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The West's last gasp of global dominance 

As US hegemony fades away, Biden and his allies are focusing on a deeply flawed 'democracies versus autocracies' narrative
US President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on 1 March, 2024 in Washington (AFP)

A distinctive feature of western political thinking is its astonishing capacity to justify and self-absolve when the West commits atrocities or tolerates those perpetrated by allies. 

This attitude is combined with a peculiar tendency to see everywhere enemies who are allegedly determined to destroy freedom and democracy.

This is nothing new; it is neither a byproduct of the Cold War era nor of the post-Cold War one. Its roots go back thousands of years, at least to the ancient Greeks facing the Persians, and fits with Edward Said’s observation that modern societies tend to “derive a sense of their identities negatively”. In other words, they affirm and reinforce themselves in comparison with other societies deemed to be opposite and inferior. 

To a certain extent, this is a binary distinction resulting from the dichotomous thinking inherited from Aristotelian philosophy, which continues to shape western political thought.

A recent political construct supporting this mindset is the “democracy versus autocracy” narrative incessantly promoted by the Biden administration, to the point that it was fully incorporated into the US national security strategy, and whose fundamental ideas have been promptly accepted by Washington’s lost and disoriented European allies, apparently unable to develop autonomous strategic thinking attached to their own national interests.

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This narrative frames Russia, Iran and China as the three main autocracies threatening the US-led rules-based world order, which, regardless of how many western theorists try to portray it as international law, is actually something quite different. Rather, it could be aptly summarised by the motto: “For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

The test cases of the new western narrative are the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, in addition to issues with China over the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the latter's impressive technological accomplishments. 

Dystopian views

To get a real sense of such dystopian and problematic views, one needs only to read a recent article by historian Niall Ferguson, one of the main contemporary apologists for western imperialism. 

In a shocking 2,000-word piece titled “Ukraine Needs Total Western Support - and So Does Israel”, Ferguson fails to even mention the 30,000 Palestinians killed in Gaza, noting that “there might have been far more bloodshed” if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had heeded his defence minister’s call for a pre-emptive attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon. In other words, we should be thankful to Netanyahu for having spared a higher number of casualties in Lebanon amid the ongoing carnage in Gaza.

In this view, Russia, Hamas and Hezbollah (and the enabler of the latter two, Iran), are sworn foes of western civilisation. China is the next one. And western democracies have no responsibility for the current geopolitical tensions, notwithstanding the blatant double standards displayed in all major international crises. 

Western exceptionalism cannot accept power-sharing arrangements or true multipolarity. The only option left is the friend-foe narrative

Ferguson equates Ukraine and Israel, when the latter, due to its decades-long occupation of Palestinian lands, should rightly be compared with Russia.

German political theorist Carl Schmitt has written extensively on the friend-enemy binomial. An interesting corollary of his work is the “state of exception”, which is a major part of the self-absolving drive displayed even today, in the rubble of Gaza, by western democracies. According to this principle, in order to save democracies from their enemies (either real or imaginary), democracy itself must sometimes be suspended. 

A vivid application of this principle can be seen in Gaza, where Israel - according to the western narrative - must commit atrocities to defend itself and save “the only democracy in the Middle East” from the threat of Arab-Islamic autocratic actors: Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. 

It goes without saying that if a threat does not materialise, it must be invented; otherwise, the entire intellectual construct of western identity could collapse. And over the last two decades, western political elites and their numerous mouthpieces in the mainstream media have honed a considerable ability to invent and promote a wide range of threats.

Internal threats

This issue also arises in a recent Foreign Affairs essay by Hal Brands, titled “The Age of Amorality: Can America Save the Liberal Order Through Illiberal Means?”

Brands asserts that “the only way to protect a world fit for freedom is to court impure partners and engage in impure acts”. His essay displays binary thinking and a typical western zero-sum approach, describing US competition with China and Russia as “the latest round in a long struggle over whether the world will be shaped by liberal democracies or their autocratic enemies”.

Nevermind the fact that the war in Ukraine might also be the result of two decades of warnings by Moscow that Ukraine joining Nato was a red line for Russia’s security, like the Soviet nuclear missiles deployed in Cuba in the early 1960s were for US security; or that the 7 October Hamas attack followed more than a half-century of brutal occupation of Palestinian lands, which Israel has carried out with an impunity never granted to any other country in recent history, thanks to Washington’s political shield.

The Ukraine war signalled the end of Western hegemony
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On China, Brands does not mention the fact that tensions over Taiwan might be related to the US gradually backing away from its “One China” policy, which was established in the 1970s and has since been a cornerstone of East Asian stability.

While the US views its allies’ security concerns as important, those of other players, such as Russia, Iran and China, are usually dismissed, as are historical grievances, such as those of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. If the motivations and security concerns of the “others” are deliberately ignored, it is impossible to pretend there will be peace or stability.

This obsession with external threats, whether real or imaginary, prevents western democracies from dealing with their own, very real domestic threats. The “autocracies versus democracies” discourse is a weapon of mass distraction, aiming to divert the western public’s attention from internal polarisation, the crisis of representative democracy, widespread inequality, and many other vital issues.

The US and its allies cannot accept that centuries of western global domination are fading away, as the power balance shifts towards the so-called Global South. Western exceptionalism cannot accept power-sharing arrangements or true multipolarity. The only option left is the friend-or-foe narrative.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
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