Thinking on and beyond the concept of de-westernization

Rony Brauman

Medical doctor, specialized in tropical medicine and epidemiology. Involved in humanitarian action since 1977, he has been on numerous missions, mainly in contexts of armed conflicts and IDP situations. President of Médecins sans Frontières from 1982 to1994, he also teaches at the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and is a regular contributor to Alternatives Economiques. He has published several books and articles, including "Guerre humanitaires ? Mensonges et Intox" (Textuel, 2018), "La Médecine Humanitaire" (PUF, 2010), "Penser dans l'urgence" (Editions du Seuil, 2006) and "Utopies Sanitaires" (Editions Le Pommier, 2000).

This interview by Didier Billion and Marc Verzeroli was originally published in the Revue internationale et stratégique. To examine the concept of de-westernization, Rony Brauman describes the current state of international relations, marked by fluid alliances and new power relationships. He states and details his reservations about whether universal values truly exist and how the international criminal justice system functions.

Didier Billion and Marc Verzeroli – Is there, in your opinion, a kind of de-westernization happening in the world? What would be the most significant markers of that?

RONY BRAUMAN – If what you mean by “the west” is the group of countries that have demonstrated their power over the past two centuries via conquest and imposing their own political order, then yes, I think their strength and capacity for influence and action have declined. So in terms of power relations, there is in fact a certain de-westernization going on in the world.

Nevertheless, I have strong reservations about the term “de-westernization”, which I avoid because it seems like a counterpoise to Orientalism. Westernization, or Occidentalism, assumes a sort of mirror-image adversary, an imagined reflection that, though fairly meaningless, surreptitiously and obliquely reintroduces a kind of cultural essentialism. So we speak of Occidentalism the way we used to speak of Orientalism, as a whole that somehow cements some imagined culture. Which ignores the reality of internal pressures, differences and conflicts that are part of life in society and contradict, to my mind at least, that somewhat set – or at least oversimplified – culturalist representation.

Even so, there have been undeniable changes - though no ruptures. The recent resumption of official contact between Iran and Saudi Arabia, under the aegis of China, for example, represents a new aspect of international relations, even if it does not change their course. Saudi Arabia – whose subordinate relationship with the United States we know – decided to strike out on its own. For Iran, this is obviously an opportunity to rejoin, at least partially, the international community. Most importantly, this was China’s first political initiative of this kind in the Middle East. So, while we understand the limitations of the term “de-westernization,” it is nevertheless applicable to some forms of reality.

RONY BRAUMAN – That’s exactly what I mean by a transformation in terms of power relationships, and thus alliances. Today’s alliances are volatile, time-limited, and reconfigured as the parties’ interests change. I myself was struck by China’s sudden involvement in the Middle East and by how the Saudi and Iranian players seized that opportunity. From my perspective as an internationally-oriented French humanitarian actor, it was also surprising to see a Chinese plane land in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake. To stay in the US’s good graces, Haiti had recognized Taiwan and had no relationship with mainland China – hence my surprise at seeing that plane. So on that occasion, Peking ventured outside of its own neighborhood to provide help that was, of course, symbolic – one plane with some food and necessities, a few rescue personnel – but that made clear that China was asserting itself as an international power. New and even more significant, it was involving itself during that same period in peacekeeping operations by sending Blue Helmets. We can easily see, from that change alone, that there has been a transformation in international power relations of which China is no doubt the primary, if not the only, driver.

So, we can understand your hesitation about the term “de-westernization.” Another widely-used term is “Global South.” Does that concept make sense to you?

RONY BRAUMAN – There again, I think the idea, though inadequate, is not totally devoid of meaning; it applies to certain situations – mostly “versus” situations. The war in Ukraine is the latest illustration. The West, in general, appears to be a loosely knit, but allied, entity that has joined together for the occasion while in contrast there appears to be a “South” that is more or less saying – not totally inappropriately – that it isn’t their war, and that while that act of aggression is no doubt reprehensible, Westerners should clean up their own houses in terms of aggression. So the “Global South”, in my opinion, exists only in configurations of political pressure or positioning on a political issue, and not in and of itself. Particularly because the “Global South” does not constitute a political or economic alternative.

