|Rise of the Concrete West
The actual, non-declining global hegemon
By Ira Straus
I. The Atlantic Perspective and the emergence of a Concrete West
The West has been organizing itself for a century into a concrete structure. This structure has lacked an overall name; we can name it "the Concrete West".
The Decline of the West has been continually declared since 19181. Yet all this time, the Concrete West has been growing in membership and international role. By 1991 it emerged as the core substructure of the entire global system. In light of its importance, it deserves to be better understood.
There is a perspective -- the Atlantic one -- that can help us with understanding this. It runs, in capsule form, like this:
The Western countries have since 1500 been at the core of the world order, and have since 1900 had enough in common to be able to organize together more closely than most areas of the world.
The institutionalization of Western unity has turned “the West” from a cultural expression into an actual entity -- our “Concrete West”.
The Concrete West began in the North Atlantic area and has gradually expanded to include other countries, more than doubling its initial size.
This Atlantic perspective deserves also to be called The Western Perspective. Its three propositions above are all fairly obvious, the sort of things that might go without saying. Nevertheless, when stated and taken together, they have far-reaching implications:
The belief in Western decline is mistaken. The Concrete West’s expansion has kept its share of the global economy growing. Today it has 73% of world GDP.
The Concrete West can keep expanding, as it always has in the past, on cautious terms that maintain its cohesiveness as well as its portion of global GDP. It is a mistake when it is said it now needs to take in Third World countries as a way of staying relevant. By continuing to absorb only those countries that have come to share its commonalities, it can remain at the core of the world order for an indefinitely long time to come.
The Concrete West’s expansion has no precise limit; it might someday become the world, since Westernization is going on everywhere.
Projections of China’s rise to the top global economic position are an optical illusion, or a confusion of categories. To become global economic leader, China would need to surpass the Concrete West, not America. The Concrete West is too big for China ever to surpass.
The Concrete West’s global leadership can avoid ever getting overturned in the future. The world can henceforth be spared the global conflicts that usually occur when a rising power is replacing the old leader, or when there is “hegemonic decline”.
Western decline is an optical illusion. It is also a dangerous illusion: it leads to miscalculations -- destabilizing withdrawals by the West, destabilizing adventures by emerging powers.
To prevent miscalculation, what the Concrete West really needs to do is to regain reasonable confidence, reinforce its institutions, and make its existence more obvious.
These inferences amount to a reversal of the conventional wisdom on the future of the world order. By making explicit the simplest facts of the Western perspective -- the Western preponderance in the world, rendered consistent by unity, amplified by concretization into expandable institutions -- and putting them together, we have ended up with a far-reaching paradigm shift.
The Atlantic perspective is embedded in the Atlantic institutions, and, through them, is embedded in the world order; but most of the time is left in the back of the mind. Cutting-edge thinking has shifted to anti-Western ideologies. Awareness of the Atlantic order is strong in countries that want to join it; and among anti-Western ideologists, who depict it as a global dictatorship. In the West itself, there is a lack of consciousness of the Concrete West and its perspective. This has led to major misperceptions, among them the belief in decline.
It behooves us to know better the world order that we humans are operating. Any order functions more smoothly if it has consciousness of itself, and a sound perspective for itself. That is the purpose of these pages.
The Atlantic Perspective
The Atlantic perspective has been in fairly well elaborated existence since the 1890s. It has partially seen itself realized in reality, as the Concrete West; it has thereby become the implied embedded perspective of the Concrete West, or, more simply, "the Western Perspective". It can be expressed schematically by the following set of propositions:
The West is, after its modernization and democratization in recent centuries, a single society in the political decisive respects2; its countries share fundamental political and economic structures, and have roughly similar levels of wealth and of freedom. While it still has important national diversities, none of these rise to the level of creating a potential existential opposition of societal interests.
Its societies can therefore act freely, without fear -- more freely than most other groupings of societies -- on the fact (in itself not unusual among groupings of countries) that their shared interests are larger than their opposing interests. It is the absence of any mutual potential existential opposition that makes it safe for them to pool their powers and act effectively on their shared interests: it relieves them of the traditional risk from this -- that it might strengthen a potential enemy among them; or, if it becomes “the first step down the road” to a still greater closeness of their societies, might destabilize one of their domestic societies.
