Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
History may have returned instead of ended for much of the world after the Cold War. But, the regime of open societies secured by the liberal freedoms of modernity, which for a brief shining moment triumphed over 20th-century authoritarianism, is still seen within the West (demagogic temptations aside) as the culmination and consummation of the best system for arranging human affairs ever devised.
Some would argue that, strictly speaking, open societies rooted in the future possibilities of pluralism rather than integrally molded by the culturally embedded ways of a weighty past don’t properly fit the definition of a “civilization.” Yet, when the liberal order that guarantees their existence is contested by self-proclaimed civilizational states, such as Russia and China, that shrinking realm must defensively come to regard itself in those terms as well. The assertion of incommensurate values by others entails the reaffirmation of one’s own in reciprocal form.
This new awareness was exhibited at the G7 summit in Hiroshima last weekend. What began as a forum for the advanced market democracies to coordinate macroeconomic policies during the recession and oil crisis of the 1970s has transmuted half a century later into what might be called “The End of History Club.”
Just as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has roused a waning NATO into a robust defense alliance, the challenge posed by the major revisionist powers has transformed the flagging G7 into what is essentially a civilizational alliance. Though Japan in many ways still retains the cultural hallmarks of the Sinosphere, the G7 is the closest thing the so-called “global” West has to a common values-based entity in the multipolar world it no longer dominates. Indeed, the U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calls the G7 the “steering committee of the free world.”
What Goes Around Comes Around
After the end of the Cold War it was widely assumed that ideological, no less civilizational, conflict was a feature of the past, opening the world to market integration and the spread of modernity on the Western model. China was invited into the World Trade Organization in the hopes economic liberalization would lead to its political counterpart. In 1997, as Russia muddled through market-shock therapy in the free-for-all days of Boris Yeltsin, it was offered a seat at the table, making it the G8.
Nearly two decades later, Russia was de-friended from the club when Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. After populist rebellion erupted in the hollowed-out manufacturing belts across much of the West, China’s state-driven mercantilist trade practices that skirted the rules it signed up for could no longer be tolerated any more than outbound capital seeking higher returns at the expense of security and jobs at home. Then Xi Jinping arrived on the scene, suppressing the Uighurs, crushing freedom in Hong Kong, cracking down on a blossoming civil society fueled by digital connectivity and threatening to use force if necessary to bring Taiwan under control. Even the most well-meaning globalizers couldn’t look the other way.
China’s unwillingness to join the chorus of condemnation against the Russian invasion of Ukraine marked the definitive moment that sealed the deal. It consolidated the camp of those who reject the premises of an open society in the name of reputed civilizational values that are illiberal, exclusive and not subject to universal claims.
Common Values, Conflicting Interests
During the post-Cold War era of globalization, when diverse nations with disparate values sought to integrate their markets, the chief challenge was how to bring the whole lot into a common system. Demoting the G7 and elevating the G20 as the premier platform of global governance was meant to manage this interdependence of plural identities as the advanced and emerging economies converged.
That experiment foundered on the rocky shoals of political and cultural sovereignty. Its detractors have renamed it the G-Zero because no consensus could be found. Its gatherings these days are just photo-ops of what might have been and was once hoped for.
In contrast, while the reprised G7 today is united by shared values, it is divided internally over interests even as the global scope of its influence is diminishing.
Repairing the domestic damage of globalization in the democratic world has taken the form of clashing industrial policies that place national interests at odds with each other. The massive subsidies set out in the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction and CHIPS Acts, seen as a threat that would draw jobs and investment away from Europe, are now being mirrored in similarly incompatible domestic policies on the continent.
While the Soviet Union was not integrated into the global economy, today the lead player on the other side of the value divide, China, is also the top trading partner of 120 nations around the world, including Germany and Japan.
In the tough times sure to come, the global West cannot afford to be divided. It needs to forge a common approach for dealing with China while reducing friction through allied “friend-shoring,” complementary instead of conflicting industrial policies, shared sourcing of key minerals and the joint security and resilience of supply chains across safe territories.
In Hiroshima, the G7 nations pledged to “hold Russia accountable” while seeking “constructive and stable relations” with China even as they aim to reduce “excessive dependencies” on its markets and band together to thwart “economic coercion” as a tool of political retaliation. This outward-oriented start demonstrates the capacity for cohesive action that next needs to address internal divisions.
There are some hopeful signs. As E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sensibly said at the summit, “now that the G7 are in this [clean tech] race together, our competition should create additional manufacturing capacity and not come at each other’s expense.” As the frontline state with China, Japan has reached a deal with the U.S. that will make battery components they produce eligible for American subsidies.
As an alliance of open societies, the G7 must see its primary role going forward not as pushing the end of history onto unwilling others, but as striving to preserve and sustain the active presence of the West on a world stage it doesn’t command as it once did.