The Great Western Ambivalence

The West has a very double-sided, some might even say hypocritical, relationship with the rest of the world. There is a systematic pattern of the Western countries in Northsaudi and us America and Northern and Western Europe saying one thing while in practice doing another on the global stage. But why is this? And how does it translate on to the international arena? It is probably important here to mention that the purpose of this text is not to blame the West for all the world’s problems, but rather to try to recognise contradictions in its actions internationally and how to move beyond these.

No other country in the world talks as much as those in the West about the importance of democracy, human rights, and peace. Meanwhile, for decades, Western countries like the US continue to support brutal and repressive dictators and regimes all over the world. The support of the West is the pillar upon which the almost medieval regimes of the Gulf countries rest upon. They have built their kingdoms, where women are not allowed to drive and only recently got suffrage, on the support of the West in areas like security and economy. Their rule continues to be dependent on the Western support. This is a support that is not likely to dwindle since Britain and the US consider the Gulf countries as their closest allies in the Middle East next after Israel. This is despite the ruling families being also unofficially supporters of the same jihadist groups that the West opposes. There are also many more brutal regimes that regularly break human and democratic rights, like the one in Uzbekistan, that also get support from the West. Not to mention the decades of oppression that South America suffered under military dictatorships supported by the West.

Meanwhile the West is also the main player on the global arms market. If you take a look at SIPRI’s 2015 fact sheet of the world’s 100 biggest arms-producing companies in 2014 you will quickly notice a pattern. All of the 10 biggest arms companies are from either Europe or North America and amongst the other 90% a majority are from either Europe or arms salesNorth America. The United States and the UK alone accounted for over 60% of the 100 companies’ total sales in 2014. Even if Chinese companies were not included the Western dominance on this list would certainly still prevail even if they were. According to SIPRI’s 2016 fact sheet on international arms transfer for 2011-2015, 7 of the world’s 10 biggest arms exporting countries were Western, with reoccurring clients like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Egypt. Even tough, as pointed out by SIPRI, the West’s dominance over global arms trade has been decreasing in the latest couple of years, it still has a market share that could be seen as a virtual monopoly, and this decline has only started recently while the Western self-perception as a mediator of peace is decades old.

Western countries also like to image themselves as fighters of corruption and spreaders of good governance. In the meantime, almost all tax heavens, rife for corruption, are the results of Western policy. The subject of the Western role in the creation and maintenance of this global web of secrecy is covered by the May 2016 issue of the pan-African magazine NewAfrican. These tax heavens make it possible for leaders and elites all over the world to not just avoid taxes, but also to hide corrupt wealth. The secrecy of these financial hotspots provide corrupt elites with the perfect opportunity to hide and use their wealth, often acquired through corruption, away from public scrutiny. The tax tax heavens greathavens often have strong connections with and are former colonies of Western countries – a lot of them still are UK foreign territories – and have been transformed to tax havens under Western directive. The City of London is also seen by many as the centre of their activities, and many of the major banks and their subsidiaries that operate in these murky grey zones are also Western, with HSBC and Societe Generale just to mention a few. This means that while Western officials and prominent figures often pay lip service to helping stem corruption in countries with less developed institutions, their conscious actions have only helped the same crookedness that they claim to be fighting.

What makes the West’s actions internationally maybe even more contradictory is that it does not just talk on issues like democracy and human rights, but it also acts. Western countries and actors for example do not just support dictators and corrupt elites, but also support democratic, stable, and inclusive development in many areas. But how come Western nations systematically say and sometimes do one thing and then do another? The most obvious reason is the multilateral nature of Western democracies. On one hand we have actors like the corporate sector pushing policy determined from a perspective ofHRW profit, and on the other we have organisations like Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and strong democratic and egalitarian traditions. In short, it is a liberal capitalist democracy. Despotic dictators are supported by Western governments and strong interests because of reasons connected to strategic security and profit seeking. And simultaneously the same dictators are opposed by the same countries’ organisations and parts of governments putting an emphasis on democracy and human rights. This means that the Western ambivalence between action and words internationally reflects its liberal democracy and its contradictions. On one hand we have the powerful capitalist interest, and on the other we have strong democratic and humanist aspirations, of which the second often have to give way for the first. The support to the Gulf countries for example has nothing to do with their leaders being particularly liked, but is instead a consequence of their dominant position over the production of oil.

To then move beyond this contradictory situation would entail two options. Either to move beyond capitalism, or Western countries all together stop any positive actions on the global stage. To move beyond capitalism is probably not possible in the near future, nor something that could happen overnight, and to abandon all positive actions is certainly not a desired outcome. It would of course be possible to continue as usual and do nothing, but for anyone concerned with the wellbeing of people this is not an option. A truly Western social democratic agenda towards the rest of the world then needs to prioritize reigning in capitalism and markets, both globally and at home, to mend its dominance over Western policy and increase the possible space for more positive action. It also needs to work on spreading progressive values such as rigid democracy, labour rights, welfare and peace to the rest of the world. By doing this it would make the world more equal and peaceful and through this construct a better world for all where there is less need for realpolitik such as supporting dictators that at least temporarily guarantee stability.

Melker Akerlind is a member of the Swedish social democratic party and a 2016 Graduate of Democracy.

Disclaimer: This Post reflects solely the author’s opinion and do not represent the platform as a whole


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