• Toby Irwin

The Crisis of Western Values, and How to Save Them

In the 1996 book Clash of Civilisations, the late political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote of how the future world order will be characterised by several groups based around religious and cultural ties. Pictured below is how Huntington predicted the world would group itself. In blue is what he described as Western. This article stems from this image and indeed Huntington’s theories. What defines Western Values, and how will they be influenced as we move into the twenty-first century; not from other sources of global power but from within?

Huntington's Cultural Groupings

To begin, it is worth noting how the values of the West can of course be attacked from the outside. In China, an alternative model of capitalism is alluring to many emerging economies which combines political restrictions with free economic enterprise. Venezuela, despite being a blatant humanitarian catastrophe, still is seen as a desirable socialist state by some; Jeremy Corbyn once saying that Hugo Chavez deserved praise for “showing that the poor matter and wealth can be shared”. This notwithstanding that Venezuela currently has one of the worst hyperinflation cases in history, one million bolivars being equivalent to around £0.06. And of course, Islamic Extremism continues to gnaw away at Western security concerns through cowardly terror attacks. However, this article proposes that the chief and most immediate threat to Western values come from within our own domestic political systems.

What exactly are Western values? Firstly, democracy is of course pivotal. It seems unlikely that it will tumble entirely in the West itself, but democracy is indeed under assault elsewhere in the world. Turkey is a good example, where President Erdogan has increasingly taken control over security and judicial positions with his political allies.* Turkey is just one example of how democratic institutions can be taken over and directed towards a more authoritarian framework. This so called “New Turkey”, and the expanded powers of the president, can be read about in this piece by the CSIS. Democracy is not just essential in maintaining electoral fairness within a society, it is also important internationally in upholding the peace and preventing war. The Democratic Peace Theory is evidence of this, with the last war between two democracies being over two hundred years ago.

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington. As one of the founding fathers of America, Thomas Jefferson prioritised democracy and individual rights

Individualism is another pillar of western civilisation that should be given greater attention. In the last few years we have seen the unwelcome resurgence of group identity politics on both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. It is imperative that the rights of the individual be prioritised over that of whatever group they belong to. Not only does this prevent tribalist politics, such as Islamophobia and Antisemitism, but also allows individual people to flourish on their own attributes inside a protected, meritocratic context. By seeing people as individuals, and not their nationality, race, social class or sex, then it is possible to prevent repeating the horrific twentieth century tragedies of communism and fascism.

Perhaps the most difficult to implement, but easiest to formulate, is the principle of limited government. The United States acts as a fine example of being torn between protecting individual liberty and preventing the possibility of a tyrannical government prone to being hijacked (like the current crisis in Turkey). Smaller governments allow individual rights to be prioritised meaning protection of freedom of speech, no censorship and freedom of expression. This limited government helps facilitate the ideals of a progressive society be it LGBT rights or access to safe abortions. Further, limited governments allow de-regulated, free markets to flourish.

Political Commentator Dave Rubin neatly sums up the problem of debate in today's society:

" We should debate everything, we should talk about everything, we should engage ideas we aren't comfortable with, and we should let the best ideas win, that's how a healthy society based on rational ideas and a secular government should work, but too often these days it's simply isn't what's happening" **

In order to protect the aforementioned values this article stresses the need for political moderation inside domestic politics. Dialogue is the key, if those on the centre-left and centre-right cannot find common ground and engage in civil dialogue which allow the open exchange of ideas, then the only alternative is complete eventual polarisation to the extreme left and extreme right: both catastrophically undesirable. Another article addresses the toxicity of domestic politics, click here to read it. Universities seem to be one of the hotspots around which these issues revolve. The Independent recently reported that around 90% of universities in the United Kingdom are censoring and removing course material, as well as filtering what type of political guest speakers come for talks.***

Populism also poses a threat. Whether this is a tame version such as Corbyn’s ‘momentum’ campaign, an extreme leftist exclusive regime like Maduro’s Venezuela, or more nationalistic programmes like that of Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’. An interesting quote by Jan-Werner Muller expresses this fear fittingly,

“The danger is populism … the danger comes, in other words, from within the democratic world … the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly antidemocratic” ****

The irony is that while populism professes to represent the greater majorities of a nation, it is inherently flawed with its ‘us vs them’ mindset, which only promotes inclusivity and harmful sentiment. To end on a note, Western society can be taken over in many ways. Whether it is the careful manipulation of institutions from the highest level of government, or unknowing mass movements like populism or linguistic censorship in the name of misguided progress.

* https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/turkeys-democratic-institutions-besieged/

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97SafVeKoF4

*** https://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/nine-10-uk-universities-free-speech-restrict-rankings-joseph-rowntree-cardiff-ediburgh-newcastle-a7577381.html

**** Muller, J (2017) What is Populism? p6

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.

The student project covering international relations and foreign affairs


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