It was inconceivable for Americans that they might not win the Vietnam war. The pictures of US marines clearing out bamboo villages and flying over paddy fields gave the distinct impression that this wasn’t a battle between ideologies as much as a clash of civilisations, with one more advanced than the other.
The failure to conquer the country struck a blow against the American psyche from which it arguably never recovered. Now, the South Asian nation is again giving Washington a run for its money. While armed protestors take to the street to rail against lockdown laws in cities across the US, amid 300,000 excess deaths, life is carrying on as normal in Vietnam, which has kept cases almost entirely in their single digits since the summer, despite sharing a border with China.
Vietnam’s Covid success isn’t a mere fluke or a counting error. Hanoi has invested huge sums into technological solutions to fight the virus, like artificial intelligence risk assessors, face recognition software and a high-tech contact tracing app that was delivered in record time as far back as April. Britain’s app, by comparison, has been at the centre of a never-ending saga that might, if we’re honest, struggle to be seen as ‘world-beating.’
In Europe and the US, leaders should be looking at Vietnam with the same mix of wonder and envy with which a Vietnamese person might have watched the Apollo 11 mission.
As the UK, France, Spain and other former colonial powers struggled with a second wave of cases, places like Taiwan, Senegal and Saudi Arabia defied predictions that European healthcare systems would cope best with the pandemic. What pundits had missed is that the gap between the West and the rest of the world has been steadily closing over recent decades, and coronavirus was the stress test that proved it.
The West risks being eclipsed in other areas as well. Russia, Israel, Japan and South Korea are leading the field for the highest proportions of young people with university or college education, beating the US, Britain and even the well-heeled Scandinavians who otherwise top most performance tables.
While innovation and technological advance have long been seen as the West’s best bet in a world where less advanced economic avenues pay a lot less, China is fast catching up. In 2019, Beijing shot past its competitors to the top of the patent office, with the most registered inventions and advances. Their academic community is still plagued by plagiarism and duplication, but it would be unwise to dismiss out of hand their new status as a scientific superpower.
Basic indicators of success, like life expectancy, economic growth and poverty rates in Spain, the south of Italy and Greece, where more than one in six people are out of work, are already slipping behind the rest of the world.
Even in Western nations faring well on paper, living standards have begun to drop. For a generation growing up in saturated cities like London, the average rate of pay might still be well out of reach for most people across the globe, but you are likely to have a far lower chance of owning a home or, in many cases, filing away enough cash to start your dream business.
From the Vietnam war to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was once a very concrete and almost universal sense that progress could only happen in one direction; that it would be liberal, democratic and based on a very European idea of how politics and the economy works. The past decade has been a firm refutation of that notion, as evidenced by the capitalist success of ‘communist’ China, and with growing European economies like Poland and Hungary marching down a very illiberal route.
This slow erosion of the established world order has kicked diplomacy and military affairs into touch as well. The US and its NATO allies are playing a smaller and smaller role in the world. The Nagorno-Karabakh war, for example, has played out on the continent’s doorstep, but the bloc has been almost entirely irrelevant, while Russia, Turkey and Iran have rushed in to fill the political vacuum. It would have been unimaginable, even a decade ago, that Washington, Paris or London would have taken its eye off the ball to that extent.
In Britain, our obsession with the Anglosphere has ensured we overlooked the progress being made in countries that many still imagine to be backwards basket cases. Even the BBC and papers of record wrote about the roll out of Pfizer’s COVID jab as ‘the first in the world’, while Russia’s Sputnik V and its Chinese competitors roll-outs went uncovered.
That can’t carry on for much longer. As economic and political power begins to drift away, there will be little choice but to face the fact that the West is no longer the powerbase it once was. It is that shift that will define our politics for decades to come.
There is a reasonably convincing analysis that the levels of support for bombastic populists among less educated white men comes from the fact that they are the group who have lost more standing in society than anyone else. While a high school graduate from a flyover state would have been halfway up the pecking order in 1950s America, they are now languishing close to the bottom.
The cushy union jobs that at one time closed the doors to all but them are gone, and those that are left can hardly support a nuclear family where the breadwinner is king. The loss in status and prestige, particularly for men, has left large numbers of angry, disillusioned people grieving for a world they thought was promised to them.
If the rise of populism has been a disruptive force, that is nothing compared to what might happen if the West wakes up to its own loss of power and position. Much as the Vietnam war sparked an era of American soul searching, the end of Euro-American supremacy will be a painful process.
Our assumptions that our model allows us to live the best lives it is possible to live are already creaking, but when they finally shatter, that collective grief will have to find a political outlet. And it is unlikely to be a positive one.