The West thus could unite in far reaching ways and become a joint actor in world affairs.
The West has gradually been acting on this fact and uniting. Its self-organization began in the early 1900s, in fits and starts, and has been growing cumulatively since 1940.
This self-organization transforms the West from a cultural self-awareness into a concrete entity on the international arena: what we have called “the Concrete West”.
“The West” earlier had two meanings: the Civilizational West and the Modern West. The Civilizational West meant all of European-Western civilization, the Modern West meant, initially, the geographically more northwesterly parts of that civilization. The Civilizational usage saw “the West” as one of several civilizations existing on the global plane; thus the phrases “Western civilization”, “Occident and Orient”, “East and West”. Inside this Civilizational West, “the West” developed its second meaning: the more modernized and liberalized sector of Western civilization, bordering on the Atlantic ocean. This second, Modern West started out smaller than the first, Civilizational West, but had a potential to grow up to and beyond the boundaries of the first as modernization spread.
The Concrete West begins in this second, Modern West. By building on its socio-political commonalities and shared interests, it gains contemporary practical cohesion alongside its long historical organic roots.
Western self-organization begins specifically in the early 1900s with the democracies on the two shores of the North Atlantic.
The Concrete West gradually grows institutionally (vertically) and geographically (horizontally) from its starting point.
The Concrete West’s institutional (vertical) growth includes: Atlantic alliance (Supreme Allied Councils 1917-20, 1941-present; Supreme Allied Commanders SCAEF-SACEUR 1944-present; alliance treaty organizations NATO 1949-present, along with ancillary alliances and arrangements, U.S.-Japan, U.S.-Korea, ANZUS; NACC-EAPC, PFP, NPA), economic cooperation structures (Marshall Plan-OEEC-OECD, IEA, export control groupings), summits (G-5,6,7,8), and other arrangements formal and informal.
NOTE. Of these institutions, OECD comes closest to defining the group of the Concrete West; but NATO is the strongest and the one that comes closest to carrying the joint identity. This is a source of much confusion; many writers assume that NATO defines the Atlantic grouping, and describe America’s Pacific links, which in reality evolved within the Atlantic system, as an alternative orientation.
The Concrete West’s geographical (horizontal) growth has taken it far beyond its initial Atlantic base area, at the same time preserving its organic cohesion by doing this in carefully limited stages:
Past stages of growth
to the rest of Europe, as the previously undemocratic central, southern and eastern bulk of Europe is democratized, and as former enemies become allies and are brought into the joint structures;
going beyond the Occident into the Orient to take in Japan, another former enemy;
more recently to a few additional Oriental countries, for example Asian tigers, as they have become sufficiently modernized and Westernized that they too constitute nearly the same single society.
NOTE. Most but not all Westernized countries are brought into the Concrete West, through military alliances and economic cooperation organizations.
Future stages: to be determined (scenarios are given in Ch. II below).
The West, defined either way, culturally or concretely, has always since the 1500s held a core position in the world economy and power structure.
Its economic position grew to hegemonial proportions by the 1800s and an absolute majority position in the 1900s.
The strategic leadership of the Civilizational West worldwide was uncontested since the 1600s but contradictory, due to conflicts among its own national powers. The emerging strategic leadership of the Concrete West (and its precursor, the western sector of the Civilizational West) was contested sequentially by the other powers within the wider civilizational west. In a series of conflicts, those powers lost; in a series of enlargements, the Concrete West gave them a new anchor. After 1991 the Concrete West was left uncontested, except by actors several orders of magnitude weaker than itself; the old global leadership role of the Civilizational West was finally freed of its former self-contradiction.
The Concrete West’s gradual horizontal growth has enabled it to keep its hegemonial position, and increase rather than decrease it with time. Strategically, this is seen in the sequence of absorption of former enemies. Economically, it is seen in the fact that OECD today has 73%3 of global GDP, a share greater than it had in the 1980s, or the 1960s when it was founded.
