The World Faces a World War over Values

March 21, 2023 Topic: Values Region: Global Tags: United StatesRussiaUkraineWokeLGBTValuesChina

The World Faces a World War over Values

A value-based conflict tends to be uncompromising, as values cannot be divided.

We do not know when and how the war in Ukraine will end. But all wars do end eventually.

The conflicts underlying this current war, however, will not end. They are global, permanent, and will cut across any kind of war in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

The first of these is the determination of the West to defend its domination of the world—economically, militarily, and culturally. The second, more difficult to define, is a clash between two opposing value systems. Sometimes this is popularly depicted as “democracy versus autocracy,” but this perspective is imprecise and superficial. This is more about abandoning or keeping family values, as we have known them for several thousands of years. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the second conflict is about whether one accepts or rejects the aggressive strand of liberalism—what some call “wokeism”—in their national culture.

These two conflicts clash for historical reasons in Ukraine, which serves as the canary in the coal mine, drawing our attention to what will define the global power game for a very long time.

The West’s Decline as an Opening for China

Since the beginning of the era of industrialization, the West has ruled the world. Over the last thirty-seven years, however, this has changed.

Consider the following raw economic figures. In 1985, the United States accounted for 34 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP). The EU for 21.4 percent. Together, this adds up to 55.4 percent, meaning that, only slightly less than forty years ago, the West produced more than half of global GDP. As of last year (2022), however, the United States accounts for 21.9 percent while the EU account for 16.9 percent. Together, this adds up to 38.8 percent—a significant decline of 16.6 percent.

Likewise, there have been notable developments in the realm of military and security. In 1985, the Soviet Union maintained a military arsenal not fully comparable with the United States but formidable enough to lock the world into a two-power military system. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States has been by far the strongest military power, but the rising capabilities of China and middle-sized countries around the globe erode U.S. supremacy.

Culturally, the shift may be even more important. In the years after 1991, the United States was a cultural hyperpower. Entertainment, communications, social networks, and leisure activities governing the everyday life of people all over the world went through a U.S. hopper represented by colossal companies. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon are only the most recent of these. It is disputed how close these companies are to the U.S. government and its agenda, but what cannot be disputed is that they wielded enormous influence over the thinking and preferences of billions of people. This position is now being challenged—not exclusively, but primarily, by Chinese companies that have thrown down the gauntlet. The United States, however, is attempting to take action to fend off this challenge. TikTok, for example, is a Chinese-owned video-sharing application with more than one billion users by the end of 2022.

The West Fights Back

The West is aware of its own relative decline, and consequently, is attempting to shore its position. Consider TikTok once more: concerns over security risks—that information gathered by the application is passed on to the Chinese government—have led to its banning in India, the United States (on federal government devices), and the European Commission (same policy as the United States). But though these efforts are based on a security rationale, they are also being pushed to protect economic and technological power and influence.

Similarly, on the economic/technological front, the United States has imposed sanctions on selling advanced semiconductors to China in an attempt to stymie advances in high-tech development, especially with regard to artificial intelligence. Likewise, the door is closing for selected Chinese investments in Western countries. Barriers blocking foreign direct investment coming from Chinese companies, especially with regard to technology, are quickly rising up. The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in August 2022, amounts to a return to American industrial policy in an effort to compete with China economically.

Internationally, the West insists on priority to resources, control over global communication, and defining the global ruled-based system—as was the case for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, plus a large number of UN special agencies instrumental in setting global standards and norms. In this system, the rest of the world could claim influence corresponding to their growing stature. There has long been a sense that the West defended this system as long as it benefitted the West. But now, when a number of non-Western countries enter into a higher economic bracket, the ardor to do so vanishes. Negotiations over climate change reflect that.

War over Values

Over recent decades, the West has moved towards a fundamental change in its value system. Established values—primarily, but not entirely, anchored in Christianity—are being softened or changed to adopt a different value-based system. This is seen by the constant advocacy of the LGBT issue, ushering in a family structure that is historically unheard of and, in some cases, was unlawful a hundred or even fifty years ago.

The rest of the world is not following suit. The majority of countries outside the Western sphere adhere to the “old” values. This, however, is increasingly leading to contention between the West and the rest. The problem is not that we have two value systems, but that the West takes the view that this “new” value system should also be adopted by the rest of the world—a kind of cultural “end of history” position. The ultimate value system has been found, by the West.

The rest of the world disagrees. They acknowledge the right of the West to shape its own value system at home, but not to be at the receiving end of what in some cases is labeled “cultural imperialism”—being lectured about and told to adopt specific values.

Inside Western societies, there is opposition—and, in some cases, strong opposition—to the new values. In the United States, the support for Donald Trump and like-minded republican politicians may partly be due to resentment towards the “woke” culture. During the French presidential election in early 2022, the runner-up, Marine le Pen, highlighted “le Wokeism” as a potential threat to French culture. In Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, in office since October 2022, has exulted traditional family values and said: “no to the LGBT lobby.”

Bearing this in mind, the war in Ukraine should not surprising. In reality, it is not a traditional war, nor about the security of nations, nor a war between two societal systems as would have been the case before 1991 with the United States versus the Soviet Union. It is a war triggered off by different value systems confronting each other.

Russia, or at least a major part of it, is geographically European but on cultural matters on the side of the rest of the world. Its economic structure does not concur with that of the West. Its population has never lived in a democracy. The population is not susceptible to the “woke” movement. The Russian Orthodox Church strongly rejects Western values, preaching the virtue of a Russian vocation and Russian culture anchored in what is close to the exact opposite of “woke.” The Russian people regard themselves as special, not like-minded to Europe. Russia and the Russians, while a major actor in European history, did not play a major role in shaping its value system. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and industrialization, as the West experienced these, never came to Russia. It has its own culture, for sure, but not thoroughly embedded in the European tapestry.

Ukraine is different. Or rather, a large part of the people living there, are different. They subscribe to Western values. A large part of the country can trace its roots back to European countries and empires, like the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which controlled much of Eastern Central Europe from 1569 to 1795, and later the Habsburg Empire until 1918. Interestingly, the main opposition inside Ukraine and sympathy for Russia and Russian values are found in the eastern part of the country, where neither of these two political and cultural phenomena stroke roots.

This value-based conflict will be with us for a very long time. In the fullness of time, it may break up nation-states and generate some kind of global conflict among peoples instead of among states. There is a precedent to this: the Thirty Years War, fought in Europe between 1618 and 1648 between Catholics and Protestants.

The nation-state itself was a product of the Thirty Years War. It is entirely possible that the very concept itself will be asphyxiated by another war of values. How can nation-states continue to be the defining framework of international politics and unite people who are deeply divided over fundamental values?

The omens are not good. A value-based conflict tends to be uncompromising, as values cannot be divided. Compromises cannot be found. Fanaticism gains ground. “We” are right and “they” are wrong.