Western civilization has shaped the modern world. Unfortunately, that world and the liberal values that underpin it are facing violent existential threats today. The most dangerous of these threats are the rise of radical Islam and a newly menacing Russia.
There is a growing sense of frustration, even resignation, in the public, a belief that maybe the West has had its day and now it’s China or some other civilization’s turn to be on top.
What’s so special about the West anyway?
The answer to that is simple; many of the foundational features of a stable and prosperous world order depend upon the universalization of Western values and institutions. Capitalism is as old as humanity; but it developed uniquely in Western civilization as a system that distributed wealth and opportunity by supporting a thriving middle class. The same could be said for democracy. There have been many great civilizations in history but, apart from the West, none has championed the idea of equality of citizenship.
So successful has the West been in remaking the world that its moral values are becoming world values. The present crisis can really be seen as a desperate counterattack on those values by the traditional values of other civilizations.
The real question is how should Westerners respond to these challenges?
Although we must ultimately be ready to defend modern civilization with force, the West is better advised to engage our enemies where they are most vulnerable, on moral grounds.
Radical Islam, ISIS and al-Qaeda particularly, are threatening to ignite a firestorm of violence in the Middle East, ripping apart the pillars of stability in the region.
But what is the real issue? Well, to answer that question we need to visit the ideological roots of Radical Islam. An Egyptian by the name of Sayyid Qutb is the patron saint of radical Islam. Qutb (1906 – 1966) was one of the first to define the all-out struggle that was emerging between ‘true’ Islam and what he considered the masses of ignorant Muslims who sold out to the West. Qutb saw the struggle as a moral crusade. He depicted the West – in contrast to Islam – as totally corrupt, obsessively materialistic, ungodly and sexually immoral.
It’s interesting to note that Western ignorance of the moral character of this struggle is leading to many mistakes. While we’re quick to launch bombs against Islamic insurgents, we spend little time morally justifying Western behaviour.
What Qutb mistook for sexual immorality, for example, was the liberation of women. Admittedly, female liberation is offensive to strict Islamists. But women’s rights are not simply a Western value; they are becoming central to the world’s broader concept of human progress. We could perhaps open a new front in the War on Terror by explaining this (and other Western values) more clearly to the broad swath of largely sympathetic Muslims.
By far the greatest military threat facing the West today is Russia. The situation is the Eastern Ukraine is deteriorating so rapidly that both Henry Kissinger and Mikhail Gorbachev fear direct military conflict between Russian and NATO forces with tragic consequences.
Again, the roots of this conflict seem nonsensical to Westerners. But, in reality, the value conflict is ancient, derived from fundamental differences between the West and the Russian-dominated East.
Ironically, the West and East both began their lives as regions of the Roman Empire. Although there are many similarities between the two, there is one major difference. Western value systems were forged prior to the Roman descent into empire and, as such, are informed by key republican virtues, such as the rights of individuals, private property and the goal of liberty.
The Eastern Empire, on the other hand, originally centered out of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and was forged during the fully decadent period of Roman Empire and as such, was imprinted with quite different values. The East was an absolute monarchy that centralized all forms of power. Therefore the traditional values of the East, reflecting this historical conditioning, remain both rigidly authoritarian and paternalistic.
These traditional Eastern values live on in Vladimir Putin’s worldview today. The ‘powerful’ Russia he envisions opposes the idea of individual autonomy, democracy and basic human rights that (not surprisingly) many Russians secretly desire.
The West is a complex phenomenon nowadays, but there’s no doubt that the universalization of its values is the only hope for positive future for humanity. In the absence of core values like equality, inclusion and responsibility, the world would be a darker and a much more dangerous place.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.