There is no economic decline of the West. Instead there is economic growth of the Concrete West, both absolutely and relative to the non-West. It is a process of non-decline. It provides an element of neg-entropy (sustenance of structure) in the global system. It is also a regenerative or progressive element.
There is no reason why this process of non-decline cannot continue in the future. As we have seen, the Concrete West can sustain its relative economic position by a cautious form of continued expansion, limited to countries whose entry would not disrupt its cohesion. It has traditionally disciplined itself on membership selection by two bounding criteria: sufficient openness, and sufficient care for cohesion. The way it can most effectively uphold its role and relevance is by maintaining this dual discipline, bringing in those, and only those, who share enough of its commonalities.
Decline is understandably feared as an eventual inevitability for a geographically fixed national state entity, but has no natural necessity for the West as a growing inter-state entity.
The modern West has more of universality, less of civilizational particularity, than the pre-modern West; also more than other civilizations.
The West’s global predominance has led to a spread of modernization and westernization everywhere. The variations are in the mix, pace, degree, and methods, and in disruptions in some national trajectories by phases of reaction and extremism.
The overlay of westernization is everywhere potentially thick. The universal elements of the Western overlay link up with universal elements in each non-Western civilization -- with universal aspirations and norms found in virtually all religions and philosophies; with universal characteristics of social organization (the logic of collective action, the need for organization, for economizing, for accounting, for information...), many of which have been more successfully realized in their Western forms than elsewhere; and with a universal underpinning of common human nature. These link-ups with pre-modern universalist elements serve to “thicken” westernization in non-Western countries. They also thicken modernity in the West itself (the romantics and right-wing declinists failed to notice this, leading them to mistake the modern West as superficial and decadent, declaring decade after decade that it was glittering on the surface but would very soon collapse). Old particularistic elements persist everywhere, in combined and reduced forms; universal civilization is real but not uniform.
Some countries with other civilizational roots have become westernized enough to join the Concrete West without detracting from its coherence. There is no known permanent boundary as to which countries can westernize enough to join safely. It is possible that the Concrete West will gradually become the entire world.
Of these twenty propositions, many are simple statements of fact, and others verge on being self-evident, even if only to people who have specialized knowledge. The Atlantic Perspective is thus something fairly objective: it is to a large extent simply an awareness of a set of facts and realities, and an awareness of their systemic implications when taken together.
Non-Decline of the West. Relative decline is neither necessary nor probable for the Atlantic space, in view of its capacity for geographical expansion. In this it contrasts to any single leading nation with a fixed geographical space, which can expect, due to the very nature of catch-up and technology exchange, that some of the more backward economies will always be growing faster than itself.
Continued illusion of decline. The widespread belief in Western decline is, on the surface, an unawareness of the relevant statistics; at root, a confusion of categories: given incomplete awareness of the entity “Concrete West” and of its implications, people naturally transpose onto the West the expectations of relative decline that used to make sense for its individual fixed nation-states.
The illusion is exacerbated by using “the West” as the category said to be in decline before China, but “America” as the category that China is projected to surpass. It is a confusion of categories; a change of category in midstream, so to speak.
This shift of categories is pervasive in Declinist literature; it is like a shell game in categories. Thus the optical illusion. Shell games always create illusions, it is what they are meant to do (when a game).
How to explain that this particular shell game is so widely used, almost by consensus; and not as a game of Illusion but as the most important public Truth? Does the old paradigm make it impossible to notice the loose play with facts and figures? Probably. There are also political motivations for getting excited by declinist prophecies and turning a blind eye to counterevidence.
Consensus illusions are always dangerous things, even the patriotic myth-illusions that can be argued to be necessary for social stability. Declinism is a destabilizing illusion, not a socially necessary one; nor one to be toyed with.
Leadership unthreatened by growth of others. The West can encourage global growth, including rapid growth of non-Western economies, without endangering its hegemonic stability, as its total economic growth is the sum of its domestic growth plus its geographical growth.
