The West is a Man with no Plan
They are just not serious.
For as long as I can remember (and that’s quite a while now) there’s always been a country or countries poised to eat the lunch of the Anglo-Saxons, and more recently of the West generally. And with Covid and Ukraine, we are now finding out that, apart from a few crumbs, the West has nothing much left worth eating. Why is that? How did it happen?
Let’s start with Italy. Yes, Italy. In the 1960s, there was excitement everywhere about what the Italians called Il Sorpasso: the overtaking of British GDP by Italy, according to some measures at least. Italy was admired then not just for its art, its history, its style, its cooking and its fashion, but for its engineering and industrial design. Above all, the Italians were rapidly modernising their country, with the new autostrade and train systems, while the British were just getting round to thinking about it. Later, it was the French, with their space-age TGVs and their prototype Internet, the Minitel. After the Oil Crisis, the French took a look around, and said, merde, we’d better go nuclear. The state-owned energy industry was just told to Do It, and reactors started coming on line every quickly, while the British regarded actually setting up a public enquiry into one as an achievement in itself.
Then, of course, the Japanese - they of the High Speed Trains - came along and effortlessly obliterated the European and American consumer electronics and motor industries, followed by shipbuilding and heavy engineering. In the nineties, the Koreans started to challenge the Japanese in some areas, and now, of course, just about everything is made in China, while western publics were stunned to discover that paracetamol and medical masks have to be imported from Asia. And just look: in Ukraine, western military technology and doctrine is being shredded by the Russians even as I write. Even organised crime is dominated by non-western groups these days. Can’t we do anything right?
It’s tempting, if not very intelligent, to try to relate this to the outcome of some Grand Plan. Films have been made over the last forty years about sinister asiatic conspiracies, although rather fewer these days, given where most of the world’s cinema-going population lives. But it’s actually a lot simpler than that, and in the simplicity actually lies the problem. The West has forgotten how to do simple things well, and has inevitably lost out to those who can. At bottom, economic and political success is about relative, not absolute, qualities. Just as wars are won by the side which makes fewest mistakes, so economic struggles and often won by those who are least inefficient.
But to succeed, you need some idea of what you want, and how to get there, and it’s at that point that western thinking has increasingly broken down. There’s nothing magical about it: mostly, it’s just applied common sense, and a willingness to do a bit of forward planning. So after 1945, the French looked at the wreckage of their country, and a ruined industry that had no incentive to invest, and said, right, what are the priorities? We need steel, so for that we need iron ore and coal, so let’s go and sort that out first. Other things can take their turn. The Japanese, with a culture of attention to detail and the most demanding consumers in the world, realised they could export quality products, some of them taken and improved from foreign models. From cameras to mopeds (where Honda started), to motor bikes, to small cars, to large cars, to luxury cars to heavy engineering equipment and trains, every step building off the previous one. They were devious and subtle enough to offer western consumers things that worked well, at prices they were prepared to pay. Then there were the Koreans (as I was once proudly told by a civil engineer in Seoul many years ago), wanting to get into the construction industry. First they sent unskilled workmen abroad who came back and trained others. Then they sent skilled workers abroad, who came back and trained others. Then they sent people abroad to study at university. Well, you get the idea.
So why couldn’t Anglo-Saxons ever do this? Why have most western countries stopped being able to do this? There isn’t a single, simple, answer unfortunately, but there are a few pointers. One is simply being first, or early, and not having to struggle. Britain was built on coal and iron ore, and had a banking and credit system before most other nations. The Industrial Revolution wasn’t inevitable, but it was easy. The United States had every natural resource you could ask for, effectively unlimited space, and a constantly growing population. It would be hard not to become a major industrial power in the circumstances. But the problem was precisely that all this was easy. In Japan, on the other hand, there were few resources, and there was barely enough food to go round. Britain was an island, and the United States was effectively one, as well. Neither was at any serious risk of invasion, or even interference. The Japanese, on the other hand, for all that they were islands too, realised in a sickening moment of clarity that unless they got themselves organised pretty sharply, they would become another western colony. So they got themselves organised. As did others. Prussia had no natural resources except coal, and no effective natural borders. It had to work hard to survive, and did so: by the time of the Great Exhibition off 1851, the British were already finding the Prussians snapping at their heels industrially.
