William Hague thinks the sun may be setting on western wealth and freedom:
. . . In our own lifetimes, by contrast, we have become used to the idea that our western values are successful and that we are as one in making sure of that success.
Since 1945, US presidents have never given up their global leadership, morally or militarily, even though they have varied in effectiveness. Nato triumphed in the Cold War and grew alongside the European Union. The West has retained the greatest centres of innovation, finance, education and culture. Our languages and computer codes have dominated the discourse of the world.
The idea of freedom, we assume, will repel and ultimately overcome any alternative. The information revolution we have spawned will corrode dictatorships and undermine rigid ideologies. Our prosperity will always allow us the technological edge to defend ourselves.
Towards the end of the 20th century with the Berlin Wall down and the iron curtain torn aside it looked like freedom would prevail, but that optimism was premature.
Yet look more closely, as the smoke clears after each fresh bout of disorder in our present century, and you will find the values and security of the West are in steady retreat. Russia has turned emphatically against liberal democracy, and reinvented brute power in the settling of European borders. Turkey first drifted, and now marches, towards authoritarian rule and the exploitation of the vulnerabilities of western Europe.
In the Middle East, hopes of freedom have been crushed between arbitrary government and fundamentalist revolt, each feeding off each other in an accelerating cycle that leaves no space for tolerance or debate. And the demographic bulge of that region is about to push new millions of disaffected young men into the arms of religious fanaticism.
In China, the creation of the world’s biggest middle class and rival biggest economy is not bringing anything that looks like western values. On the contrary, a necessary anti-corruption drive is being accompanied by tight political centralisation, an intensified crackdown on dissent and a much-strengthened emphasis on Marxist ideology.
If these trends continue, future historians will identify the start of this new millennium as the period when free and open societies faltered and fell back, weakened further by internal divisions and the turning of our own inventions against us. . .
Improved education, health, and wealth and much easier communication, ought to be making the world a freer and safer place but extremism and protectionism are countering progress.
In whichever direction you look, the autocrats, the dictators, the terrorists and the corrupt and cynical opportunists are fighting back. They are demonstrating daily that the lazy assumption of western triumph may be mistaken. Accordingly, it is time to relearn the lessons of history: that free societies do generally triumph in the end, but they need constant vigilance to protect them, and they often need a mixture of strong leadership, determined unity and a good measure of low cunning to help them along.
The time is coming for leaders and opinion-formers to promote the need for a more unified strategy of the West, before it is too late.
But let’s not think that although the West is freer it is always right about everything.
An increase in protectionism was one of the causes of the Great Depression; isolationist policies fuel tensions and suspicion and there’s strong pressure for both in Western countries, including New Zealand, whose politicians ought to have learned from history..
On top of that, increasing antagonism of Russia and China is reigniting the embers of the cold war. That’s a fire that won’t be extinguished by hot heads and we-know-best attitudes.