When it came into being in 2001, at Goldman Sachs’ initiative, BRIC – consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, soon to be joined by South Africa – seemed to offer a kind of alternative to Western, liberal, capitalist hegemony. It soon became obvious that that wasn’t the case at all – the group is no less economically liberal or capitalist, and is connected by purely contingent common interests, joining together at certain times, dispersing at others. It seems to me that such constant reconfiguration is the prevailing rule in this new order, which is rather disconcertingly unpredictable.

Despite the rise of new powers, some of them “emerging countries,” at this stage they have all fallen in line with the dominant capitalist mode of production. These different countries that – thanks in some sense to the changing power relationships – are challenging the supremacy of the western countries are either unable or unwilling to come up with an alternative. Isn’t that the fundamental contradiction?

RONY BRAUMAN – I don’t know if it’s the fundamental contradiction, but in my opinion it’s the fundamental gap. Everything is happening as if there’s no alternative to a mode of production that is rightly considered predatory, destructive, even nihilistic – that is, one that precludes any possibility of a future, not just for a given social class or country, but for humanity as a whole. In a way, it’s the catastrophic victory of what started in the West – that is, capitalist productivism – and has spread ¬– sometimes under different names. Actual communism, for example, was capitalist productivism with a different internal organization – state capitalism that was just as capitalist as the so-called liberal capitalism of Western Europe and the United States.

What’s hard when thinking about the world today is that a particular mode of production has taken root, we see that it’s untenable, but no alternatives are being proposed – at least not by any states or organized political forces. Does the future lie in relationships between societies, as an international relations specialist like Bertrand Badie says? To what extent has the race already been lost?

Could the new power relations you alluded to allow a radical reform of multilateralism – which seems more necessary than ever for dealing with a global issue like climate change?

RONY BRAUMAN – The biggest threat we face is obviously climate change, against which the states seem, if not unable, at least very slow to take a real stand – despite what they say. Let’s acknowledge in passing that the actions needed are extremely difficult, since governments are constantly dealing with conflicting demands. Every government action now faces potential criticism from an environmental standpoint. In the past, job creation was always good news; now, if a job isn’t part of the green transition, it becomes a problem.

With regard to multilateralism, I don’t see any signs right now that would point to radical reform. I do, however, see a trend toward authoritarian nationalism, even ethnonationalism, which is dominant from Finland – with its emerging far right – to the Philippines, including Russia, Israel, the United States (in the recent past and perhaps soon again), and Europe, where there are plenty of examples to choose from. So no, I don’t see any such signs, and reiterate what I was saying: that the only positive opening I see right now is the social movements for more justice and moderation and less income and social status inequality. That, in my opinion, is what the agenda should be; that can then put pressure on states and governments. It’s not a question of always pitting one against the other, but of realizing that one seems handcuffed while the other – the social movements – have some freedom of thought and association and are free from many of the constraints placed on governments, and so can express their aspirations and exert pressure. That’s what’s happening with the environmental protests – which are being violently suppressed in France (where we’re also seeing the manifestations of creeping authoritarianism) – aimed at preserving environmentally-responsible agriculture and water resources that are accessible to all, rather than expropriated for the benefit of the few. That’s where there’s a glimmer of hope for the future.

Can those societies – which could well be part of a progressive movement for promoting individual and collective freedoms and the rule of law – find their own path without copying or duplicating what the Western powers are doing? Might we, for example, assume that universal rights, like the ones the Western powers supposedly protect, actually exist?

RONY BRAUMAN – We’ve woken up over the past two decades from the illusion – which I shared – that economic development would go hand-in-hand with greater individual rights and a kind of pro-democracy political liberalism. With China in particular, and India as well, we see that that belief was simply a false impression. This doesn’t mean that all progress should be forgotten, but it won’t necessarily follow that path.

Next, one characteristic of the Occidentalism we were talking about, the mirror image of orientalism, and which France is an outstanding example of, is a penchant for portraying their supposed values – not what actually exists, mind you, because that’s another matter – as universal. Former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, for example, invoked the self-contradictory “universality of our French values” without eliciting any reaction, showing just how internalized such representations have become.

