The above image is a tilework rendering of Portugal’s Prince Henry (“the Navigator”) conquering Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 CE
Broad phalanxes of commentators, politicians, and pundits in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere speak easily about the role of “the West” in world affairs; and the contest/contrast between “the West vs. the rest” has even become a thing.
But what is this “West”? What do people mean when they use the term?
At a time when the effective hegemony that the United States and its allies in “the West” have exercised over the peoples and politics of the world is starting to crumble, it seems worth exploring the historical record of “the West” a little more systematically.
Is “the West” only a vestige of the West-vs.-East bipolarity of the Cold War? Or, is it a civilizational matter, as in the habit of many U.S. universities to offer courses in “Western Civ” that draw a straight line back from Peoria to the civilizations of Greece and Rome? Or, is “the West” best defined in contrast to an “Orient” that has all the—deeply “Orientalized”—attributes of despotism, backwardness, and so on that have been ascribed to it? (And is “the West” thus largely co-terminous with modernism itself?)
I’ve been thinking on, and writing about, this issue for a number of years (including here), and now I’m planning to present my best current understanding on the history of “the West” as we see it today, summarized into six historical episodes. Today, I present Episode 1.
(I realize I’ve left a lot out of the summary and would much welcome helpful suggestions for improvement, which can be left in the comments.)
The above photo is of one of the exultant visits Hillary Clinton made to post-Qadhafi Libya in 2011
I am delighted that after a hiatus of more than a dozen years (in the course of which I was working mainly as a book publisher) I have now returned to the pages of The Nation, with this article about the return of Syria to the Arab League and the prospect this raises for radically de-escalating the civil war that has devastated Syria for the past 12 years, or even—inshallah!—helping this conflict toward an end.
I warmly invite everyone to read the whole of the Nation article! But toward the end I wrote this, which was a point I want to explore a little more deeply in today’s essay:
Especially since the end of the US-Soviet Cold War, many Americans have been attracted to the idea that our foreign policy should be based on morality. But the version of morality that’s most widespread in today’s America is worryingly vulnerable to the influence campaigns of parties that seek to entangle the United States in regime-change operations in various places. And it pays little heed to the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles, and therefore that bringing a halt to an existing war is itself a deeply moral endeavor.
Regarding the “influence campaigns”, I had provided a lot more information (here) on the heavily funded influence (propaganda) campaigns that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others had maintained for many years in Washington DC, regarding Syria . Let’s hope those campaigns are now dialed back, or even pushed into a strongly pro-reconciliation mode!
In today’s essay, though, I want to dive deeper into the topic of “the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles.”
The Western corporate media that for 12 years have cheerled the brutal regime-change project in Syria are still sore about the fact that the project failed and that the other Arab states have agreed to reinstate Syria into the Arab League. So in what they’ve been publishing about Syria in recent days—whether “news” or “opinion”—they still clearly embody the deeply one-sided way they have been “covering” Syria for many years now.
(Other voices can be found—if you know where to look. I’ll come to one of them a little lower down here.)
The story in today’s WaPo that purported to tell us how “Syrians” feel about Pres. Bashar al-Asad’s participation in last Friday’s Arab League summit was a classic. “Syrians”, the headline tells us magisterially, “feel anger, hurt as Assad is welcomed back to Arab League.” But no attempt was made by the two reporters bylined there to, um, actually go to Syria and ask that majority of Syrians who live in areas under the government’s control. Instead, they are writing with no dateline, that is, presumably working the phones and the WhatsApp lines from Washington, to the three named sources whom they quote. One of those sources is described as currently located in Qatar, one in Germany, the other, not located.
The reporters make a couple of references to them as “Syrian activists“, a deliberately vague descriptor that is usually understood to mean “Syrian pro-regime-change activists”… But then they also, several times, build on those quotes to conclude that “Syrians” (meaning, presumably, all Syrians) feel that same way.
That is exactly how, through lazy writing based on a barrow-load of wishful thinking, pro-war propaganda gets ever more deeply embedded into the minds of readers. It really makes you wonder. If all “Syrians” feel exactly that same way, how on earth did the Syrian government manage to survive the 12-year-long regime-change campaign?
