Gideon Rachman - 'Is the West Disintegrating?'






The Department was excited to host Gideon Rachman in its Centenary Speakers Series. Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator of the Financial Times, he delivered a lecture titled “Is the West Disintegrating?” Gideon Rachman, introduced by the Vice-Chancellor Elizabeth Treasure as “one of the world’s best observers of international relations,” gave a fascinating talk followed by a lengthy and invigorated Q/A session.

The lecture began with a brief description of the historical origins of ‘the West.’ Rachman argued that the idea of ‘the West’ as a coherent alliance structure first emerged during the First World War, when the USA entered the conflict in support of Britain and its allies. This intervention decisively changed the shape of world politics, with ‘the West’ possessing enormous influence. Having endured through the Cold War, this structure is now perceived by many to be decaying. Rachman elaborated on a broad array of ‘symptoms’ associated with the perceived decline of the West. Tensions and anxieties within NATO, long standing but stirred up by Donald Trump’s ascension to the Presidency, have led to speculation that the alliance has outlasted its usefulness. The commitment of the USA to fulfilling its role as leader of the free world, adopted since the end of the Second World War, has further been brought into question by a tendency towards protectionism and “nation-building at home” within recent presidential administrations. The EU and the USA are divided by a growing rift, brought about by differing conceptions of what ‘the West’ stands for; a fundamental question of values has fractured the defining feature of international relations for the past century. Further wedges have been driven between the allies by the economic decline of the West, linked to the movement of capital and production centres away from Europe towards the global East. China’s rapid ascent up the development ladder presents an alternative pole of attraction, said Rachman, something the now increasingly fragmented West is unable to collectively respond to.

Yet what Rachman described was a metamorphosis of old political structures into something adapted to the 21st Century, rather than the fall of a civilisation which the title of his talk seemed to suggest. As China rises, it cannot help but challenge the USA. The ordering principles of liberal internationalism championed by the USA were initially made possible through its economic preponderance following the Second World War. But the replacement of the USA by China as the preeminent world economy need not spell the end of the liberal international order. China does not offer an alternative ‘story’ to the prevailing liberal values of the present day, but an alternative direction for investment and monetary interests. While the EU is increasingly becoming the inheritor of the ‘leader of the free world’ title, as the USA becomes more insular, the EU is more then up to the task. The Union possesses comparable economic clout to the two poles of attraction, even when riven by internal division (most prominently seen in Brexit). These divisions are, argued Rachman, less powerful then external pressures. With a withdrawing USA, and a rising power, there are certainly plenty of the pressures to rally the EU states.

The lecture was followed by a diverse and broadly ranging Q/A session, covering myriad topics, such as American grand strategy in the Pacific, the media-framing of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, China’s willingness to abide by existing economic rules, the revival of nationalism, and space as an arena of confrontation, to name but a few topics.