Photo: chessboard pieces, a black king beats a white one.

The Programme of Imperialism

Western leaders keep claiming that this time it will be different — sometimes completely sincerely. Why developing countries view with scepticism any attempt to impose a universal culture.

The developing world has a long history of suffering from colonialism and imperialism. Western colonial powers overturned traditional political structures, suppressed local cultural divisions, and remade societies for their own purposes. These actions were justified — when they were justified — as being necessary to ‘civilise’ the rest of the world according to Western norms. This was why elites were sent to be trained in Western ideas in British and French universities, or why the United States justified its own colonial endeavours on getting non-Western societies ‘ready’ for democracy.

In practice, colonial powers did little to improve their colonies. When they were granted independence after the Second World War, postcolonial states were left with little in the way of governing institutions, which often led to more conflict. It has taken decades for many of these colonies to make up the shortfall; some former colonies have yet to do so.

Thus, one can understand why the developing world looks sceptically at any attempt to impose a universal culture. They’ve seen how this language was used before to justify a programme of imperialism. Western leaders may claim over and over again that this time will be different — sometimes completely sincerely — but developing countries know where these words lead.

When they [the colonies] were granted independence, postcolonial states were left with little in the way of governing institutions, which often led to more conflict.

But the West and the rest are not just approaching the world with different experiences. They also face different futures as we move into a resource-constrained 21st century.

It is clear that our overuse of resources is having a dire effect on society, from climate change and extreme weather to soil pollution, increasingly scarce commodities and overheated cities. The world will need to move towards a more sustainable economic model that does not rely on rampant consumptiondriven growth at all costs and instead places resource management at the heart of economic planning.

They [the West and the rest] also face different futures as we move into a resource-constrained 21st century.

But the developed and developing world will see this challenge differently. Western nations are wealthy, having benefited from many decades of economic growth. They have largely met the universal basic needs and provided satisfactory social services to their populations, which are relatively small and not growing in size (if not declining). Their growth happened in a time of more plentiful resources, allowing them to overuse common and public resources without suffering the consequences.

Over-Consumption Is Not The Answer

Photo: Crowd in Times Square in New York.
The West often puts forward its own lifestyle and consumerist culture as the model to be followed, photo: Tom W via pexels

The Rest are still largely poor, despite the eye-popping growth numbers they sometimes show. Even China — the largest and arguably most successful member of the Rest — still has an average income well below the OECD. Their populations are also growing quickly: the vast majority of people born in the next several decades will live in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, with India, Indonesia and Nigeria showing massive gains.

This means more people to be fed, housed, employed and otherwise looked after, which will only increase these countries’ resource consumption. To make matters more difficult, developing countries need to improve the lives of their growing populations in a world with much scarcer resources.

The answer to this cannot come from a Western model, whose goal is a lifestyle that massively over-consumes resources. The West often puts forward its own lifestyle and consumerist culture as the model to be followed. It may not do this explicitly (especially as more people understand how unsustainable this lifestyle is), but it does so implicitly through its dominance of popular culture, education and business. If ‘universal values’ are modeled on the West’s consumerist society, then the planet faces a bleak future.

We know that Europeans’ wish for a universal culture only stretches so far. Europe, for example, has a much longer history than the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (who also share a language and common roots as former British colonies). Thus, European countries have approached certain issues differently from their AngloSaxon counterparts. For example, Europe is more willing to target hate speech and symbols, which is understandable given how such rhetoric was institutionalised to such deadly effect.

A Narrative of 'Us With Them'

Despite these differences, in practice, Europe often goes along with what America wants. Europe has never sanctioned the United States for a decision it disagrees with, never moving beyond verbal criticism. From the Iraq War to the current dispute over the Iran deal, Europe has never countenanced actually doing anything about decisions in Washington. This has limited Europe’s ability to define its own place, role and self-understanding as it moves into the 21st century.

