Skip to main content

The whole world, not just the West, has been increasingly driven by two powerful forces, liberty and science. The either/or forces have steadily overbalanced the both/and capacities for compassion and mutual accommodation. They come from within the West and have moved beyond to the rest of the world. This lack of balance has become the central challenge of the 21st century.

In The Clash of Civilizations, published in 1996, Samuel P. Huntington argued that the West faced a conflict between Western and other cultural and religious identities. Instead, the greater threat to the West is from within. If Western values and civilization are to endure, the West must first diagnose the nature of that threat. The West still has huge strengths, but if so-called populism further weakens them, the fight to preserve our freedoms will be lost. What replaces them will not be better.

The U.S. election and the British decision to leave the European Union are the symptoms of a much bigger moment in world history. Both represent and propel the rising centrifugal forces in the world. They remind us of two grave past events: the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) and the fateful Munich appeasement – "peace in our time" – of Germany's strongman, Adolf Hitler, in 1938. Together, the U.S. election and Brexit threaten the West with renewed political turmoil.

A new moment in history

I have found the idea of a new moment in history quite useful. Eras come to an end when the strong direction and momentum that have overridden everything in their wake weaken while the counterforces they provoked strengthen. When the tumultuous Napoleonic era ended in 1815 Europe, it was followed by a long period of mostly rising peace and prosperity. It ended when an emerging and aggressive Germany could not be accommodated in a wider global order – something that hardly existed at the time.

The following period of 1914-45 was marked by the horror story of two world wars, a global depression, the Holocaust and the near suicide of Europe. A relatively golden period of increasing peace and prosperity followed until the turn of the century. Then two calamitous events broke the magic: The Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers. These major challenges are now playing out in intensifying centrifugal forces within the West and the return of expansionist forces in Russia, Iran and China (perhaps somewhat less so in China, which better understands its economic dependence on the rest of the world).

The centrifugal forces of populism

There is a backlash against too much, too fast integration. So-called elites, who believed in and profited from the broad values of inclusiveness, failed to account for their impact on those who could not keep up with the pace of change. Brexit and Donald Trump capitalized on the fallout. Most of the suggested solutions so far stand to make things worse, not better.

The elites understood that the world is complex but failed to see that integration would only increase complexity and make outcomes even less manageable for more people. Nor did they see its unfairness. The Brexiters and Mr. Trump correctly saw the need for a very big shakeup. The European Union and Washington/Wall Street establishment need reshaping, not destruction. Will the arsonists who are trying to burn them down be able to do the reshaping? Not much they have said so far suggests they can – or even that they comprehend the complexity of our world.

Things could get a lot worse before they get better – and that might not be during our children's or even our grandchildren's lives. It depends on what we start to do now. We have the strengths. Do we have the will?

The challenge for the West

Two developments would change prospects for the better: strong, visionary leadership and a reshaped, inclusive global order. First, able leaders and a sufficient number of followers are needed to contain and then reshape the dangerous centrifugal forces within Europe and the United States. Second, a change of heart toward an inclusive global order is needed from Russia and China.

The West will become more vulnerable to hostile outside forces unless the centrifugal forces within can be contained. The only current leader who might take on her share of the task is Angela Merkel, who intends to stand in the next German election later this year. But she is threatened on multiple fronts – primarily from the refugee challenge in Europe, reinforced by the continent's pervasive economic insecurity, for which Germany bears a lot of responsibility. The U.S. economy has more favourable prospects. But how long will they last? The country is undergoing its worst political turmoil in 150 years.

On the world stage, Russia and Iran stand against most actions to strengthen the postwar inclusive global order or to work for its constructive reshaping. It is difficult to see needed change from either, but that could end. Although pro-democracy forces in Europe have been weakened, they do not yet face authoritarian takeovers in either France or Germany. The situation is different today than in 1938. The West is much stronger; authoritarian powers are weaker than Germany and Japan were at that time; but the United States is no longer the powerful "good guy" available to help; rather, it's a growing part of the problem.

The path to a better balance

Two quite different but related ideas help clarify the urgent need for better fundamental balance. First, the great philosopher A.N. Whitehead suggested two seemingly contradictory ideas: narrowness is the basis of all achievement, and the universe is vast. The challenge of all life is to mutually accommodate the narrowness needed for achievements and the vision to understand the vastness and complexity of our world. Unfortunately, the West has too often concentrated on the narrowness at the expense of the vastness.