To be clear, I deeply believe that there are universalizable values – that is, values worthy of being universalized. For example, the prohibition of torture, freedom of thought and expression, freedom of the press, and habeas corpus are things that require no budget or particular economic framework. But once they become the standard by which we distinguish civilized from uncivilized and those who are leading the pack on the road to progress from those who are lagging behind, they serve only to establish dominance or re-establish lost dominance in the hopes of recovering or reinstating it more symbolically: “Granted, we’re not the most powerful economically or militarily anymore and we’ve lost some influence, but we are the home of human rights and universal values.” Yet it is precisely because they claim a given geography and history that they are seen as special/outsiders. And so reactions to what’s perceived as interference, often coming – what’s worse – from former colonial powers that never placed such limits on their own behavior, are defensive.

That insistence on proclaiming universal values immediately leads to the possibility that local or other values – community, local, traditional, and family values – could be considered universal. We see how Vladimir Putin uses ultra-reactionary discourse as an influence strategy, soft power. Saying he is against the “West’s LGBT-ist decadence” and for preserving tradition and patriarchy is a way to win support in vast regions of the world. Constantly insisting that certain values are universal seems absolutely pointless, even counterproductive. Values are like love – they are shown, not proclaimed.

To take this argument to its natural conclusion, do universal values, or a universal morality, actually exist?

RONY BRAUMAN – I believe that what’s universal is the existence of morality. What’s particular is morality itself. So there’s tension between the two. All societies have norms of good and bad; that is undoubtedly our fundamental difference from animals, who do not create a normative world. To take this a step further, I think there are what Frans de Waal calls “moral sentiments”, which are not exclusively human – he has found them in higher mammals. All human beings in all societies are able to view reality through someone else’s eyes. That is what de Waal calls “cognitive empathy.” It’s a feeling of sympathy, which is not inherently moral because it is also what allows torture; a person does not torture unless he/she perceives the other’s pain. Cognitive empathy – that is, the ability to consider reality from someone else’s point of view – is what also allows solidarity and sociability, though not necessarily for the better. In any event, it is a feeling – not a value – that everyone shares.

The same applies to what de Waal terms “inequity aversion,” that is, thinking it abnormal to be punished or rewarded for something that one has not done. De Waal shows that even higher primates react to that. Hence an undeserved reward or punishment leads to tension and protest. In human social situations, this raises the question of when a reward or punishment becomes undeserved, and in particular of which individual or group is responsible. When Médecins Sans Frontières staff were killed in Somalia, for example, we were offered collective reparations rather than punishment for the people involved. We expected that the two people who killed two of our team members would be tried, but their clan preferred public acknowledgment and a settlement, in the form of cash and various donations, because the clan, and not the individuals, considered themselves responsible for the violence. Individualizing responsibility, punishment, thoughts, and beliefs is thus a process; it may not have happened, or not totally, or may have taken a variety of forms. In any event, we have to deal with this conflict: though everyone agreed that a criminal act required justice, there were completely different ideas about how the crime was defined and what should be done about it.

So we can’t just wave the banner of universal values, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that, we have to remember, was adopted in 1948 at a time of apartheid, racial segregation, corporal punishment, etc. Initially, the declaration was a ritual, three years after a period of rampant, unprecedented violence that needed to be addressed. In addition, there was a certain amount of opportunism, since its articles were a mixture of liberal and socialist values needed to gain international consensus. That was no doubt necessary at the time. Nevertheless, should we consider this an affirmation of a reality, despite the fact that the violence of colonialism and of tyranny in various forms raged unabated in the convention’s signatory countries?

I don’t want to suggest here that human rights are just hypocrisy on the part of the West, but in some parts of the world, and in some circumstances, they appear to be pure power talk.

Regarding the inequity question, what do the mechanisms of the International Criminal Court suggest to you? The ICC seems permeated by a “North vs. South” attitude, and by vindicating some of the arguments from autocrats in the Global South, its decisions may ultimately prove counterproductive.