Thus, there are significant differences between different countries. But these differences should not be an obstacle to shared solutions. We instead need a narrative that allows societies with very different values to come together for mutual benefit, and to solve global problems. Instead of a narrative of ‘we’, and to push back against a narrative of ‘us vs. them’, we need a narrative of ‘us with them’. As the balance between the West and the Rest is restored (if not tilted towards the Rest), there is a chance to build a framework for how different cultures and countries can work together to solve problems.

But as the balance between the West and the Rest is restored (if not perhaps tilted towards the Rest), there is a chance to build a framework of ‘us with them’ again. What could be Europe’s role in this? And how should we understand ‘European culture’ if it is no longer associated with universal values?

Willingness To Be The Student

Europe may be better placed than other Western countries to work with the rest on a more equal basis. Unlike, say, the United States, Europe has had several decades to come to terms with its changing place in the world, nor does it have any expressed wish to dominate the world. This means Europe can work with rising powers like China without threatening its own self-image. The United States would find it difficult to do the same without contradicting its view of itself as the world’s ‘indispensable nation.’

If ‘universal values’ are modeled on the West’s consumerist society, then the planet faces a bleak future.

But this requires working with China as an equal partner, with interests, values and ideas to be treated seriously. It means accepting that China may have solved some problems better than the West, which in turn means a willingness to act as a student to see what China has done right. And Europe should not lecture China.

The same goes for other countries and leaders outside of the West. Europe must not just be willing to work with countries like Turkey, the Philippines, and others, but to understand what is motivating them. All of these countries are reacting to a geopolitical structure that has largely denied them a place in global rulemaking, but now they suddenly have more resources to demand a greater say.

For all the problems with leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Rodrigo Duterte (and there are several), their refusal to accept a Western model that has held their countries back, if not harmed their development, is why they remain very popular amongst their people.

Defining 'European Culture'

It can be difficult to define ‘European culture’. It has sometimes been used to refer to some past imperial glory, and as a way to justify aggressive and racist behaviour towards other cultures. Some of the populist turn in Europe, sparked by the migrant crisis, has used ‘Europe’s culture’ to justify Islamophobia and xenophobia.

I am not European, so it is not up to me to define what European culture should be. That should be left to Europeans. But they may decide that it refers to a respect for democracy and Western-style political and civil rights.


Europeans may feel that this is under threat from both internal and external forces. But the best way to protect it is not to force other countries to adopt flawed democratic structures, but rather to bolster their own governance systems.

A Europe that focuses on self-strengthening its own institutions and governance, and using that strength to work with others to solve the world’s problems, will be far more useful towards creating global peace, progress and prosperity than one that lectures others in pursuit of some ideal of a ‘culture of we’. Europe can, and must, be an integral part of a diverse human civilisation. But it must be willing to accept its place as one culture amongst many.

[Translate to english:] Die Flaggen der Mitgliedsstaaten der EU vor dem Europäischen Parlament in Straßburg.
Ein Europa, das sich darauf konzentriert, die eigenen Institutionen zu stärken, wird weit mehr zu weltweitem Wohlstand beitragen als ein Europa, das andere belehrt, Foto: Zoonar / Christian Decout via picture alliance
About the Author
Portrait of Chandran Nair
Chandran Nair
Founder of The Global Institute for Tomorrow

Chandran Nair founded the Global Institute for Tomorrow, an independent think tank in Hong Kong, which he heads as Managing Director. He is, among others, a member of the of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Sustainability and Environment, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Nair advocates for a radical reform of the current economic model and strict limits on consumption.

A selection of books: 

  • Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post-Western World. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, CA 2022
  • The Sustainable State: The Future of Government, Economy, and Society. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland, CA 2018
  • The Other Hundred Entrepreneurs: 100 Faces, Places, Stories. Oneworld, London 2015
  • Consumptionomics: Asia's role in reshaping capitalism and saving the planet. Infinite Ideas, Oxford 2010