The West Has Had Its Day

Social scientists have to let go of old views of the world in order to understand global power relations. Affluence is in no way a necessary precondition for democracy, and federalism is not a panacea. By Andreas Mehler

The Ukraine crisis is divisive – and not just for the global community. There is also argument among academics about the impacts and the potential courses of action. Some are pushing for strong sanctions against Russia on geostrategic or human rights grounds, while others argue that sanctions always affect the wrong people. But there isn’t just black or white, effect or failure, left or right. A better question would be which sanctions work how, where and in which context.

What’s clear is this: very different types of sanctions are applied worldwide, but their outcomes are not the same in every case. Whether in the case of Russia, Iran or even North Korea and Zimbabwe – before blanket statements can be made, social scientists should also take a look beyond the confines of their own discipline and their own national and regional borders. Why not draw on other perspectives? Why not make global comparisons?

"The richer, the more democratic." This doesn’t apply to China

Many social scientists continue to measure and evaluate according to European standards; they explain the world with theories based predominantly on European experiences and history. They look mostly at the United States and Western Europe, ignoring other regions. This cements their “The West and the Rest” perspective. Thus, the widely accepted assumption, based on Western experiences, that wealth is a precondition for democracy – "the richer, the more democratic" – no longer holds true. China, for example, has experienced enormous economic growth in the last 20 years but no noteworthy boost in democracy.

In Africa, countries such as Ghana, Senegal or Benin are among the most democratic states; economically, though, they are in the middle – at best – of the African pack. Romping around at the top of the economic rankings are instead authoritarian Angola, the old-fashioned monarchy Swaziland, and, right at the peak, the harshest dictatorship on the continent, Equatorial Guinea.

What really applies globally, and what only under certain conditions?

The US political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset’s 1959 thesis on wealth and democracy is still subscribed to by many today. But the connection between economics and politics becomes more complex when one starts to take into account the empirical knowledge from across the entire world. It is necessary to look at regional specifics more closely: What really applies globally, and what only under certain conditions?

It is thus certainly no coincidence that an Indian international relations professor has just read his colleagues the riot act. Amitav Acharya, the new president of the renowned International Studies Association (ISA), demanded a radical reorientation of the entire discipline during the ISA convention in Toronto, Canada, at the end of March: The dominance of the "West against the rest" has to end, he said . It should make way for what Acharya calls global international relations.

Institutional innovation may come from Southeast Asia

Many forward-looking ideas already come from the so-called Global South – for instance, South Asia, Latin America or Africa. Australian researcher Ben Reilly has demonstrated this in a new investigation of innovations in electoral law. These countries are experimenting with and working on new forms of democracy, while Europe and the United States are struggling with increasing political apathy and with an elite that is mostly unwilling to change traditional processes.

Arguments such as Acharya’s generate opposition. The relativization of the Western standpoint would, as a minimum, lead to a different ordering of priorities in world politics: How does the world actually appear when one looks at it from Bangladesh? Differently than from Berlin; that much is certain.

Still, more and more social scientists are rebelling against the existing views of the world within their discipline. For example, in recent years a new, innovative research approach has been established: comparative area studies. It tears down disciplinary and regional borders. The requirement: Be sensitive to the different conditions in the respective countries and regions and thus open to variations, but still stick to the search for the essence and for the opportunity to make general statements.

Political science students traditionally learn about forms of government such as the presidential system or parliamentarianism, usually with the United States, Great Britain and Germany as examples. However, both forms of government have spread across the globe and sometimes function differently in practice than "the originals".

For presidents – for example, in Africa – informal institutions are often decisive

In a recent article in the journal Democratization, Oxford-based regional specialists Paul Chaisty, Nicolas Cheeseman and Timothy Power have identified significant variations in how different presidential systems function – because they undertook research in Latin America, Africa and Russia. They show that for presidents, informal institutions are often decisive for staying in power, and not just the constitutional influence on legislation, which is how the classical theory usually presents it. Informal institutions include, for example, patronage: the targeted promotion of protégés to important government positions.

Peace researchers swear by federalism as a standard remedy

The three researchers uncover the clear differences between Latin American forms of government, where the president’s role in budget preparation is particularly large, and those in Africa, where presidents like to secure loyalty through frequent cabinet shuffles. These examples definitively do away with blanket statements about the sense or senselessness of presidential systems. European-American truths are only partial truths.

Another example: In Europe, many peace researchers swear by regional autonomy – and at times also federalism, which is particularly well-developed in Germany – as a standard remedy for ethnic, linguistic or religious conflicts. In the Basque country, which has limited autonomy within Spain, this has ultimately functioned fairly well. The province of South Tyrol’s comprehensive rights to self-government function very well within the autonomous Trentino region.

Many ethnic groups don’t live in delimited areas

Nevertheless, in other regions of the world, this concept of territorial power-sharing is highly problematic or even destined to fail, as the current example of Sudan demonstrates. The autonomous status granted to South Sudan in 2005 led to independence in 2011 following a referendum. But the civil war in the newest UN member state shows that this independence has not led to peace. At the same time, the now significantly smaller Sudan remains caught up in local violent conflicts, despite a formal federalist order. In other African countries there are also reservations about significant decentralization.

Many ethnic groups do not live in delimited geographical areas. When administrative districts are reshaped, even large ethnic groups can become new minorities who fear coming under the yoke of a new majority. This anxiety is, for example, prevalent among the Kenyan population.

In those places where minorities primarily live within a specific geographical area, a territorial solution can function well. This may explain why the autonomy arrangement for the island province Aceh, as a part of Indonesia, was successful. But not all rebelling minorities live on islands, in mountain regions or on coastal strips.

Those who have been dominated view the Western measuring stick as illegitimate

For many reasons, viewing the West as the measuring stick for the world has had its day in the social sciences. This approach no longer represents global power relations. Those who have to date been dominated see it as extremely illegitimate – and it could even systematically produce incorrect conclusions about the world. This is because determining whether something applies globally or actually varies strongly by region requires global comparison. It is time to rethink.

Andreas Mehler is director of African Affairs at the GIGA. The article was first published in German in the Berlin-based newspaper "Der Tagesspiegel".

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