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Worlds Apart

There is an acceleration of the West from the rest, and it should concern us all. By Itumeleng Mahabane.


The great convergence that was globalization seems genuinely behind us. Increasingly, the West appears to be accelerating away from the rest of the world. We should be concerned. 

Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History, asserted there is “only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity: liberal democracy, the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty.” Though Fukuyama’s  thesis of post-Cold War evolution no longer holds—there is no “end of history”—his geopolitical order still demands attention.

Fukuyama depicts liberal democracies, on the one hand, defined by the primacy of “property rights and free economic exchange,” versus non-liberal regimes on the other that potentially offer “the recognition of various second- and third-generation economic rights, such as the right to employment, housing or health care.” The implications of these distinctions—between what we may call free-market fundamentalist and social interventionist societies—were evident in the world’s handling of COVID. 

Early on, interventionism in China, South Korea, Vietnam and the Indian state of Kerala provided shining examples of the non-pharmacological prevention that threw some Western countries into chaos. Private enterprise, with some state support, saved those Western societies
and has given them an edge in their recovery. 

Economic historian Branko Milanović argues that, post-Cold War, most people wanted “a convergence” of the two warring ideological systems, “with mild social-democracy in both, dissolution of war-mongering alliances, and end of militarism.” He suggests that instead, the West has rejected social democracy. “Progressiveness in their new reading of history meant unbridled market economics at home, ‘liberal international order’ of unequal power abroad, and pensée unique in ideology.” This was certainly evident, some might say, in how the West dealt with COVID. Despite the obvious scientific argument for recognizing and treating the pandemic as a global threat oblivious to national borders, the West was hardly wildly magnanimous in sharing vaccines and vaccine technology.

The Western approach is a concern as we face the even bigger natural threat of climate change-induced ecological change. An effective response to climate mitigation and adaptation requires significant structural social and economic interventions worldwide. For instance, mitigating private vehicle emissions requires both technology and urban policy and infrastructure interventions. China’s political system, less vulnerable to competitive, political short-termism, may be uniquely suited to the kind of aggressive intervention that country, and others, may need.  

As Henry M. Paulson, former US Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush, told McKinsey in 2015,  “Continuing to work closely with China may be our only real hope for solving the climate crisis. This is one of the areas where our countries’ private sectors, governments and nonprofit institutions have a strong shared interest to work in complementary ways to push
for action.”

We need to find a way to embrace the reality of a multipolar world. Not just to accept it, but also to appreciate the advantages and benefits of various systems and to promote cooperation over competition.

It is likely a naïve ask. The danger is that instead of an “end of history” there could be an end of civilization.

The Authors

Itumeleng Mahabane

Partner, Johannesburg

For over 16 years, Itumeleng has advised the senior leadership of multinationals on signature corporate action, crisis management, demonstrating value creation and responding to the demands of critical stakeholders.