Dynamic Hegemonic Stability. The West’s hegemonial share in the world economy is a stable cornerstone point of a dynamic system. It has continued undiminished through long periods of dramatic growth all around it; and it has held like an invariant through storms and radical transformations in the geopolitical situation -- two world wars, a cold war, peacetime, Communism, fascism, terrorist conflict.
Stability through parallel shifts. Growth shifts the economy upward, particularly in non-Western, catching-up countries; the Concrete West shifts its membership wider, through integration of countries that have sufficiently caught up. The second shift more than cancels out the first (the differential in domestic growth rates) in the long run, or in any time span over twenty years. The Western hegemonic share is in this way maintained; relative decline never sets in. The Western hegemon is a constant-in-shift, a sliding hegemony, always genetically the same historical entity yet always changing.4 This can continue for as far into the future as can be pictured; potentially until the entire world has shifted into the inside-the-Concrete-West category.
Ultimate extent of the West. The modern Concrete West, unlike a purely civilizational West, has no fixed limits. The Concrete West’s logical fate would be to continue growing, faster or slower, until eventually the whole world is “West” organizationally, even though never identically western culturally.
The evolution toward universality can be accelerated by conscious effort, but only within severe limits. It is rooted in objective facts and tendencies: modernization, westernization, development, assimilation of universal norms to particular cultural traditions -- processes that all required centuries in the original West.
Atlantic System. The Concrete West, since it consists of N Atlantic-based set of institutions -- NATO, OECD, etc. -- has also been called “the Atlantic System”. This system exists alongside the global set of institutions or “UN system”, and in many respect acts as its core.
The logic of having two parallel systems of international institutions, Atlantic and global, flows from what was said above about the West’s commonalities. Due to these commonalities, its countries can be organized together more deeply than can the entire world. Western self-organization can in turn impart greater reliability to the world order as a whole.
The two systems are linked, quietly but effectively, by institutions that are officially global but have been built around Atlantic leadership: the Bretton Woods system, the Community of Democracies, G7-8-14-20 ... A Venn diagram of the international institutional order would show three concentric circles: the inner circle for the Atlantic system, the outer circle for the UN system, and a circle in-between for the mediating systems. The concentricity and interlocking of the three levels gives the world order far more efficacy and suppleness than most people realize; it is an under-appreciated source of strength for international institutions.
Growing synergy between Atlantic and global systems. Both levels will remain necessary as long as commonalities among Western countries are substantially deeper than commonalities on the global level. The two levels can cooperate, directly as well as through intermediate institutions; and increasingly are cooperating directly since the end of the Cold War. If eventually most countries arrive at First World standards and are integrated into the organized West, the two levels of organization might then merge. The West would become the world.
Is and Ought in the Atlantic Perspective
The above sets of facts and implications provide the Atlantic “Is”. But they do more than tell us what Is; they also suggest a moral orientation. This is the Atlantic “Ought”, or “Atlanticism”.
An Ought, if it is responsible, must take account of what Is. The widespread unawareness of the Atlantic Is creates a risk of irresponsibility in many present-day Oughts.
Atlanticism tries to overcome this, by giving full account to the central Is of the world order. It holds that, as the West Is the core of world order, and as its relative homogeneity makes it capable of greater unity than the world at large, it Ought to organize its unity and play its core role more responsibly.
This Ought is a matter both of practical self-interest and of universal needs and norms. It is sometimes described as a systemic requirement: the world order cannot avoid chaos unless there is cohesion in its core.
In other words, the West’s potential for unity is both an opportunity and an obligation.
It is a matter of normal self-affirmation, to say that the Western countries should seek, through unity, to better realize their shared interests and values. And it is a normal affirmation within universal morality, to say that they owe some consistency to the world they are leading. The posture is one that would seem to commend itself almost self-evidently to people with an ordinary, moderate sense of loyalty to their society and to the world. If there is anything surprising in it, it is that it is so little known.
The Atlantic Ought follows in the line of the Enlightenment view of enlightened self-interest: normal self-affirmation in a context of affirmation of universal morality, each supporting but also balancing the other, keeping it mild and reasonable, not fanatical or hating, or self-hating. This is perhaps related to the fact that the Atlantic “Is” has its home base in the countries where the Enlightenment was strongest in the 1700s.
