese art. The show’s central piece was a giant painting in the European (Jesuit) style depicting the envoys of the Western world lining up to pay respect to the Chinese emperor. The message could not have been more explicit: “China is back.” The West would have to pay tribute to China in the future the way it had kowtowed to it in the past.

In 2012, China is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy and is by far the leading emerging power. Yet two simultaneous phenomena suggest that the West may have been buried prematurely by its own Cassandras and by Asian pundits who sometimes behave like “arrogant Westerners.”

First, the West, particularly Europe, is slowly taking the measure of the Asian challenge. Second, it is doing so at the very moment that the emerging countries are starting to feel the consequences of a world economic crisis that has Europe as its epicenter. In other words, a new balance of strengths and weaknesses is emerging beneath the surface of events – and runs contrary to current mantras. Europe has awakened to the Asian challenge just as its own crisis exposes and intensifies the emerging countries’ economic, political, and social weaknesses.

A few years ago, in my book The Geopolitics of Emotion, I stressed the differences that existed between a Western world dominated by fear and an Asia animated by hope. While the West accumulated debts, Asia had startled the world with its long economic boom. This continues to be the case, but nuances are appearing. There is more fear today in the West, but also a little less hope in Asia.

Indeed, global investors are starting to hedge their bets, as if preparing themselves for a more genuinely balanced world spanning different continents and cultures. Asia may have caught up with the West; Latin America may be on track to do so; and Africa may be slowly positioning itself to grow. The Arab world, too, with its ongoing revolution, may also be joining the game, overcoming the humiliation that had been its peoples’ animating emotional force.

The West, meanwhile, may be slowly adapting to the new realities of a world that it no longer dominates, but in which it still occupies an essential role, owing to values whose universalism is now formulated in a more restrained and coherent way. Indeed, to fear, hope, and humiliation, I would now add a fourth and decisive cultural mood: modesty.

Today’s West is very different from the historical West. It is a reduced entity, increasingly aware that it can no longer be the center of the world, if only because of its shrinking demographic weight. Europe accounted for 20% of the world’s population at the beginning of the eighteenth century; the population of the West as a whole will constitute slightly more than 10% in 2050.

The West is also fragmented: the American West is growing increasingly apart from the European West. The question is no longer one of shared interests or common security goals, but of culture, as the United States, in particular, increasingly looks to Asia and Latin America and attracts immigrants from those regions. As for the Asian West, Japan will continue to remain alone and unique.

Given this, it might seem premature, to say the least, to announce the “return of the West,” especially at a time when the US economy remains fragile, Europe’s financial crisis is fueling an existential funk, and Japan’s deep structural malaise continues. Still, across Europe, particularly in the south, one is witnessing a willingness to learn from others. There is a growing awareness, even in France – not known for its humility – that benchmarking is necessary, and that tough sacrifices will have to be made.

In other words, Europeans are beginning to understand that they have lived well beyond their means materially, and well below their means intellectually, spiritually, and ethically – a process that might be described as the beginning of Europe’s “Montization,” to pay tribute to Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti’s embodiment of responsibility and courage. Just imagine: a more virtuous Europe encountering a more “decadent” China, whose venal elites are starting to turn on each other?

What we may be witnessing is the consolidation of a truly multipolar world, in which the West no longer dominates, but is not about to be replaced by Asia or the emerging world in general. The West is not “striking back.” But a more modest West may stabilize its position with respect to China, particularly at a time when China has become both more arrogant and less confident in its own political and social system.