For several centuries, the countries of Western Europe and North America, led primarily by the UK and its colonial spawn, the US, have dominated the globe in economic, military and cultural terms. The West has made and remade the world as it saw fit and projected itself as the pinnacle of human achievement. “The developed world” it has vaingloriously referred to itself as, a model of enlightenment for the rest of “underdeveloped” humanity to follow. And the world it built was meant to reinforce this hierarchy.
Of course, much of the narrative of enlightenment was little more than myth – a convenient fable to cover up the brutal profiteering of the oppression and exploitation of other human beings and destruction of their societies. Still, sitting on the porch of its mansion watching over its global plantation, having grown fat off the wealth it had taken from others, the West came to believe its own rhetoric of racial and moral superiority.
However, the last four years have done much to draw back the curtain on the hypocrisy that has always lain under the pontification. Countries that just a few years ago were proclaiming the end of history and their triumph as beacons of democracy, liberalism and capitalism – nations that traversed the globe preaching the gospel of good governance, accountability and transparent government to the less fortunate denizens of corrupt, third-world banana republics – have themselves succumbed to the lure of authoritarian, right-wing populism. Gone are the heady days when they sought to enforce democracy through manufactured wars and devastating economic sanctions. Today, democracy seems just as endangered in the US (and in the UK) as it ever was in Kenya and elsewhere.
This has of course elicited great whoops of schadenfreude around the world. Throughout the current US presidential election campaign, and especially in the recent weeks following the tragicomic debate between President Donald Trump and his challenger, Joe Biden, the world has been given a front-row view of the unravelling of a narcissistic, if somewhat psychotic superpower. And it has not been a pretty sight, with violence in the streets, nearly a quarter of a million people dead from the coronavirus, its economy in the toilet, the credibility of its elections and institutions in doubt, and a personality cult around its leader that every passing day feels increasingly familiar to those who have lived under totalitarian dictatorships.
“We’re not a democracy” tweeted Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah following the vice-presidential debate. And the spectre of violent coups, which was once thought to be restricted to some countries, has reared its head in the US with the disruption of a right-wing plot to kidnap the Democratic governor of the state of Michigan and overthrow her government.
To a varying extent, similar problems with poor governance, authoritarianism, corruption and institutional decay are present in the UK and in other European countries. It is, however, unlikely that the West will face the same opprobrium and consequences that it has imposed on others whom it has deemed to have fallen by the democratic wayside. No sanctions, asset freezes or travel bans on its rulers, no resolutions condemning them at the UN, no threats of prosecution at international courts. It is unlikely that respected world leaders will be heading to the US to mediate its anticipated election dispute.
Still, the evaporation of Western prestige and hubris will have consequences for democracy in other parts of the world. For all their faults and hypocrisies, in much of the “developing” world, Western embassies and NGOs have been allies in the push to democratise governance. So much so that in much of Africa, authoritarian governments still deceptively refer to human rights and democracy as Western, rather than universal, concepts. There is a real danger that with their democratic credentials rubbished by events at home, it will be more difficult for the West to credibly support pro-democracy movements and efforts abroad.
That, along with the example set by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, may also encourage rulers with an authoritarian bent to take more liberties, calculating that their oppression is unlikely to attract opprobrium or consequences from the West.
Nestled in among the dangers are also opportunities for the world to wean itself off the patronising grip of the West. In Africa, for example, the African Union has of late been doing much to try to shed its image as a club for dictators, taking forceful stands against military coups and incumbents who refuse to accede to election outcomes. It still has a long way to go before it can be described as a bastion of democracy but the withdrawal of the West has gifted it an opportunity to demonstrate that it can stand with the people rather than with the rulers.
Civil society groups too will now have to look for other benefactors. Already the role for Western embassies in supporting reform movements was much diminished in countries like Kenya compared with what it was 30 years ago. But the reliance on Western governments and organisations for financing continues to be the Achille’s heel of local groups – an easy target for governments when they seek to delegitimise them as agents of foreign interests or to starve them by introducing legal ceilings on how much they can raise.
In Kenya, social media, coupled with money transfer apps, have emerged as an effective avenue for local fundraising, one which even the government has not been ashamed to tap into. For NGOs working in the governance space, local donations would not only reduce their vulnerability to nefarious governments but, as a measure of popular endorsement, would arguably increase their clout. Needless to say, it would also be a great way to encourage a sense of local ownership of the reform agenda. And as the sun sets on the West’s time as self-appointed democracy police, that can only be a good thing.