The Sunday Review: How the West was lost, by Dambisa Moyo

by Anthony Painter

On their way to discuss “shared norms in the new reality” in Davos this week, many of the world’s leading politicians, businesspeople and media figures will pick up a copy of Dambisa Moyo’s How the West was lost. Those coming from “the West” will turn the pages nervously. Those from emerging nations will smile contentedly. The future is China’s. The US will not only lose its number one spot but will decline precipitously and end up as a bloated socialist state. How the tables have turned.

We have been here before. In the 1960s, it was the USSR that was going to overtake the US. Sputnik focused minds. NASA landed a man on the moon and all was fine again. By the 1980s it was Japan, when a spate of books detailing Japan’s onward march to global domination filled those same bookshelves that now hold Moyo’s book. Now, it is China. Surely, this time it’s different?

Actually, this time it probably is different. China will end up as the largest global economy. It’s huge, its population is four times that of the US and it’s growing fast. The surprise will be if China does not replace the US as number one in the next couple of decades. Japan has already slipped into third place as a result of China’s rise.

So talk of America, and it is primarily America on which this book is focused, remaining in pole position is reckless in the extreme. Barack Obama was at it in his state of the Union address this week. It focuses minds and drives an impulse to respond, but talk of “winning the future” is not particularly honest politics. So it is little wonder that America’s latest literary celebrity is “Tiger Mom”, Amy Chua. She thinks that driving your kids to practise the piano, to the point that they sink their teeth into the instrument, is definitive of parental success.

New York Times columnist, David Brooks, makes the point that Ms Chua, who is from the Mid-West and doesn’t speak Mandarin, is diverting her kids from the truly difficult task: learning how to socially interact.

And this is my fundamental issue with this family of “number one” books. It focuses the mind in the wrong way. What is the point of being number one, if you are a nation of highly stressed piano playing robots? Let them have it if that is the deal.

Fortunately, that is not the deal. This is a “game” where there are prizes for second place. There are prizes for fifth place, even for 30th place. What is important is that you make the right economic and social moves, so that you have both a strong economy and a good society. And, Moyo has an incredible amount to suggest in this regard: promoting saving rather than consumption; better financial regulation; major investment in science; research and development; technology; infrastructure and striving for better educational performance. All of that is eminently sensible and this book makes the case for those interventions effectively (though one would expect Moyo and Chua to agree a little too much when it comes to education). And she’s right that the governments of the West have made enormous errors that have failed to keep the economic machine primed.

Which then begs the question: why the hard power obsession? Of course, there are spin-off benefits from a hard power race: conquering space has led to all sorts of technological leaps. But is it really worth the downside? Would America have traded landing on the moon for avoiding the Vietnam War? It would be barbarism if they wouldn’t. Hard power races take you to unimaginable places. By no means all are positive. Maybe the US does need another “Manhattan project” to combat energy challenges, as Ms Moyo suggests. But because that is what it may take to succeed, not because that is the way to beat China.

There is little doubt that How the West was lost follows the logic of its own intellectual case. It argues, in serious terms, that the US might best reboot its entire economic approach by defaulting on its debts to China. This analysis casts China as the power holder in this relationship. This is often how this narrative works: the creditor is all powerful; the debtor is at their mercy.

Actually, it is completely different to that. China and the US are in a symbiotic relationship. The US is unable to use its economic might to force China, for example, to revalue its currency or further open its markets. But the other side of this equation is never expressed: a large creditor hardly has an interest in US economic decline. So they are locked in a mutual dependency. A hard power assessment cannot accommodate that. So flirting with default would be economically disastrous for both nations. Hard power is asserted, everyone loses but some, China, lose relatively more than others, the US, so that makes some kind of warped sense.

What this means is that How the West was lost is actually two books in one. The first is written by an economist buzzing with ideas. She has a conceptual richness, worldliness and an ability to write with passion, clarity and gusto. The second is written by a sceptical and Hobbesian political theorist who sees the world in zero sum, absolutist terms. The first is fresh and invigorating; the second neurotic and perverse. In that sense, How the West is lost, though written by a non-American, is a perfect match for the psychological state of contemporary America. The rest of us can learn its more practical lessons, and hope that the US stays away from the outer reaches of the Huntigtonion mindset.

Anthony Painter is the author of Barack Obama: the Movement for Change.