The Atlanticist Ought, like any Ought, cannot be strictly reduced to an Is. It is suggested by, not deduced from, the Atlantic Is. Additional, “Ought” premises are needed to get from the Is to the Ought: the point is a part of the philosophical culture of the Atlantic region, home of the Is-Ought distinction. The distinction was used in the first stage to overcome the traditional authoritarian Is-Ought merger; in the second stage, to undertake scientific sociological investigation of what Is, so as to understand what Oughts the Is would make viable. In line with this approach, the Atlantic Perspective devotes a good half of its attention to the Is factors relevant to its Ought. Research in a number of fields -- international economics, international systems theories, research on the Democratic Peace in the OECD space and its Atlantic roots, sociology -- has provided strong support for Atlanticism on the Is side of things. Relatively minimal accessory premises -- the most general Ought-type premises, such as that we Ought to cherish the existing world and make the best of it -- need to be introduced in order to get from the Atlantic Is to the Atlantic Ought.
The systemic side of Atlantic Is research comes particularly close to generating an Atlantic Ought, although logically a minor premise is still necessary. Suppose that one adds, to the Is propositions, an Ought consisting of an ordinary basket of values and an ordinary constructive attitude toward such order as exists; as in, “the world order is something every one and every value depends on, so we all ought to try to make it work.” 5 Then the rest of the Atlantic Ought follows deductively:
As the West is the core of the world security system and world economic system, the entire world suffers from chaos when the West is not united, or insufficiently united (Streit).
“Sufficient” unity means common policy commensurate with the scope of Western economic and security roles.
It requires joint structures sufficient to provide such a scope of common policy, organized well enough to keep national actions aligned for the course of long-enduring, complex, costly policies (Monnet).
Churchill gave a more elegant, if less deductively rigorous, phrasing to the same thoughts: only reliable unity from the West can impart stability to the whole and confidence to the weak.
Universalism from a particular base
The Atlanticist Ought has one further feature worth noting: It takes the West as the main base area for its universal values. Having a base area for one’s values is ordinary for any rational actor, the sort of thing that ought to go without saying, yet in today’s world it gives Atlanticism a distinctive flavor.
Atlanticism takes a strategic, sequenced view of universal values rather than uniform, linear view. It rejects both immediate universalism and eternal particularism as oversimplified. It maintains that one has to keep two things in mind at the same time: that modern liberal democratic humanitarian values are universally valid as a matter of principle, and recognized as such globally, in a Universal Declaration and Covenant; and, as a matter affecting practice, that these universal values have not been understood everywhere equally at the same time but have evolved farthest in a particular area, approximated by the West.
It is a long history that has entrenched the contemporary universal values strongly in the West and considerably less elsewhere. This makes the Concrete West also the Concrete Base for the universal values. The strength of the Western Base is essential for the gradual universalization of liberal human values. It would be ruinous to the universal values if the West were, in the name of immediate undifferentiated universalism, to neglect its security and power as Base.
It is only common sense to say that the first priority for universal values is to secure the base that upholds them. Nevertheless this common sense has in recent times come under attack as hypocritical and elitist. Perhaps this is because its natural tendency is to favor the West, which is not a popular thing to do in present-day cultural circles, perhaps because modern democratic rhetoric is heavy on indiscriminate principles. And on the surface, it is indeed contradictory to the pure universality of universal values; as are the double standards employed by every parent, and is the very institution of “minority age”. Successful universalism is prudent; it employs strategizing, prioritizing, discrimination, delays, maneuvers, mediations.