RONY BRAUMAN – As it has grown, the International Criminal Court has slowly lost its appeal. I admit that I have little faith in international mechanisms. In the 1990s, however, like a lot of people, I did see it as a consolation prize, a concession to public opinion after the two disasters that were the Bosnian War (1992-95) – which broke out in Europe and couldn’t be ended – and the Rwandan Tutsi genocide (1994), which couldn’t be prevented or stopped. But like many people – in the NGO world, in particular – I also saw it as a step in the right direction, a positive development called “the fight against impunity,” which was expected to curb the use of mass violence. That those hopes were dashed is undeniable.

Let me add, straight off, that the political profession, like public health, is generally kind of thankless; no one gets credit for non-events, like epidemics or political crises that don’t happen.  No one can brag about a non-event; only things that actually happen can bring praise or blame. No one gets credit for all the wars that haven’t occurred over the past fifty years, but the war that did happen in Bosnia was blamed on Europe’s irresponsibility, ineptitude and paralysis, on the Maastricht Treaty, on the French-German rivalry, etc. And the fact remains that it was a huge disaster from which the former Yugoslavia has yet to recover – something that is perhaps even more true for Rwanda, given the unique cruelty of that extermination process.

The International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia later had to yield to the legal body with jurisdiction over the entire planet, the International Criminal Court established in 2002. But three of the Security Council’s five permanent members haven’t even signed or ratified the Rome Statute. Those great powers – China, the United States, and Russia – thus fell outside that jurisdiction. The US immediately claimed impunity, most notably by directly threatening countries where their soldiers were stationed, warning of severe retaliation, and threatening to use force should any be imprisoned or prosecuted. We’re talking, of course, about Donald Trump, but still, he was the sitting president of the United States, not some fanatic from the backwoods of Oklahoma. So it’s been a two-tiered system from the outset: the International Criminal Court for thee, but not for me.

What followed from there has made clear that the ICC is totally subservient to the Western camp. And in this case, there are clearly camps. Witness the last two splashy – that is, high-profile – Court actions on Libya and Ukraine. In both cases it sent teams of investigators within days. In contrast, when it came to Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – attacked and pillaged by Paul Kagame’s Rwanda – and Myanmar, there was none of that. There have, of course, been efforts and declarations of interest on the need to investigate in Palestine and Afghanistan, indicating that prosecutors were interested in doing so, but they have gone unheeded due to US pressure. George W. Bush’s touching slip of the tongue – when speaking about Ukraine – vehemently condemning “the wholly unjustified, brutal invasion of… Iraq” alone sums up how twisted this political justice system is.

If the Court wanted to undermine its own credibility, it’s hard to see what more it could do. Sinologist Simon Leys, the first to expose the scale of Mao’s Cultural Revolution crimes, describes in his own words the first three tenets of totalitarian-style justice: 1) some cases are handled with special benevolence; 2) other cases must be treated with particular severity; and 3) this doesn’t apply in all cases. Those tenets accurately reflect the reality of international relations, and of the International Criminal Court, which is a magnifying mirror of them.

The enormous sums allocated to fund this parody of justice could be put to much better use by creating an international environmental court. The real transnational crimes are actually environmental ones. The others take place within circumscribed nations, with lines of command and hierarchies and so can be dealt with by society itself, over what is often a long time frame that can transcend the current politics – a truce, a peace process, etc. Recalling Desmond Tutu’s somewhat inconsistent position on this, while he supported creation of the ICC, for post-apartheid South Africa he preferred, over retributive justice, the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – that is, a non-punitive restorative justice process more conducive to healing.

In this evolving context, how do you view the concept of human security? Can these new power relations foster a transition from political/military security to human security?

RONY BRAUMAN – I have no ideas that would help link this new international arrangement to the concept of human security, which emerged in the United Nations context of the 1990s. While recognizing that for some “human security” is merely a catchphrase, I think we should welcome and support the decoupling of “security” from strictly law enforcement and military concerns and broaden it to include the lived experience of security for each individual – that is, social welfare, health, economic security and, of course, police protection. Being able to express oneself freely without the risk, not of being contradicted, but of being attacked, is also an explicit part of what the UN proposed that human security should encompass, along with epidemic prevention, access to care, and the idea of habeas corpus.

