The West responded to the abrupt, accelerated, and comprehensive collapse of communism—and no viable communist regime now exists—with the utopian expectation that relatively quickly the “rest” of the world would soon become Westernized. That dream actually seems to have come true.
Only 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, almost all the countries of Eastern Europe, and Russia itself, appear committed to capitalist democracy.
Yet when I look at these, and many other “new” democracies around the world, I can’t help but think of Irish singer Mary Black’s line: “Look at it closely, counterfeit mostly.” If, indeed, what we see today in most of the non-Western world is more political malarkey than democracy—and I think it is—what explains this extraordinary mimicry of the West?
History for the most part is filled with diverse forms of political life. However, there are extraordinary moments when a standard institutional, ideological, and strategic format is authoritatively established, adopted, or imposed across a number of culturally diverse settings. I call this the “Versailles effect.”
In the seventeenth century Louis XIV created a remarkably powerful and prestigious regime, one mimicked in many parts of Europe—Germany, Poland, Russia—where mini-Versailles were built, French manners adopted, and the French language spoken by elites. In the nineteenth century, the British Parliament became the object of political imitation. And after World War II a number of Stalinist regimes were created in Eastern Europe, from Albania to Lithuania, all stamped with identically ugly Stalinist architecture—political and physical.
But why do we see such extraordinary instances of institutional and ideological imitation today, when the direct use or threat of force by the West is absent?
First, a premium exists for the weak to look like the powerful: to be recognizable and intelligible to those who can help, hurt, or ignore them. And currently, all of Eastern Europe (including Russia), and almost the entire non-Western world, is pervasively weak. Learning English, displaying copies of the Federalist Papers, wearing Armani suits, having elections—and perhaps most important of all, playing golf—position non-Western elites to make economic, political, and military claims on the powerful, which today means the United States. How else can we explain that Saudi princes, Japanese businessmen, Argentine colonels, and Russian politicians all play golf? In the post–Cold War era, playing golf for the non-Western elite is what wearing togas was for the non-Roman elite in the ancient world.
Second, mimicking the powerful allows a weak country to share vicariously in the authentic “Versailles” enormous stature and prestige. Formal resemblance is a cheap form of borrowing, this time of status.
Third, for many countries around the world faced with economic misdevelopment, submerging markets, ethnic violence, and political corruption, adopting Western political language and institutional facades is often seen as a magical potion, promising quick and painless progress after what in many cases has been more than a century of failed experiments with monarchy, fascism, and communism.
And now at the beginning of the twenty-first century a fourth factor is contributing to the Versailles effect. For the first time since the French Revolution, there is no politically centered, militarily powerful, anti-Western ideology in the world—certainly not Islam. However, the current absence of a powerful international anti-Western ideology is unlikely to be a permanent reality. Sooner, not later, we will observe—and the sooner we detect them the better—the articulation, organization, and mobilization of threatening anti-Western movements. These movements are likely to appear in areas that are partially Westernized, areas where some of the most developed technologies of power combine with some of the least developed emotions of frustration, resentment, and rage in some of the most disoriented and disorganized societies. Precisely that happened in the short period between 1917 and 1934 in Germany and Russia.
Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Russia ended the twentieth century where it began—on the Western periphery. Developed strategically, disorganized politically, debilitated economically, and disenchanted psychologically, for the moment at least Russia lacks the ingredients that transformed a weak (Weimar) German democracy into a powerfully malignant Nazi Germany: a charismatic anti-Western leader, an ideology, and a powerful army.
Complexity in Western Europe
If for the last decade Eastern Europe has been mimicking Western democratic capitalism, Western Europe has begun a substantial, perhaps radical, reconfiguring of its national politics. And yet at first glance, developments there seem not radical but a logical progression. The addition of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to NATO and the promised addition of these three countries (plus Slovenia, Estonia, and Cyprus) to the EU merely look like an extension of the status quo.
It’s with Germany that things start to get interesting—a Germany with the closest political ties to the new eastern members of NATO and economic ties to the proposed eastern members of the EU. Add to Germany’s continental political economy its recent military participation in Kosovo; its symbolic argument with the United States over our new embassy in Berlin; its assertion of strategic ties with Russia; and the possible nationalist spillover effect of xenophobic movements in Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway. Now you see a Germany not about to become aggressive but certainly primed to recast itself from being Europe’s passive geographic center to becoming its active political and economic center.
Partly in anticipation, partly in response to this, Great Britain is attempting to maintain its status as America’s most loyal and proven ally. Britain wishes to remain the indispensable link between Europe and the United States. This leaves France as the highly problematic nation in Western Europe, having to decide above all else how or whether to redefine and renew its relationship with Germany.
The point is that 50 years of Western European relative political and military passivity is coming to an end. Ten years ago the fall of the Berlin Wall held out the promise of all-European unity. But today problematic relations within Western Europe—as well as between it and Eastern Europe, Russia, and the United States—have replaced the simple political arithmetic of the past with the more complicated political geometry of the present.