The second idea came from a CEO friend. He said that all good leaders require four strong characteristics (producer, administrator, integrator and entrepreneur), but no one has more than two. When you choose an executive with a particular two, you must make sure that the No. 2 executive has the other two – yet another example of how pervasive the need for mutual accommodation is.

Four ways of doings things in a better fashion

The four broad ways humans have found to go about things in a better way are freedom, science, mutual accommodation and compassion. The West's problem is that its driving force since the Renaissance in the early 1400s has been liberty and science. The power of that narrowness and what it has achieved is enormous.

Now, the rise in centrifugal forces needs to be balanced by a greater capacity for mutual accommodation and compassion. Countries are like leaders. If they tend to be strong in two areas, they may not be able to find ways within themselves to achieve a better balance, and will need other countries.

Countries strong in the capacity for mutual accommodation are scarce. Canada is one of them. This gives it a potentially important role to play in global affairs.

What we can learn from Japan and the New Testament

On my first visit to Japan, in 1975, I bought the only serious book about the nature of Japan I have ever seen written by a Japanese author, Japanese Society, by Chie Nakane. It gave me a new way of comparing societies and countries. Nakane argues that societies are shaped by the relative dominance of vertical and horizontal forces and institutions. She sees Japan as deeply vertical.

Adopting her perspective, I rate the United States as deeply horizontal. This means that strong horizontal forces, such as freedom and markets, are less influential in Japan; while strong vertical forces based on relationships, mutual obligations and consensus are much stronger in that country. It comes down to a preference for rights and freedom (in the United States) over relationships and consensus (in Japan). Arguably, relationships in the United States are too weak, while rights in Japan could be stronger.

Some years ago I used this comparison, along with two quotes from the New Testament, to explain to a group of CEOs that people want to be treated both as equals and as special. In the Bible, Jesus is quoted as saying that the rain (nature) falls on the just and the unjust alike (equal treatment), while at the same time the very hairs of your head are numbered (each person is special).

To my surprise, all seven executives agreed. In their experience, everyone in their companies wanted to be both equal and special. The threat to Western institutions and values today is that their driving forces have been too horizontal and impersonal. They have not been sufficiently balanced by the vertical and the personal. One result is the populism and growing unmanageability we now face.

A need for magical thinking

The best approach to a post-Brexit, post-Trump world is to be calm and creative. We need calm to face the combined internal and external challenges that could bring the end of Western civilization – losing its values while gaining nothing comparable to replace them.

We also need to be creative to overcome the limits of the post-Brexit, post-Trump world. Four years ago, the great Las Vegas magician Jeff McBride said yes to my assertion that "magic would not be magic if it really was magic." He added that limits can only be overcome by creativity – which is where magic comes from. Calm and common sense seem the best ways forward most of the time. Big, deep, broad crises also call for creativity. If you get the diagnosis right, you greatly improve the chances of getting the cure right.

The West's crisis comes from the deep sources of its increasingly unmanageable imbalances over six centuries. The world's challenge now – not just the West's – is to maintain and improve the strength of freedom and science, and to use creativity to match them with the needed limits that flow from mutual accommodation and compassion. That is the only way for Western values to survive. And there are no other competitive values on offer.

If you doubt that science, freedom and compassion can come together, look at what Médecins Sans Frontières has accomplished. Consider how much more this humanitarian organization could do if there was more mutual accommodation. Freedom, science, compassion and mutual accommodation are all beneficial in their own ways. Together, they provide the cumulative strengths the whole world needs.

I have been a modest and passionate Methodist all my life. I am deeply grateful that Pope Francis, the only religious leader (indeed, the only leader of any kind) able to speak to the whole world, is not a man of rules, doctrines or hierarchy but of compassion.

The Pope's compassion and Canada's mutual accommodation are what the world most urgently needs. Together, they are the antidote to a politics that recognizes the needs of some of the left out or marginalized, but also exploits and aggravates, rather than overcomes, them. Twenty years ago, Francis Fukuyama could declare the end of history announcing the triumph of liberal democracy and the arrival of a postideological world!

The year-end Globe and Mail editorial was about the return of a history that puts liberal democracy in peril. The rule of law and politics that make governing possible are key to the future of Canada and the West.

What we came to take for granted after 1945 is now under threat – this time from within. As Pogo famously said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

William A. Macdonald is a Toronto writer who, to spark discussion of the nation's future, has created, with associate William R.K. Innes, The Canadian Narrative Project at

Interact with The Globe