That said, what are the UN’s tools for its implementation? Their toolkit is meager; their means of action are very limited and vulnerable to influence. How the World Health Organization (WHO) operates, for example, is instructive. It is one of the international system’s most important organizations in terms of human security – if not its most important. Yet an increasing share of its very inadequate budget comes from private philanthropic contributions, like that from the Gates Foundation, the institution’s second biggest funder. To Bill Gates, the solution to our health, food, and environmental problems can be found where technology meets the free market, for which he is the poster child. Due to inadequate government funding, chemical industry, agribusiness, and large pharmaceutical company moguls carry critical weight with the WHO. While this certainly isn’t inevitable, it’s the current situation. How big a health catastrophe will be needed to change this state of affairs?

And let’s not forget the 2011 Libyan civil war, which the UN Security Council authorized under the “Responsibility to Protect”. I don’t know why Russia and China abstained and thereby backed that decision, which replayed the 2003 Gulf War scenario. Though the UN itself wasn’t involved, being associated with that French and Qatari folly certainly didn’t make it look any better in the world’s eyes.

After this conversation, the de-Westernization concept seems reductive at best. Nonetheless, examples in recent months – around the war in Ukraine, in particular – also seem to indicate a “the West versus the Rest”-type situation. On one hand, the various UN resolutions show that most condemn a war of aggression against a sovereign nation. On the other, only Western countries are imposing sanctions on Russia. So there’s a reality that challenges that. Beyond the limitations of the term “de-Westernization” themselves, could the new power relations we talked about – partial liberation from Western hegemony – conceivably improve international stability or, on the contrary, cause complete fragmentation? Should we fear the loss of organizing alignments, leading to total nonpolarity, a war of all against all?

RONY BRAUMAN – Naturally, I don’t know any more about what our future holds than anyone else does, but I would bet that, in the short term, this new international configuration will inevitably bring disorder and instability. I don’t see how such a change can happen gently, with restraint – that’s already obvious. But that doesn’t mean the world is condemned to instability. The transition will probably not be a stable one, but it may lead to a new order, multipolar or other, that will achieve some stability because that’s precisely what societies ultimately seek. So there’s no reason why that couldn’t happen, though it doesn’t seem possible right away.

As far as “the West vs. the Rest” is concerned, I think that it was completely legitimate and necessary that Europe defend Ukraine against Russian aggression, which seems to be an important act of solidarity and political affirmation. The question of knowing to what point has yet to be determined, and I would be hard-pressed to give my opinion on that. In any case, enabling Ukraine to defend itself and increasing the political and military cost of the invasion – thus increasing the burden on the Russian government – seems absolutely appropriate and necessary to me. What I question, however, is the grandiosity of the assertions and commentaries, for example, “the war between civilization and inhumanity,” or “the Ukrainians are fighting for us.” In short, the rest of the world should support Ukraine. In the name of what? Has Rwanda – which has been wreaking havoc in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo for years – been the subject of similar large international meetings? No, the Rwandan regime is still very well-respected, and Paul Kagame still represents the new African leader, despite the fact that he’s one of the continent’s biggest contemporary killers. And yet we have Israel, Myanmar’s Rohingyas, the Uyghurs in China, etc. – there are plenty of examples of small, medium, and large powers that illegally destroy, kill, and oppress, violating all international commitments, and face no censure at all. With Israel, that really takes the cake, because it’s the condemnation that’s being condemned, so to speak, since the BDS movement to protest West Bank settlement is mostly prohibited in Europe, where it’s considered incitement of hate and can lead to prosecution…while calls to boycott Russia come from a sort of moral imperative. What’s considered a culpable act of inciting hate in one instance becomes an inescapable moral imperative in another, and failure to obey it means stepping outside of civilized society. To the rest of the world, the hypocrisy is plain.

To conclude, it seems to me that the westernization/de-westernization concept, which should be used sparingly due to its Huntingtonian culturalist overtones, does have some descriptive, if limited, value.


This article is available at Cairn.

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Rony Brauman, “Thinking on and beyond the concept of de-westernization”, 16 octobre 2023, URL :

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