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8 Responses to “The Sunday Review: How the West was lost, by Dambisa Moyo”

  1. A real mind stretching read Anthony that highlights the danger ahead.

    I’d rather focus on how the “West can win” for sure i’d rather be American than Chinese, i have a strong dislike of their lack of human right and control.

    Reading ahead and hoping that the Western worlds values are maintained, i strongly believe that Britain must adopt either the Euro or the Dollar.

    I truly believe that our education and values are better than the Chinese and worth the protection.

    Dangerous talk, Yeah! but the world is full of danger and i simply couldn’t bare a world that wasn’t reflective of the Western worlds values.

  2. oliver says:

    Derek, I’m curious as to what you mean by “Western worlds values”. The Western word is full of different and competing values, often starkly at odds with each other.

  3. Oliver

    I’m referring more to human values rather than competing one’s.

    The manner in which the workers were treated building the Chinese olympic “Birds nest stadium” was shocking, i don’t think you would disagree with that?

  4. You are much kinder than the Economist. Their review opened with:

    “HERE are two predictions about the world economy. First, the West’s malaise and the rise of emerging economies will yield a mountain of books. Second, few of these are likely to be as bad as “How the West Was Lost”.”

    http://www.economist.com/node/17956741?story_id=17956741&fsrc=rss

  5. oliver says:

    @derek barker

    Certainly not. However, we could turn this into a game of Top Trumps where I play despicable acts committed by America. There lies the rub, America’s ‘human values’ are different from, say, much of Britain’s. The left wing of Britain have a very different set of ‘human values’ to the religious right of America and so on. Even ‘human values’ compete.

  6. @Oliver

    LoL! ace up! yeah i agree but even American’s can protest and have the right to a defence lawyer.

    COMPETE! key word but i tend to like my competing to involve peoples progression.I tend to agree with the analysis that China has the capacity to pass on it’s inflation woes and interest rate rises to the rest of us and on a competing tone, i’d like to adress that with a better competing arrangement in Britain, Europe and America.

    Personnally, i think we share a more common bond with American’s than we do with Chinese, after all, the American constitution was heavily marked by the Brits/Scots

    No taxation without representation! can’t disagree with that!

  7. Lawrence Michelo says:

    Good read Antony. Its very hard to do away with realism or realist tendencies in global politics. Unfortunately empires rise and fall. While Russia, Japan faltered in the race to ‘outdo’ the US on the number slot. Some nation will just do that and right now China is serious contention.

  8. jery says:

    To Derek:

    First of all, I believe that China is still in its own path of development, and is gradually and albeit slowly, trying to establish the “rule of law”. The larger issue here is not simply the (form of) government, but how the general Chinese society and people behave in it: with its long history of non-’liberal” tradition (and with the emperor the ultimate ruler and decider on matters small and large and “life and death”), the society in general and most people still do not have a strong sense of “rule of law”; or laws only apply to others, not me. Thus we have incidents like, “My father is Li Gang!.” And many folks in the country, facing injustice by local officials, come to Beijing to “petition” the central government — this is exactly what people did in the past!

    A not completely apt “analogy” is this regard is to observe how Chinese drivers (mos belong to newly rich or “middle class”) vs. Westerner drivers (and especially how they treat pedestrians). Despite various traffic laws in China, most drivers do not obey them; they only obey “traffic laws” when their lives might be in danger; and most are not “afraid” of Chinese traffic police, or Chinese traffic police is completely ineffective.

    Having said that, the Chinese society is quickly evolving, and more people have learned their rights and use courts to settle disputes, etc.

    Last but not the least, just because a few Chinese “dissidents” have their “human rights” violated by the central Chinese government, does not mean that that happens to most “ordinary” Chinese people in China. Most in fact live as “free” a life as most in the West, apart from the effects from “rampant” corruptions in the society (which is more a societal issue, than a form of government — just look at India, a “democracy” — according to my Indian colleagues, despite an “independent” court system, there are perhaps more corruptions in India than in China, because of all powerful local officials). The mainstream Western media pains a far scarier view of China than is warranted (the same as the Chinese media’s portrait, say, violent crimes in US).

    Or consider what if you are a Western “dissident” like Julian Assange or Private Manning, who are considered to a threat to the US or Western interests; not to mention if you happen to hold the same view as some fundamental Islamists.

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