Economic Globalization: Homogenizing or Diversifying?
For at least 200 years, the non-European world has been involuntarily united: first by nineteenth-century European colonialism (the first global colonialism in history), then by the Cold War, and now by economic globalization—a euphemism for economic Westernization.
European colonialism imposed a shared powerful global reference—the West—on an almost unimaginably diverse set of countries. The reactions to Western colonialism were always ambivalent and varied in content. But from Cuba to India to Syria to Kenya, the West was an inescapable economic, political, and military imperative that could not be ignored.
Similarly, during the Cold War, the non-European world was forced to choose between two European ideologies, liberalism and Leninism. Efforts toward a nonalignment movement were always more symbolic than real.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall a new form of Western power—economic globalization—maintains the West’s influence and sustains non-Western ambivalence toward us. However, far from homogenizing the world, economic globalization favors the emergence of a non-European world with distinct continental and regional “personalities.”
I’ll begin with Asia, which immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall appeared to be nothing less than a gigantically successful stock market—the so-called Europe of the twenty-first century. Today Asia resembles Europe of the twentieth century. It is a continent whose potential for military violence matches or exceeds its potential for either democratic toleration or capitalist production. Consider the potential conflicts between China and Taiwan, India and Pakistan, and North and South Korea. Add the potential or real internal violence in the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and China, and Asia now qualifies as the world’s most dangerous area.
For many countries around the world, adopting Western political language and institutional facades is often seen as a magical potion.
In contrast to Asia, Africa and Central Asia are sites of violent weakness: murderous violence more visceral and parochial than ideological and international. These are residual areas of the world in terms of independent political and military significance. But Africa is quite significant as a continental site of disease and of possible regional violence in South Africa, while oil- and gas-rich Central Asia offers itself as a possible site for both political and military intervention.
The Middle East falls between a powerful and unstable Asia on the one hand and a poor and weak Africa and Central Asia on the other. Politically, Islam debilitates more than unites the Middle East, and there is little reason to believe that Islam will surprise us with an innovative ability to recast the marginal presence of this region in international life.
For 1,300 years, Islam has challenged the West, for the last 300 years unsuccessfully. It is true that the nineties were a good decade for Islam, but it was the 1590s. The immediate danger Islam poses is to Muslims. Look at the civil wars in Algeria, Sudan, and Afghanistan, the internal threats to Saudi Arabia’s stability, and the 10-year war between Iraq and Iran. Even today, the possibility of nuclear war involving the Muslim world cannot be discounted. The persistent threatening reality of Iraq is exceeded by a nuclear and unstable Pakistan. And we must not rule out the possibility of a nuclear Saudi Arabia.
America should be neither national hermit nor global missionary. Rather, we should defend existing and nascent democracies, contain or eliminate nihilistically violent states, and support a global capitalism tempered by concern for human dignity.
Closer to home, Latin America offers the most striking example of the Versailles effect—of mimicry as reality. As in Eastern Europe, there are more superficial than substantial democracies. Cuba, of course, doesn’t even pretend. But consider the dictatorial developments in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez. Or take Colombia, whose constitution resembles Mario Puzo’s The Godfather more than James Madison’s Federalist Papers. As for Mexico, the recent defeat of the ruling PRI party after 70 years in office offers the promise, not the assurance, that developments there will favor stable democratic capitalism. In fact, Mexico presents itself as the most important domestic/international issue facing the United States today.
Latin America is not simply a part of the Americas; increasingly it is an integral part of the United States of America.
Neither Hermit nor Missionary
How should we deal with the reality of a United States that 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall is the world’s ideological reference, economic innovator, and only global superpower?
Domestically, we must underline the fact that America is more than a society, it is a nation. President Clinton has defined America as a society of consumers and sensitive psyches. It is time to emphasize America as a national—not only a therapeutic—reality: as a community of allegiance, not mere consensus. After all, has anyone ever taken the "pledge of consensus" to the United States of America?
We must also value, sustain, and enhance the multicultural individual, not the multicultural society. To fragment this country into nonbiodegradable ethnic and racial groups would be unpardonable. It’s bad enough that most of our universities have succeeded in realizing this goal.
Internationally, nuclear weapons and e-commerce make isolationism impossible. However, more dangerous than isolationism was the hubris at the center of President Clinton’s foreign policy, a foreign policy dedicated to the universal spread of democracy, an end to all war, and the elimination of all distrust and hate toward those different from us. It is one thing for American foreign policy to be informed by—quite another for it to be confused with—the Sermon on the Mount.
America should be neither national hermit nor global missionary. Rather, we should defend existing and nascent democracies, contain or eliminate nihilistically violent states, and support a global capitalism tempered by political concerns of social equity and moral concerns for human dignity.