This is a consequence of the fact that every universalism is deployed on earth by particular persons and groups, in conditions where there is as yet no universal world government, much less a perfect godlike one with universal objective magistracy and a homogenous citizenry that shares the universal norms: and that is what would be needed to provide a bastion sufficient for securing the norms against perverse uses. In these conditions, strategizing is still necessary for universalists, as it always has been in the past. Even a world government would have to strategize, in lesser degree; even in the domestic administration of justice, every government necessarily has its policy priorities for its justice department. In the actual world of multiple sovereign states with some serious variances in norms and standards, heavy strategizing is needed, today as in the past. In the bipolar Cold War, no one denied the need for strategy, but ironically, there was somewhat less need than today, since in most cases around the world, the struggle for democracy coincided with the struggle for the West against the totalitarian East. Today, in a primarily unipolar world with multipolar problems, strategic prudence is more necessary, less recognized.
Imminent universalism is, by contrast, radical; it rejects all discriminations, all delays. There are two opposite radical universalisms in the present period. On the Right, a radical universalism holds that the Western democratic Base cannot be secured unless democracy is quickly achieved everywhere, since every undemocratic space becomes a breeding ground for terrorism against the West; making it necessary to risk everything on a rush to get democracy everywhere, even immediate where elections present-day public opinion is prone to extremism. But shouldn’t there be moral cautions, peace-loving cautions, prudent strategic cautions in these conditions? No, it was said; in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and during and after the Palestinian elections that brought Hamas to power, all cautions were branded racist, hypocritical. On the Left, a no less radical universalism holds that the Western democratic base is an undemocratic elite on a world scale; only a globally elected government can provide true democracy and secure it, and meanwhile it is necessary to build up non-Western and anti-Western powers for the sake of a multipolar balance. What about the anti-democratic effects of building up anti-Western powers? What about the possible instability of a globally elected government, and its disempowerment of the actual stable Western democracies? Such concerns are dismissed as Eurocentric, imperialist, and again, racist.
It is evident that the imminent universalisms are delusive; a pure universality is not immediately available. Both stabs at radical universalism, Right and Left, suffer from the perversion of serving particular interests on the global stage, no less than does a prudent universalism that favors its particular base; and the radical universalisms, unlike the prudent ones, serve interests that undermine their professed norms. Which is the worse hypocrisy, or biasing motive: one that favors service to the strategic interest of its proclaimed cause, or one the serves the interest of an opposite cause? Service to the opposite cause is what a prudent universalism strategizes to avoid doing. It is what ordinary sincere people have been strategizing for thousands of years to avoid while advancing their norms; it is what has enabled humanity to achieve some continuity and progress in its norms.6
Atlanticism is not a radical universalism. It is an ordinary common sense universalism, one that proceeds from the particular base where its universal values have most embedded themselves. It reinforces that base area by uniting it into a Concrete Base. This ends the internecine power politics that had in the past introduced contradictions into its global role; it enables a cumulative expansion of the base area, and a cumulative expansion of its values through all the twists and turns of strategic policy.
The Atlantic Perspective is rooted in long-standing Atlantic realities. Theorization of it began in the decades after 1865, so as to deal consciously with those realities. It became embedded in the 1900s in Atlantic institutions and an Atlantic-based world order. The world order and the Atlantic Perspective thus mutually adapted to one another.
The Atlantic, once entrenched in institutions, was able to continue its growth even without much consciousness. After the 1960s the Perspective receded in public awareness; in the mid-1980s there first emerged the near-consensus belief in Western economic decline, tied to calls for abandonment of Western unity. The expansion of the West nevertheless continued, and accelerated. The underlying Atlantic realities proved powerful indeed.
The probable next stages in the growth of the Concrete West are to bring in additional Asian tigers as they become more First World in character, and additional post-Soviet states including at some point Russia. This will bring the entity to still higher supermajority share of global economic throw weight, and to nearly all of global military throw weight. It will also bring it to nearly 2 billion people, more than any other coherent entity in the world. In subsequent stages, probably several decades hence, additional countries in Asia and Latin America will graduate from the Third World to lower First World conditions, and come into the Atlantic institutions. This will further add to the hegemonic position of the Atlantic entity, even as other countries keep growing economically outside of it. Later stages can be expected to bring in the large countries in the South that today are still very far from First World status; with the accelerating progress of technology and investment, they may well get there before the end of the present century. It is thus entirely possible that, in the next century, the Atlantic will be the world.