The dichotomy that pits the “democratic West” against the despotisms of “others” is repeated daily, in different forms and ways, by a large part of Italian media, as well as by a number of academics.
It is a reassuring narrative, well-received at the political level as well, which has the defect of ignoring too much history, as well as calling to mind Josep Borrell’s “gardens”: “Europe is a garden,” the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs recently said, “the rest of the world a jungle.”
There is no doubt that those that are claimed to be “Western values” guarantee tangible and real rights and benefits to the citizens of large parts of North America and Europe, although numerous ethnic and/or religious minorities, as well as certain sections of society, are structurally discriminated against and/or poorly protected.
We are talking, however, about a small percentage of the world’s population (about 16 percent of the total), which includes Italy, a country often subject to external interference, where there are at least 59 military bases run to all intents and purposes by Washington (with 13,000 soldiers), including those at Aviano and Ghedi: they enjoy a status as quasi-foreign territory and house at least 70 nuclear bombs.
In the eyes of a large percentage of the rest of the world, the “Western values” and the U.S.-led system of international relations bring them no benefit.
On the contrary: from their vantage point, the cliché of the democratic West often continues to mean, in practice, invasions (not infrequently implemented to defend specific “spheres of influence”), arms trade (more than 70 percent of the world’s weapons are produced by Western countries), exploitation of raw materials (see, among dozens of other examples, the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo), pollution (for instance, a country like Sri Lanka, whose life expectancy is very similar to that of the United States, uses about 88 percent fewer resources than the United States and emits about 94 percent fewer emissions on a per capita basis), sanctions (which hurt civilians and almost never actually affect the regimes considered “undesirable” by the West) and much more.
Evaluating “Western democracy” exclusively by looking at the United States and the countries that receive benefits (more or less substantial) from the Washington-led system of international relations is a mirror of an ideological solipsism that denies the scars, rights and history of billions of human beings considered “other” than “us.”
Focusing only on the wealth of the countries that make up the “European garden” or that of the “home of democracy” (the United States) is a useful shortcut that also ignores multiple dynamics rooted in the present.
The international system that allows some countries – those who join organizations such as NATO, for example – to enrich themselves through control of the economies and natural resources of a large part of those same human beings who are considered “other” than “us,” represents in this sense the antithesis of the principles underlying any fully-developed democracy.
And this is visible as much on a state level (as an example, there are more than 800 U.S. military bases in more than 80 countries around the world) as it is at a more micro-economic level.
Among much else, evidence of this is the fact that earnings from natural resources (oil, gold, gas, etc.) found in almost all African countries and a significant number of eastern Mediterranean states are still transferred through offshore companies that, to a large extent, are linked to companies and businessmen operating in Europe and America.
As the documents that have been made public in the Panama Papers scandal showed – dramatized in 2019 in the film with the same name directed by Steven Soderbergh – more than 1,400 anonymous companies, connected to multiple tax havens, are being used to drain the natural wealth of some of the richest countries (in terms of natural and human resources) which are at the same time among the poorest in the world (due, primarily, to connivance between corrupt local elites and Western states and businessmen).
When something is cast as the eternal war between “Good and Evil,” often the only one that wins is war itself. In our times, the real struggle must not be reduced to the easy dichotomies that speak to people’s emotions (and thus instincts), but rather found in the structural and enduring causes that allow a small segment of humanity to exploit and enrich itself on the backs of billions of “others,” and to self-attribute to itself a sense of moral superiority justified exclusively by looking at their own “backyard.”
Lorenzo Kamel Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Turin.