27 June 2017

Why the West is still worth fighting for


Maurice Saatchi opened today’s Margaret Thatcher Conference on Security with a reminder that security is about more than nuclear deterrents, tanks and soldiers. Military might only gets you so far. As Lord Saatchi himself put it on CapX this morning, “How can we confront an ideology without an ideology of our own?”

The next question is obvious: what should that ideology be? Or, more specifically: when it comes to the numerous threats facing the West, what are the values that need not only to be defended with physical force but argued for with moral authority?

That this remains an open question in 2017 would probably have come as a surprise a quarter of a century ago, when it was assumed that, with the Cold War won, liberal democracy’s spread was inevitable, and that the case for Western values was so self-evident that it hardly needed to be made. 

But as we now know, that triumphalism was grossly premature. There have been successes: not least the transformation of Central and Eastern European countries into prosperous democracies. Old challenges, however, remain, and new ones have emerged: Russia has not followed its neighbours’ Westward ideological shift; radical Islam has emerged as a lethal ideological competitor; and China, which grows more prosperous while remaining a one-party state, is not only shifting the world’s centre of gravity eastwards, but has established itself as an alternative political model to Western democracy. 

Inextricably linked to these challenges – and the West’s response to them – are internal insecurities: economic, political, social and cultural worries that have thrown up internal threats at least as destabilising as those coming from overseas.

Facing up to those challenges has to start with establishing when, and why, we lost our ideological self-confidence. And at today’s conference that task fell to a well-qualified panel – comprised of Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum; Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi; Richard Chartres, who until recently was Bishop of London; and Telegraph columnist and Thatcher biographer Charles Moore.

There is a risk that such a discussion ends up, as Moore put it, being about “absolutely bloody everything”. But the conversation started straightforwardly enough: with freedom and democracy. As Anne Applebaum explained, though the West has ancient origins, as a modern political project it was established an “institutional and ideological challenge to totalitarianism”. 

Yet from that starting point, tensions and contradictions creep in almost immediately. 

For Lord Sacks, the split identified by Friedrich Hayek between the French and Anglo-American versions of human rights is at the root of almost all debates about what Western values should mean. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the American Bill of Rights may sound similar. But according to Lord Sacks, “they are very, very different”. The former is secular, the latter religious. The former is a formula for maximal government, the latter for limited government.

The problem, as Lord Sacks sees it, is that “in the last half century the French version has taken over the elites in America and Britain. The French tradition leaves little between the individual and the state.” So when the state is not meeting people’s needs, they turn to populism – “and populist politics,” Lord Sacks warned, “is the beginning of the end of liberty.”

For Richard Chartres, democracy is faltering because it lacks a demos. “When the demos disintegrates,” he said, “what follows is a crowd of atomised individuals.” For Chartres, one of the problems has been the “sinister view that we will bring about progress by purging memories” – in other words, by ignoring our history. To which the Bishop’s response came straight from the pulpit: “You don’t exorcise the Satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum.”

Yet if culture has forgotten history, then politics has become obsessed with economics. Applebaum argued that one of the lessons the West’s elites must take from the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s victory – however distinct those events may be – is that politics must be about more than prosperity.

“Having defeated Marxism,” she lamented, “we have adopted one of its key tenants, which is to say that politics is all about economics.” Brexit and Trump, she said, are both expressions of searching for something more profound than economics: sovereignty and identity, respectively. 

The ideological threats to the West have structural advantages today that make them more potent than they were a generation ago. For example, as Applebaum explained, we underestimated the disruptive nature of the internet, and in particular the degree to which it disrupts politics: “People have been able to reorganise themselves and find new identities online, organising themselves through means other than traditional parties.”

Yet for all the foreign threats and internal angst the West faces, it is worth remembering just how much there is worth fighting for. The open society – with free markets, a free press, democracy and its other key ingredients – not only remains the best guarantee of prosperity and liberty. It is also, contrary to whatever the strongmen claim, the most resilient political system on offer – not least because of its inbuilt ability to ask itself difficult questions, reform its defective parts and adapt to the challenges it faces.

Oliver Wiseman is deputy editor of CapX