David Ignatius, long the national-security journo with the closest access to Democratic decision-makers, wrote in an intriguing column in today’s WaPo that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s recent meeting in Vienna with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, “Sullivan praised Wang’s mediation of the bitter rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran… welcoming China’s effort to de-escalate conflict in the region.”
This is a real turnaround. It deals a strong serious blow to all the anti-Iran hawks in Israel and Washington who have tried to keep Saudi Arabia and the UAE firmly in the anti-Iran camp, and have downplayed the significance of the region-transforming rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that Wang unveiled in Beijing back in March.
Ignatius diplomatically buried this significant news item down the near the bottom of today’s column. The column also offered many other tidbits indicating that the Biden administration is now finally recognizing the folly, at a time of intense confrontation with Russia, of trying also to maintain or ramp up an intense confrontation with China.
Above: 1982 view of the Green Line in downtown Beirut. Becoming greener in a bad way. Credit James Case.
Wars that are fought within countries, rather than between countries, are for some reason called “civil wars.” But in truth they are often the most brutal and uncivil form of conflict imaginable—perhaps because the express goal of the warring parties is to definitively silence the dissident voices of their own compatriots on the “other” side or sides, rather than to win a military contest on a battlefield. Over the years I’ve reported on, researched, analyzed, and reflected on a number of different wars on three continents. But the experiences I had in the very first war I encountered were different from all those other wars, and taught me the most about the nature of war. Because there, for six years, I was actually living and raising a family in the war-zone.
Let me take you back to the summer of 1974. I had spent some months discerning what I wanted to do with my very mediocre degree from Oxford; and now I decided to go to some intriguing-looking spot in the Global South to become a foreign correspondent. This was a step many British male writers had taken over the decades. So why not me?
The spot I chose was Beirut, Lebanon, where I had a few friends already. I went to my bank in Oxford and took out a loan of, I recall, £100. I bought an air ticket, and took off for Beirut. By the end of 1974 I had a job in a local advertising agency; I was taking Arabic classes in the Jesuit university; I was writing book reviews for the local English-language daily; and I had met an interesting local guy called Souheil, also an aspiring journalist…
The image above shows Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal and Pres. Nixon, on the White House lawn in 1971, the year Nixon unpegged the dollar from the gold standard
De-dollarization — that is, the choice that countries in the Global South have been making to conduct their trade in currencies other than the U.S. dollar — is a growing global phenomenon. It has profound implications for the economic situation in not just countries of the Global South but also Europe and (especially) the United States. It is a trend that strikes at the heart of the hegemonic, dollar-dominated “world order” that has existed since 1945, and is a key marker of the ongoing shift toward multipolarity.
De-dollarization is intimately linked to developments in the world hydrocarbons business, including the decision U.S. elites made more than a decade ago to increase domestic shale-oil drilling, which over the years transformed the United States from a net importer to a net exporter of oil and gas products. That shift acted as a key catalyst spurring countries in and far beyond West Asia to base their trading relationships on currencies other than the greenback. The shift also upended Washington’s relationships with key oil producers in West Asia, which then provided a significant opening for the expansion of China’s influence in that vital region.
Those trends were all discernible before 2022. But when Washington (responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) slapped harsh sanctions onto Russia, it boosted all of them into an overdrive that now looks poised to radically transform not just the global economy but also the global power-balance as we have known it since 1945. In this essay, I’ll quickly pull together what some key thinkers from North America, Europe, West Asia, and elsewhere have been writing about the current push toward de-dollarization and its impact on world affairs.
One of the latest pundits to weigh in on the impact of de-dollarization has been Frank Giustra, co-chair of the influential, West-dominated Crisis Group think-tank. In a May 3 article at Responsible Statecraft, Giustra made the powerful argument that the United States’ true strength in international affairs lies not in its military but in the role of the dollar.
(An early 17th century Chinese map of part of the Indian Ocean, using data gathered by Zheng He’s voyages of 200 years earlier. The Arabian Peninsula is at the left. Source.)
