The west does not have a “story” any more. In 1989, the anti-communist rationale melted away and western leaders have since failed to construct an alternative narrative for their actions. This is hardly a new observation, but it has become especially evident in recent months in arguments about Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and nuclear proliferation (even the Trident discussion in Britain), as well as in the divisions within the west between the US and Europe. Now, with open acknowledgement of failure in Iraq and the political pendulum swinging in the US, the “democratic imperialism” stage of the post-cold war period can be declared closed. So it is a good moment to consider the question of western legitimacy. Can there be a western story any more? If so, what is it? And in what circumstances, if any, is the west justified in imposing it on others?
Inside, Ferdinand Mount considers the west’s lost legitimacy and comes up with eight proposals to guide a new George Kennan (the man who devised the cold war policy of Soviet containment). Our cover story, a head-to-head debate on the rise of China, covers a related subject—the conflict between western and eastern values. It includes a forthright defence of the western “Enlightenment infrastructure” from the centre-left writer Will Hutton. He argues that China does not deserve a place at the global top table until it embraces the “trinity” of pluralism, rights and accountability. These may be western concepts, at least in their modern forms, but they are not the sole property of the west. Indeed, most western liberals would argue, as does Meghnad Desai in the debate, that they want a liberal, multilateral world order but without western hegemony—or, one might add, unearned hegemony. Most western rhetoric (with the famous exception of the US’s 2002 national security strategy) stresses that the economic and political rise of other regions of the world is welcome, so long as they play by the—western-invented—liberal rules. Seen from places that lag centuries behind the western centres of comfort and power, that might seem a meaningless assurance. But over the next two decades, China will test the western “power-sharing” promise—possibly to destruction.