Why the West Needs to Ditch Its Exceptionalist Mindset

04/14/2015 11:13 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HONG KONG -- In the last few years, there has been a remarkable rise in the number of headlines urging the West to take the lead on a variety of issues -- global economic policies, democracy promotion, freedom of speech, human rights, corruption. The common sentiment behind all of these headlines is that the West is key to solving global challenges and that it has superior values: what is good for the West must be good for the world.

In one sense, it is only natural that the West should fight to keep the top spot. Nobody enjoys sharing or falling out of power. More insidious, however, is the archaic belief, still prevalent amongst many in the West's political and business elite, in "exceptionalism" -- an incredibly arrogant notion that postulates that western power is uniquely benign, and that the rules that apply to others do not apply to western leaders. This has resulted in western "group think," most recently in the Middle East and Ukraine.

All of this, and an unwillingness to adapt to new realities, has put the West increasingly at odds with "the rest," who happen to be the majority. What must be understood about the West is that it has no equivalent -- there is no other group of nations bound by a shared ideology and a history of colonization or dominance over others. The United Nations, for instance, organizes its regional groups of member states geographically, like the African Group and the Asia-Pacific Group. But then there's the Western European and Others Group, so named so that it could include the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

For the past century, the nations in this group positioned themselves as models to be emulated and wrote the rules that others had to follow. The dollar became the world's reserve currency, English the language of both business and science, and western political and economic ideas became the only ones taken seriously. Then there are the international institutions which govern the world to this day. There is a longstanding agreement, for example, that the head of the World Bank be an American and the head of the International Monetary Fund a European.

"The failure of western leadership has caused many in the rest of the world to believe in a new era of shared authority."

But all that is starting to change. The 21st century has exposed the failings of the West both politically and economically. In addition to the worst financial crisis in almost a century, which invalidated many of the western bromides about efficient markets and transparent institutions, the West, led by the U.S., has lurched from one foreign misadventure to another, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the current messes in the Middle East and Ukraine.

The failure of western leadership has caused many in the rest of the world to believe in a new era of shared authority. One example is China's initiative to start two new development finance institutions, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank. In a sign of changing times, the United Kingdom, long the United States' staunchest ally, publicly broke ranks and joined the AIIB as a founding member. Despite Washington's public rebuke of the U.K., more than a dozen other western nations have since followed suit, including Australia, France, Germany and Italy. Christine Lagarde also publicly stated the IMF will cooperate with the new bank.

These developments should surprise no one. On one level, they are a much-needed response to the financing needs for Asia's infrastructural development, which the Asian Development Bank estimated at $8 trillion. But they are also a result of the frustration felt by China, India and the rest of the non-western world over the failure of existing institutions to change their rules to reflect a new reality, and of decades of receiving the West's capricious use of sanctions and aid-with-strings-attached.

Perhaps the most striking example of the difference in foreign policy between the West and the rest took place in late March at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan, where Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his "One Belt, One Road" initiative, which will create a modern day Silk Road linking Asia and Europe. Xi and other Chinese officials welcomed all countries to join the program, calling it "open and inclusive," and "not a solo effort by China." Meanwhile, initiatives led by the West, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, are deliberately designed to exclude nations that could threaten western hegemony. Though the West continues to preach "inclusive growth" at home, its failure to live up to those slogans abroad has not gone unnoticed by leaders in Asia and the rest of the world.

"Is this the beginning of the end of the West?"

Is this the beginning of the end of the West? It is most certainly too early to say. But if recent events prompt an earnest discussion in Washington and European capitals, then it would be long overdue. Considering recent history, Europeans should know better than most the folly of seeking to control and retain privileges past the point of no return.

The end of western hegemony need not be a bad thing for the world or even the West. As the West tries desperately to maintain an unsustainable status quo, it is fast losing credibility and friends. Instead, it should accept that the world's economic and political center of gravity will continue to shift east, and look to build a new set of institutions where it can be an equal member rather than an overlord. A freer flow of ideas, a more equal exchange between the West and the rest of the world, and closer political, economic and cultural ties will come with partnership, not hegemony.

Those are things all sides can benefit from, and are ostensibly part of the values the West holds so dear. What the world needs is a West that is prepared to learn from the rest of the world as much as it seeks to teach it. It does not need a West at odds with the rest.

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