Over the past couple of months, in my essays here at Globalities I’ve been tracking the current crumbling of the decades-old system of Washington’s global hegemony and its gradual replacement by a China- and BRICS -led system of multipolarity—and also some of the effects of that shift, in West Asia and elsewhere. Most recently, we’ve seen China’s President Xi Jinping pushing forward his previously announced readiness to help resolve the conflict in Ukraine. If successful, this initiative could bring about a further large diminution of U.S. power in the world.
We should all continue watching the progress of the China-led peace initiative for Ukraine very closely. In today’s essay, however, I want to explore some of the impact that this “West to the Rest” shift has already been having in West Asia (the region formerly known as “the Middle East”), and especially in and around the Arabian Peninsula.
Until recently, all the states of the Peninsula, with the exception of some substantial quasi-state actors in mountain-haven Yemen, have been unambiguously pro-American. The other states on the Peninsula are all wealthy petro-states. They have long maintained strong relationships with Washington under an arrangement whereby the United States promised to give them military protection provided they would continue to underwrite the U.S. military-industrial complex by buying large (and often quite unusable) inventories of U.S. weapons, and to support the role of the U.S. dollar in the global economy.
But in recent years, and even more rapidly since last year’s start of the big conflict in Ukraine,that “devil’s bargain” has started to fall apart. As Jon Alterman wrote recently about the region in Defense One:
The above photo is of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah during his meeting with Pres. Bashar al-Asad in Damascus.
Suddenly, within the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity that provides real hope that the civil war that’s devastated Syria for 12 years may be headed toward a negotiated peace and a chance for rebuilding. These moves have involved a number of key West Asian governments though there’s a potent global underpinning to them, too.
The past week has seen reciprocal visits by Syria’s foreign Minister to Saudi Arabia, and by the Saudi foreign minister to Damascus, where he met Pres. Bashar al-Asad. Last month, too, Pres. Asad made a state visit to the United Arab Emirates where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and held talks with UAE president Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed. Given that Saudi Arabia and the UAE were for many years—along with Qatar, Türkiye, and the United States—the main financiers and strident advocates of the regime-change push in Syria, these visits signal that the war may finally be winding down.
Lovers of peace and justice from around the world should welcome this trend, and should also unreservedly support calls for all three of the foreign governments that still maintain hostile military forces within Syria to withdraw them immediately. These three are:
Israel, which has occupied Golan since 1967;
Türkiye, which has occupied parts of northwest Syria since 2011-12; and
the United States, which has occupied parts of northeast Syria since 2014.
The map above, showing UAE military bases in and around Yemen, is from The Cradle, an excellent news source on West Asian diplomacy.
I have long had a lot of respect for the work of Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, whom I first came across, briefly, when we both working as journos in Beirut in the early 1980s and whom at a personal level I like. His work is generally pretty smart and well-informed. And though he has long been eager to be close to the centers of power, especially at the highest echelons of the U.S. military and intel agencies, many of the opinion pieces he has written over the years that explicitly or implicitly conveyed the views of those officials did two helpful things: (1) They provided an informative view into the thinking of those officials. (2) They put the snippets of info he provided about those officials’ views into a generally smart and sometimes slightly critical context. (Though never quite critical enough for him to lose his access?)
Today, he had a piece in the WaPo that had neither of those qualities and that instead just seemed to be full of hyper-defensive and deeply misleading analytical blather. Lest anyone be tempted to think he is still a smart analyst and thinker, I thought I should comment on some of what he wrote, point-by-point.
Globalities is currently releasing its new content in audio format. What follows is the text of the podcast episode I released April 14. Seen above: Brazil’s Pres. Lula Da Silva and China’s Pres. Xi Jinping, in Beijing yesterday. ~HC
Today is April 14, 2023. In today’s episode I’m going to, first of all, present a quick review of some of the key developments this past week has seen in international affairs and what some of them might mean. Then, I’m going to reflect a little on the longer-term historical significance of the seemingly rapid shifts we are currently seeing in the global balance…
But first: My survey of the major developments this balance has seen over the past week, and what they might mean more immediately: