While the pandemic rages on, two different forms of capitalism in the world are fighting. It is too early to say who will win, but one thing is certain: The beacon of Atlantic liberalism is hopelessly extinguished.
Elizabeth Vallet of the University of Quebec calculated in her book, “Borders, Fences and Walls,” that almost a third of the world’s nations have installed various types of barriers, walls or fences along their borders. Thirty years ago, at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the third democratic wave had reduced the number of border fences on the entire planet to 16. When globalization began to spread throughout the world, crossing barriers was not an issue: Almost all of them had come down.
Even though its most well-known landmark is a surrounding wall of over 21,000 kilometers — one of the 16 survivors after the 155 kilometers of concrete and barbed wire that divided Berlin fell — China is the nation that has benefited the most from what has happened in the last 30 years. None of the major global players has experienced economic growth rates comparable to those of China. And the Communist Party has used globalization, not only to increase national wealth, but also to bring hundreds of millions of citizens out of poverty. If that weren’t enough, the Red Dragon has worked on its reputation with remarkable, yet inconsistent, results.
Although China is only the 120th most favored country (out of 195) in America, according to YouGov, a recent SWG survey reports that Italians are, instead, crazy about it. Among those nations considered to have good relations with Italy, 52% of Italians indicated China, compared to 17% for the United States. Italians also hope for future alliances with the Red Dragon (36%) rather than with the United States (30%). This appeal of China is also evident in the preference given by Italians for products that come from China (45%), compared to those from the United States (33%). And it doesn’t matter to Italians that, in America, Italy is the fourth favored country, the only one among the top seven favorites without English as one of its official languages (also YouGov data).
In short, the new Italian pro-China attitude is not simply the result of recent political leanings of current government forces. It is also the result of big changes in public opinion. Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, 30 years after the end of the Cold War and 20 years after the attack on the Twin Towers, new sentiments and significant cultural trends can be seen. They will influence future decisions for our country, a small local power which will also have a role to play on the global stage.
Indeed, various conflicts will take shape on this complicated stage, and not everyone will call on Italy to play a strategic role. But the main conflict that will undoubtedly play out is that between America and China. And the recent accusations made by Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo against China about the spread of the coronavirus are only the newest indication of it. Because this conflict “is already underway,” as Alessandro Aresu explains in his recent, important research on “The Powers of Political Capitalism.” “It involves the two ‘capitalisms’ capable of weighing and challenging each other for global primacy. It is a conflict that is also fought with weapons of law and that definitively marks the ‘race for national security’ which follows, like a shadow, the confidence in the markets expressed by Greenspan in the last decade.”
The traditional geopolitical and geoeconomic position would put Italy on the U.S. side; a position formed by history that became “traditional,” precisely through national sentiment and the Republican cultural stance. However, new sentiments and trends challenge this tradition. And because — as Eric Hobsbawn and Terence Ranger explained to us 40 years ago — tradition is often invented by man, it is understandable why Italians who side with America appear much less traditional today than in the past.
On the other hand, America has abandoned Italy and Europe under at least three presidencies. After George W. Bush’s disaster in Iraq and Barack Obama’s disengagement, Donald Trump is following a strict isolationist methodology. The last interventionist president was Bill Clinton. From the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, to the military efforts against ethnic cleansing employed by Slobodan Milosevic, to the support for the eastward push of the European integration process, Clinton was the last American leader to follow the lessons of Wilson and Roosevelt.
George W. Bush broke a special relationship with Europe, fueling divisions within the old continent. The flop in Iraq not only highlighted the limits of U.S. hard power but also gave a hard blow to American soft power and way of life. Barack Obama embraced strict isolationism, reducing the use of hard and soft power around the world. However, Obama’s withdrawal made room –- in Europe, Asia and Africa –- for the advancement of totalitarian countries and illiberal democracies. Trump continues Obama’s politics, with more cynicism for one thing, but at least without that cheap internationalist rhetoric that filled the speeches of his predecessor.
If Italians are in love with China, it is also due to this new idea of America in “Retreat,” the title of the great book by journalist Bret Stephens. The American appeal in Italy took off in the years of the Cold War for U.S. abilities in economic, military, political and cultural intervention, unmatched in recent human history. In truth, on a military and political level, the numerous American administrators made more than one mistake. America showed that it remained charming and attractive for its (deeply ideological) ability to present itself as the land of opportunities and freedom.
American and Western liberalism –- in one word: Atlantic –- has been the most powerful source in the world for years. The beam of light that projected on every corner of the planet was the clearest guide for anyone who aspired to embrace a dimension of their own fully free existence, which is, therefore, inherently just. The beam of light from the Atlantic lighthouse gained the upper hand, because it had to satisfy both the old Enlightenment freedoms of speech and worship as well as the 20th century material freedoms from need and fear. Roosevelt’s four freedoms shared the moral strength of the Western way of life and the practical benefit as a reference for living a harmonious, productive and prosperous life.
Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, that same lighthouse shines much less brightly. Many take its existence for granted as if it were not man-made. The constant state of peace guarantees fundamental freedoms unconditionally. At the same time, the widespread rise from poverty of hundreds of millions of people in parts of the world untouched by liberal democracy weakens the belief that the combination of democracy and capitalism is the most effective in alleviating human suffering. While the Enlightenment freedoms are losing their influence, the 20th century freedoms are also less effective than they once were.
“The Light that Failed” by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes is a book that best explains how the beacon of liberalism needs urgent repair; and that it will be subjected to new fogging. It is evident, in fact, that the most socially and culturally underdeveloped nations are comfortable using strong growth outcomes for distribution purposes. Their gap, compared to Western countries, is such that the acquisition of social elements is already visible to the naked eye, hardly requiring empirical measurement. This observation says a great deal already, but means even more. Because the gap between the West and the rest of the world is still significant, these acquisitions will continue to grow freely, with a consequent increase in the appeal of undemocratic systems.
The health emergency of the coronavirus and subsequent economic and social crises will make these ongoing processes more visible and dramatic. Crises — all crises — are steps toward unpredictable developments, which only the individual ingenuity and cooperative ability of women and men of goodwill can shape. The challenge of liberal democracies is, at the same time, ideological and pragmatic. It is a question of reigniting the moral horizon of Enlightenment freedoms and reviving the material usefulness of 20th century social freedoms. Only by putting all hands on the beacon of liberalism could it start to shine like it used to.
Before it was the title of Krastev and Holmes’ essay, “The Light that Failed” was the title of Rudyard Kipling’s debut novel. A love novel which, as the two essayists remember, had two different versions: one short with a happy ending, the other longer with an unhappy ending. There is no doubt that the bet on liberal democracy is also open to either of these outcomes.
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