In Britain, and later in the United States, survival was never an issue, except perhaps at certain moments in the two Wars of the Twentieth Century. So a national consensus around a need to survive, plan and implement never formed because it wasn’t necessary. The Empire and the Royal Navy kept Britain’s problems at arms length. After the Second World War, the United States wound up dominating much of the world, not because it was strong or clever, but because most of the rest of the world was in pieces. If you’ve never really had to work for something, you inevitably lose out to those who know what hard work is.
This consensus has to involve the elites, or it’s not going to be effective. And in Britain, which famously never had a revolution, elites never took any interest in planning, unless it was planning the family inheritance. As in any aristocratic society, social status came precisely from not working, because you had no need to. You could employ people to do actual physical tasks, while living off rents and dividends, and doing whatever it was that such elites actually did to pass the time. This attitude persisted right up to modern times: scientists enjoyed a certain wary tolerance, but engineers and craftsmen were distrusted and not allowed into polite company. To become an engineer as late as the 1960s in Britain was to accept a permanently lower status than that of, say, an accountant. (There are no more engineers today, of course, so the problem has solved itself).
If your income comes from land or inherited wealth, then planning is really a question of financial optimisation, and you can pay people to do that for you. Other than general political stability, which often means obstructing change, you have no real political objectives at all. In Britain, and then in the United States after a few generations, this was the mentality that triumphed. Planning, designing, building, maintaining … all this was difficult and complicated, took years and required specialist training. If you could generate the same profits by some clever financial engineering, why not do so?
What’s depressing is that this attitude has spread to countries where engineers and technology had a high social status. France is an especially bad case: the country’s finest engineers were trained at the Polytechnique , established by Napoleon (a very long-term thinker). These days they all seem to go into politics, like the current Prime Minister. Nobody makes things any more.
The result is a culture common to large parts of the western world which is ultimately Not Serious. Now by “serious," I don’t mean the opposite of “frivolous”: or perhaps I do mean that as well, because the attitudes of the ruling classes of most western countries towards the problems of the present, never mind the future, could be described reasonably as “frivolous.” That’s to say the belief that they are not real problems, but essentially problems of news management and internal politicking, and don’t require actual practical solutions. But there’s also the more serious sense of “serious," used as a compliment. Seriousness means taking the time to research and think about issues, and then deciding what to do and carry it through. No serious political system, for example, would have lurched into Brexit as the British did, without any thought for even the short-term consequences. No serious political system would have dealt with Covid as western ones did. For all the emotional attractiveness of conspiracy theories, it seems rather to be the case that most western governments hadn’t realised that medicines aren’t produced here any more. They hadn’t understood that the government capability to manage such crises no longer existed. Nobody told them that running down health services could lead to bad outcomes. And no serious political system, individually or collectively, could have staggered like a drunk into the mess that is Ukraine.
Ah yes, Ukraine. My point here is simple enough. The West was surprised because it never had a long-term plan for its relations with Russia, and didn’t realise that Russia had a long-term plan to reset those relations. Let’s take those in order.
The Cold War ended too quickly for the West to understand what was happening, and to even begin to adapt to it. Not only did the strategic landscape change overnight, it also threw up a whole set of massive unexpected problems, and then became enmeshed with a whole variety of other issues, from the former Yugoslavia to Iraq to the future of Europe. The result was that there was never the time, or really the inclination, to develop a proper policy and think through the consequences. And too many actors and too many institutions were involved. Throughout the nineties, policy was entirely improvised, usually responding to the evanescent needs of the moment. NATO enlargement, one of the triggers of the current conflict, was never a real strategic plan: each case seemed to be individual, and had a different set of arguments. Same for the EU. So in typical fashion, we arrive somewhere we don’t like, and think: how did we get here?
The Russians know how we got here. But then they do unsporting things like develop long-term strategies, with the necessary economic and military components. They integrate these with a political strategy, and with clearly defined objectives. None of this is particularly difficult: it’s not they who are strange, it is us, for not thinking that way. And really, if you don’t understand Russian military-strategic thinking, or how they approach the operational level of warfare, then it’s a good idea to refrain from hopping between TV stations telling the world who’s winning and who’s losing.
The final irony is that most of the world actually doesn’t realise how unserious the West is. I can’t remember how many times, in Africa, in the Arab world or in parts of Eastern Europe, educated professional people have excitedly harangued me about the Master Plan of the West (sometimes just the US) to remake the world, destroy China or Russia, recolonise Africa or whatever. “Don’t you realise” they will say urgently, thrusting into my hand a poor photocopy of an obscure journal article from twenty years ago “it was all planned.” If only it was. If only we could.