Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


The war in Ukraine has not reassembled a world into blocks. Westerners are surprised to find themselves "alone in the world".

Many countries of the South abstained or did not stand for the vote on "Aggression against Ukraine" at the UN General Assembly on March 24th. 

A much larger number of countries on the occasion of the vote on April 7th on the “Resolution to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council” also abstained or did not stand for the vote thus taking by surprise Westerners.

Over time, various signs have warned of the limits of the prevailing narratives in terms of   West-South and West-East relations.

We must teach and learn world history so as to prepare ourselves to live in a world in which the West and the Rest must coexist.


African countries, once they had freed themselves from the colonial yoke, instead of modifying the borders that the world powers had imposed on them and opening uncontrollable conflicts, decided to accept those borders and rather seek forms of cooperation between states and of regional integration that used economic and political means to deal with deplorable colonial legacies.

Reasons and causes of the positions of the so-called South should be investigated in depth since they are not episodic positions but have concerned a much larger number of countries on the occasion of the vote on April 7th on the resolution to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The resolution received a 2/3 majority of those voting, minus abstentions, in the 193-member Assembly, with 93 nations voting in favour and 24 against. 58 abstained from the process. Russia, China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Vietnam, were among those who voted against.

Those abstaining, included India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Why do Western countries seem to have been taken by surprise by the positions of the South? Why had many of them taken a different outcome for granted, only to multiply diplomatic efforts at the last minute to contain the fact that the South was not lining up neatly behind the West? What misunderstandings were hidden in the expectations?

And why had the real and non-phantasmatic state of the West and South relations remained invisible to many? Over time various signals have warned of the limits of the prevailing narratives in terms of relations between West and South. One of these signals even appeared recently, just before the vote at the United Nations.

European Union / African Union Summit

The European Union / African Union Summit was the scene of a somewhat enlightening debate. At the end of the summit held in Brussels in February, the European side would have liked to announce a "new alliance" between Europe and Africa, while the African side preferred to speak only of "a renewed partnership".

Again, the African reaction produced a European surprise: why did the European negotiators think that the very act of proposing "an alliance" would meet with easy access?  It is a clue inviting to open a review of the narrative on the so-called South and its position as the "periphery".

For Europe, there are at least two conditions for strategic autonomy from the USA to be further strengthened. The first is that the Europeans appropriate it with determination, the second condition is that Europe recognizes that it does not spontaneously embody the solidarity of the rest of the world and must invest in partnership (and not charity) with the countries of the South and in priority with Africa and Latin America.

Non-OECD countries

In this transition phase, powerful transformations have appeared in the South: some 80 non-OECD countries have experienced spectacular growth, more than double that of the so-called West. Around 2010, the GDP produced by non-OECD countries surpassed that of OECD countries, in purchasing power parity.

But even the most trained "spectacles" of Western observers and policy makers perceived them with difficulty. As a result, Western geo-economic narratives continued to be almost exclusively built on traditional models of modernization. 

The new world order

With the end of four centuries of Western dominance, what will the world order be in the twenty-first century?  How do we explain that the people of this small cape of the Asian continent that is Europe have been able to impose their dominance (military, economic, intellectual, and legal) on the whole world for so long?

Western dominance began in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: the centuries of the great discoveries of Spain and Portugal. Western dominance continued with the eighteenth century, which can arguably be described as the century of France; then the nineteenth, which was undoubtedly that of the United Kingdom; and finally, the twentieth century, when USA took the baton from Europe.

Thus the world was endowed by USA with global international institutions based on the values invented in Europe; in particular, the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all three established in the USA. Eventually the Cold War imposed 35 years of rivalry, but also of bipolar stability. And then history restarted.

Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS)

The BRICS say yes to globalization of the economy. But they say no to the Westernization of their societies. They refuse to adopt the norms and values that for four centuries formed the basis of the Western world order. They want to return to national values rooted in their collective memory. Thus, Putin’s Russia dreams of recreating the Russian empire of Catherine the Great. Erdogan’s Turkey wants to erase Atatürk and return to Suleiman the Magnificent. Iran follows the rules of ancestral Shi’ism. Modi’s India wants to reaffirm the values of Hinduism. And China’s Xi Jinping aims to reconnect with the glorious past of the great dynasties of the Middle Kingdom.

So, after four decades of bipolar order, after a decade of unipolar Western order, we are today living in a multipolar world where the rules of the game are contested.

China and USA

After 150 years of eclipse, decades of Western and Japanese invasion followed by a civil war and decades of Maoist dictatorship, China is about to reassume its traditional place.

