An end to western supremacy
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has posed a serious challenge to the long-standing myth of the greatness of America- and Europe-led Western civilization. The novel virus has been indiscriminate in its contagion and equally harsh to the world’s most powerful nation as well as European society. The Atlantic front that dominated the world has been shaken. The western supremacy that peaked during the era of imperialism of the 19th century and survived two global wars in the 20th century has come under assault. Western society is confounded by the havoc caused by the virus.
The press in the United States and across Europe focus on the signs of a “ground shift” in power from the West to the East in the aftermath of Covid-19. U.S. online journal Foreign Policy declared, “The pandemic will change the world forever,” citing predictions from leading thinkers. “Just as this disease has shattered lives, disrupted markets and exposed the competence (or lack of) governments, it will lead to permanent shift in political and economic power in ways that will become apparent only later.”
The Guardian quoted Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard University, who predicted, “Covid-19 will accelerate the shift in power and influence from west to east. The response in Europe and America has been slow and haphazard by comparison (with China, South Korea and Singapore), further tarnishing the aura of the western ‘brand’ […] We will see a further retreat from hyper-globalization, as citizens look to national governments to protect them and as states and firms seek to reduce future vulnerabilities.”
There are good reasons behind such theories.
First of all, America proved to be not so great. In his war against the invisible enemy, U.S. President Donald Trump, blinded by ego, misjudged and misacted. Unbelievable things have panned out in a country known to have the best medical services. New York streets have emptied out as it turned into an epicenter of the virus. Doctors and other frontline workers lacking protective gear must cover themselves with garbage bags. Patients are forced to share ventilators. The sight of medical professionals and citizens in disarray and panic has shed a new light on America. Amid projections that the death toll could reach 240,000, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman observed the country has turned into “a land of denial and death.”
Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who has famously applied the Thucydides Trap to describe the power struggle between the United States and China, defined America as the “generous hegemon” by acting as legislator, police and judge over global affairs. But that kind of U.S. leadership is no more. Allies have become utterly disillusioned by American centrism in the face of the disease spread. Despite the promise of “going big” through the spending of $2.2 trillion as stimuli, it only helped stoke fears of another wave of global depression. In its opinion page, The Guardian sneered that Trump’s narcissism had taken a new twist and that the president has American blood on his hands, adding that the only small comfort for the rest of the world is that “he’s not their leader.”
Other Group of 7 nations, including Germany, Britain, France and Italy, are in an equally pitiful state. It is a wonder that countries in which hundreds are dying each day had been so proud of their socialist welfare systems. The British boasted of health care from cradle to grave. Germany was relied on as the European economic locomotive. France is the country of “joie de vivre.” Italy has been the world’s most romantic country where life is “dolce vita.” Spain used to dominate the seas in the Middle Ages.
One Europe is no more. European Union members quickly sealed off their borders and refused calls for medical aid. None can be called an advanced nation. The Atlantic Alliance also has crumbled. When the virus swept Europe, the United States was first to ban the entry of Europeans.
Asian nations, on the other hand, have been rediscovered. Countries like Korea, China, Singapore and Taiwan acted fast in their entry restrictions, social distancing, quick testing and quarantines. Traditional Asian values that place common interests before self are being reevaluated. Krugman compared the tightly connected Asian society to its loose and individualistic counterparts in the United States and Italy. He noted that Asians are stronger against crises because they place discipline ahead of individual freedom.
Past power dynamics no longer stand because Asians have become economically stronger. The West’s supremacy originated with its wealth and power. Western standards — market economies and democracy — and their institutions were imposed on Asians backed by their economic and military power. According to IMF data from 2019, the United States remained No. 1 in terms of the nominal GDP value of $21.4 trillion. But three East Asian countries stand on par with the United States when combined (China’s $14.1 trillion, Japan’s $5.2 trillion and Korea’s $1.6 trillion.) In terms of GDP per capita PPP (purchasing power parity), China ($29.7 trillion) has elbowed out the United States ($22.2 trillion). When China — the world’s factory — sneezes, the world catches a cold.
Is western supremacy disappearing? Scholars, bureaucrats and the media say the ongoing crisis will bring changes like the aftermaths of the Spanish flu pandemic, global wars, the Great Depression, and the global financial meltdown. Their warnings reflect anxiety about the loss of long-held predominance and sense of superiority. A hegemonic war may be in progress. Are we ready for the new world?