The dangers of narratives and moralizing
Around the globe, elites are becoming dangerously attached to the dogmatism of their political worldviews, instead of finding tolerance for other values.
Each country’s ruling elite creates a narrative that blends fact with fiction, molded to fit their views and goals. Typically, these stories divide people between the good “us” and the bad “them.” While they can be useful tools, it is dangerous to believe these narratives too wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, that is exactly the trap into which most people fall.
Russia and China are currently using considerable resources to push forward their own worldviews. The West – predominantly the United States and Europe – has its own versions, as do other countries, like those in the Global South.
Extrapolating from the past
In Moscow, the predominant narrative revels in Russia’s supposed past grandeur, but also claims victimhood at the hands of the duplicitous Westerners. Napoleon and Hitler are examples of leaders who were finally defeated by Russia (though not alone). The story revives old Russian claims in a new form.
Russia’s pan-Slavic ambitions in the 19th and early 20th centuries were one of the main triggers for World War I. Similarly, the Russian Orthodox Church views Moscow as the “third Rome.” All this obliges Russia to prevent any other power from getting too close to its borders, and has led it into the disastrous, self-destructive war in Ukraine.
A traumatized hegemon
For millennia, China has claimed a hegemonic role in Asia. Its weakness in the face of European powers in the 19th century still represents an enormous trauma. Inside the country, the leadership is moving forward with a policy of “Hanization” – relocating majority ethnic Han Chinese to various regions in order to gradually outnumber the minorities there. The dominant narrative follows the doctrine of China’s integrality, which includes salvation through Chinese-style Marxism.
There is no place in this ideology for an independent Taiwan or autonomy for minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs. There can also be no tolerance for religions, especially Islam or Christianity, which has been branded a remnant of European colonialism. According to this account, believing in God jeopardizes the creed of Marxist “salvation,” which has near-religious status.
To live up to this narrative, Beijing must now extend its hegemonic aspirations, both nationally and ideologically.
This potent mix of national traditions and Marxist ideology has been brewed to legitimize the power of the regime as represented by the Chinese Communist Party. It also served as a pretext for President Xi Jinping to tighten his hold on power and alter the more prudent policies of Deng Xiaoping and his successors.
To live up to this narrative, Beijing must now extend its hegemonic aspirations, both nationally and ideologically. Free societies are an abomination, making Western civilization – especially the U.S. – the enemy. According to the Chinese view, the rules-based international order is merely a tool for U.S. global dominance. Chinese leadership claims that it wants a multipolar world – but if we read between the lines, we see that it really wants to surpass and replace the American superpower. President Xi’s speech at the 20th National Congress of the CPC in October was a sort of “declaration of war” against free Western societies.
Clash of systems
For the West, the narrative is less cohesive, but the elites still promote a broad tale of conflict between authoritarianism and democracy. Like all effective stories, there is some truth to it, but the reality is not as simple as they would have us believe.
Countries in the West are not immune to illusions, especially those based on moral superiority. They make us feel good. We are the heroes, with our systems of liberal democracy, fighting against the evil authoritarians. This account offers us validation and a feeling of security.
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We believe that our systems protect freedom and prosperity. We also believe that most people would like to live in systems such as ours – this, incidentally, is borne out by immigration flows.
It is certainly true that the West has prospered due to systems that protected individual freedom, self-determination and property rights. These arrangements recognized the importance of values, but also respected differences in those values. This required tolerance. Competition on all levels provided an incentive to make corrections and improvements. The wealth countries accumulated through free markets and property rights allowed them to implement social security systems.
Values are important, but they can vary greatly from person to person and culture to culture – and that variety must be respected. Moralizing puts values through a dogmatic lens and is as dangerous as aggressive narratives. Both can trigger war. Unfortunately, political and intellectual elites have become increasingly attached to moralizing.
Moralizing puts values through a dogmatic lens and is as dangerous as aggressive narratives.
The West must contain current and potential aggressors. Doing so requires unity, but not a dogmatic harmonization of values. It also means that we must avoid allowing morals to supersede realism and pragmatism to become quasi-ideologies in which facts are ignored and replaced by opinions.
Such ideologies are deadly for free societies, but they are gradually infiltrating the thinking of the Western political elite. A good example is the illusion under which monetary policy is currently being conducted and which has resulted in irresponsible levels of debt.
Arrogance and apology
The West’s good-versus-evil narrative is a complicated blend of arrogance and apology. The arrogance resides in the supposed moral superiority of today’s American and European systems, which have been reduced to watered-down ideas of strong government, limited individual freedom, dogmatic inclusion and some vague value propositions.
It is apologetic since it presents European and American traditions as oppressive, imperialistic and colonialist. It claims that the European way of life – and the diversity of its many regions – must be sacrificed on the altar of an egalitarian multiculturalism.
Western moralizing also includes a large dollop of pacifism, which ignores that peace can only be achieved through effective deterrence.
In all this, the prominence of the West’s most basic values – individual freedom, self-determination (the pursuit of happiness), responsibility for oneself and others, and property rights – is waning.
The countries in the Global South are developing rapidly, but that does not mean that they are impressed by Western moralizing. They claim that the U.S. and Europe have an obligation to help them, due to the West’s previous colonization and oppression. This attitude is strengthened by many voices in the West willing to “cancel” these countries’ traditional values.
These narratives have dangerous consequences. Yes, the West is engaged in conflicts with Russia and China. For both, their worldview and perceived “morals” make it difficult to coexist. For the West, it is important to stand strong. Dogmatism is becoming the default European and American narrative. Unity will require more tolerance.