This is how one must understand China’s gigantic development program titled the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Under the Roman Empire, all roads led to Rome. In the 21st century, all roads should, as seen from Beijing, lead to China.

And to occupy this central place in the world, China officially announces its desire to be the world’s primary power in just a few years in the decisive technologies of artificial intelligence, robotics, and life sciences.

The world order is already no longer Western with the dramatic absence of the European Union, absorbed by its internal and external challenges, while the USA seeks to establish a coalition with UK, Australia, and Japan to resist Chinese pressure in the Indo-Pacific.

This is why China has entered into a partnership with Russia, distrusting the USA which has long designated it as its strategic adversary. China fears that the final result of the conflict is the establishment of a new world order that is hostile to it and that aims at its destabilization.

The Thucydides trap (antagonism leading to confrontation between the established power and an ascending power) is thus ready: as it happened with Sparta against Athens in the Peloponnesian war and with the United Kingdom against Germany in World War I.

The West and the Rest

The study of civilizations in isolation no longer suffices. We must teach and learn world history so as to prepare ourselves to live in a world in which the West and the Rest must respond to future challenges. World history must make space for all the peoples and cultures in the world,

Lately we see signs that the center of highest skills may indeed be bang to the Pacific Ocean littoral, just as it shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic littoral. A proper history of the world needs to make clear that such shifts have occurred in the past and may occur again in the future.

The past is the only preparation for responsible, effective action in the future. And that means that world history is a far better guide than Western Civilization alone, which is, in the largest frame, a mere episode in the human saga.

How East and West think differently

People in more individualistic, Western societies tend to value personal success over group achievement, which in turn is also associated with the need for greater self-esteem. This tendency for self-inflation is almost completely absent in Asia where people are more likely to underestimate their abilities than to inflate their sense of self-worth.

People in more collectivist societies tend to be more holistic in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.

Decline of the West

People have been talking about a decline of the West for more than a century. Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) are only the most prominent examples. Many others have been debating its "crisis", pondering its chances of "survival", and considering its "suicide". But how the concept of the West was created?

From the early 19th century onward, the concept of the West became temporalized and politicized. It acquired a polemical thrust through the polarized opposition to antonyms such as "Russia", “the East”, and "the Orient", and was deployed as a tool for forging national identities.

The gestation of the West went hand-in-hand with the gradual creation of an east-west divide. While Russia had long been largely acknowledged as a European power in the course of the 18th century and considered a northern power, it gradually was transformed into an eastern one.

The West and its cognates acquire a decisive polemical thrust and a clear ideological edge through the polarized opposition to new distinct antonyms such as "Eastern barbarism", "Oriental despotism", or the "Asiatic mode of production". The West becomes a weapon deployed to mobilize people, a rallying cry that wields effective power and is used to forge national identities.

USA: the rising star of the West

The First World War provided the catalyst for new conceptualizations of the West, in which the USA, the rising star on the horizon of political and economic progress, featured particularly prominently.

The concept of the "Atlantic community" was then created, which transformed the northern Atlantic into an "inland sea" and "ocean of freedom", endowing the older dichotomy between Western "sea powers" and the Russian "land power" with new meanings. The USA became the self-declared "sanctuary" and "inheritor of all the great principles of Western Civilization"

But USA should learn that in international relations it is essential to relaunch, alongside a hard power, a real soft power, and not a vague simulacrum. An inclusive public space to avoid the risks of growing misunderstandings and vicious circles.

Western discourse on human rights is often perceived in third countries as an instrument of Western domination. In the midst of a war of aggression, Putin is the first to skillfully exploit this phenomenon through propaganda. Trying to understand history and stories, to measure the collective traumas of the peoples of the world, leads to a better understanding of contemporary political postures.

Lessons Learnt for Europe

Each people, each country is confronted with its own wounds. Sometimes they are healed, but not always.  Speeches that support a new European narrative must therefore not ignore this part of the European past which is often still removed.

In this globalized world threatened by the rule of the law of the jungle, the European Union is the anchor to which the law of the world economy can hitch itself. And the European Union, because it is the natural partner of Russia in economic and strategic terms, must also continue its difficult dialogue with Moscow on our common neighborhood.

And now let's dream! Europe, firmly committed to this policy with its southern and eastern neighbors brings together Europeans around a shared vision and ambition. And USA comes back in a few years to a vision of its role in the world more in line with its ideals. Then the multipolar world of the 21st century becomes less dangerous and more harmonious than it is today. And China, according to realism and because it is in its interest, rallies around this.