Rebranding the West
Not long ago, the West was perceived to some—externally and internally—as a cohesive actor, a league of remarkably prosperous, truly pluralistic democracies, led by the United States and supported by other leading and historic world powers. Today, the West is perceived by its enemies—China and Russia principally among them—as fragmented and fracturing, incapable of acting in concert, weak and declining.
But even within the West, the idea of the West has grown stale—it is often seen as irrelevant, unnecessary, or even harmful. This shows the principles and values that the West ostensibly represents cannot advocate for themselves. They need the sincere and sustained embodiment from state actors, or otherwise these values will be pulled apart and pulverized by rising authoritarian powers.
What then is to be done?
We have between us over twenty years of experience in communications and public relations, helping clients all over the world tell their stories and broadcast their ideas. We speak from experience, then, when we contend that the West desperately needs a rebrand: The West must make the case to the world, but most of all to itself, that it is critical to a prosperous and pluralistic planet.
This communications campaign revolves around two questions, both of which everyone invested in the future of the West should make it a point to incorporate into their work. The first is simple: What would the world be like without the West? And the second is just as simple—lucidity and brevity being critical to any essential campaign: What does the West offer the world?
The bluntest argument for the West continuing its role as shaper and maintainer of global order is, quite bluntly, democracy. Any decline in Western power and prestige will not usher in a utopic dreamscape, but instead see a global power vacuum filled by authoritarian actors. We already have an inkling of what a world anchored by Chinese hegemony could look like, as months of protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of minority groups have shown us recently.
Unlike China, the West is not currently probing international boundaries or militarily intervening in territorial disputes (India and Bhutan). Unlike China, the West is not stifling free speech (Hong Kong). Unlike China, the West is not engaged in a draconian, slow-motion genocide, crushing the present and obliterating the future of a people (the Uighurs).
Indeed, the latter two cases are perhaps the most instructive. When confronted with political differences in Hong Kong, or ethno-religious differences in Xinjiang, China’s response was to react with brute force and suppression of a founding democratic principle: the ability to freely and openly criticize one’s government. The West does stray from its principles, but those principles always call it to do and be better. While the West has made grievous mistakes, including brutal colonization, harmful globalization, and its own rumoured interference in elections around the world, its democratic culture has given it the resources to learn from its mistakes and grow in response. Indeed, American voters loudly repudiated the Bush agenda of aggressive interventionism by overwhelmingly voting for Barack Obama in 2008.
We can look elsewhere across the West for more such examples. After the recent, devastating explosions in Beirut, French President Macron visited Lebanon, vowing to support it even as his remarks clearly reflected an awareness of France’s colonial history there. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response to a shocking video of police brutality in his own country, has called for investigations into the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
This tradition of reflexivity and democratic access to the vote provides space for the West to not only learn from its mistakes, but also gives it the opportunity to act more morally and positively in the world. Can we seriously imagine that this kind of reflection and accountability would be encouraged, supported, or even tolerated, in a world in which the West goes into terminal decline? Which carries us from our first question to our second: What does the West offer to the world?
And the simple answer to that is civic engagement. Where authoritarianism excludes, marginalizes, and demonizes, democracy includes, welcomes, and celebrates participation in governing and elections.
Despite its huge geopolitical advantages, the West has gone out of its way to work alongside other nations and regions in global governance. The West has invested tremendous energy and resources into multilateral global institutions like the World Health Organization, in which all nations are, at least in theory, equal actors. Though this has been violated on occasion, the overriding principle remains an ideal to which the West’s best and brightest aspire to.
This value doesn’t just apply to the welcoming of immigrants and asylees, which speaks to the better angels of Western policy, but also a vision to build a society whose laws actively prioritize the lives of the vulnerable in policymaking. That is the underlying logic to the George Floyd protests, for which reason many welcome their motivation: Only a society that ensures that all people have the power to shape their government can truly be just. And a society that is truly just is a society that the world can depend on for leadership, guidance, security, and protection.
Yes, the United States is roiled by protests over generational social injustices and a call to root out systemic racism. Indeed, the recent protests may have been the largest in U.S. history. These have spilled over into other parts of the West, from England to Eastern Europe, and though they have sometimes provoked strong concerns and reactions, they have also proceeded largely unhindered.
Can we imagine how China would respond to such expressions of popular grievance? Sadly, we do not have to imagine. The reality is available to all of us. In our two decades of experience in communications and public relations, we have found that no campaign succeeds that does not first and foremost have the thoroughgoing support of its subject. If the West does not believe in itself, it cannot tell its stories. And a world without a proud and principled West would be an impoverished, intolerant place indeed.
Muddassar Ahmed, is a former advisor to the British government; Managing Partner, Unitas Communications; Fellow, German Marshall Fund of America. He tweets at @mmuddassarahmed
Nina Smith is a communications strategist and former traveling press secretary for 2020 presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. With over 15 years of experience in state, federal and local government, as well as experience, Smith continues to advise highly visible political officials, organizations and movements on messaging and media on a wide variety of emergent and era-defining issues. She tweets at @ninasophia81