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The West's Twentieth Century Recedes into History

Maxim Trudolyubov

Western Europe’s post-World War II history is fixed in the mass consciousness as a success story. The unconditional triumph of the anti-Hitler coalition, the Marshall Plan, and Western political elites’ efforts to prevent new wars between former enemies created the conditions for rapid postwar reconstruction and prosperity. 

Liberal democracies opposed communist dictatorships—and won. The project of correcting the sins of totalitarianism and the interest in the main villains of the last century—Stalin and Hitler—fixed attention on the crimes of totalitarian regimes. But the dominance of this story of evil defeated is wearing off. 

Other views of history are taking over the public imagination. European countries’ former colonies in Africa and Asia had a twentieth century of their own. They had triumphs of their own and villains and heroes of their own. Some of the countries that collapsed as a result of the Western victory in 1989–1991, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in particular, also had villains and heroes of their own.

In the West, the postwar decades were a time of economic miracles, the triumph of centrism in politics, and the unification of former enemies into a strong trade and political alliance, the European Union. For many in Africa and Asia, the postwar decades were, in contrast, a time of wars for independence and of political and civic strife.

Many of those who try to imagine a postwar world today keep coming back to the West’s idea of the twentieth century as a master narrative of things to come. Many are hoping for a new “1945.” But in today’s world, even the approximate contours of the future postwar world are not yet visible. 

The situation in postwar Europe was perhaps one of the “cleanest” in history. Germany’s defeat was crushing, the winning coalition was broad. After all, it included the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. An agreement on the gravity of Nazi crimes was global and universal. Today’s alignment of forces is very different. The coalition supporting Ukraine is sizable but barely extends beyond the West. The view of Putin as the source of all evil is far from universally held. 

A Gap between the West and the Rest

 Moscow’s reputation in the West has been on a downward trajectory ever since the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, which marked the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the West, moral indignation rules. Leaders of the West do not hesitate to speak about Putin using terms like “a terrifying person” driven by “evil forces.” 

Thinkers and politicians from the Middle EastIndia, or China, on the other hand, refuse to take a stance of utter condemnation toward Moscow. 

 “My Chinese interlocutor sees the situation in Ukraine not as a war of aggression between sovereign countries, but rather as a revision of post-colonial borders following the end of Western hegemony,” writes Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “This is not the time to brand Vladimir Putin an ‘evil madman,’” an academic from Qatar writes.

The misalignment—with respect to both Ukraine and the Middle East—between the major nations of the West and the populous and powerful nations of the non-Western world is profound. 

While many sympathize with Ukrainians and their suffering, aggregated international polls point to slight majorities in the global south believing that the war is “none of their business” and preferring a quick end to it, even if Ukraine has to concede territory.

 This and other international surveys have shown a wide gap between the West and the rest when it comes to the desired outcomes of the war, and differing understandings of why the United States and Europe support Ukraine, Timothy Garton Ash, Ivan Krastev, and Mark Leonard wrote in a major study published earlier this year.

 Russia and China are “Winning” in the Middle East

Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel and the ensuing war in the Middle East has only deepened that divide. In the Middle East, and particularly in the Arab world, attitudes toward the United States have not been all-out positive for a long time. But now the United States has lost even more ground in the region—to China and Russia. 

Data from a recent public opinion poll conducted by the independent research group IIACSS have shown that trust in America and America’s influence among Arabs in the region have reached their lowest point historically, while support for the United States’ competitors and strategic opponents—China, Russia, and Iran—has increased.

Of those polled in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Palestine during late October 2023, only 2 percent to 7 percent believed that America was playing a positive role in the current war. By contrast, China’s role in the conflict was seen as positive by 46 percent of those polled in Egypt, 34 percent in Iraq, and 27 percent in Jordan. 

Positive views of Russia were even higher: the percentage of those who believed that Russia had a positive influence neared half, averaging 47 percent among the publics surveyed (except in Palestine). IIACSS conducted the poll with its partners in the region, thereby polling nationally representative samples.  

It is not just that anti-American sentiment is prevalent there. It is a change of focus, from the West’s singular view of history to a much greater diversity of viewpoints. At the heart of the Western master narrative of the twentieth century was victory over evil and the creation of a home for the Jewish people, Israel. That narrative culminated in the West watching the communist regimes in Europe crumbling at its feet.

But other “twentieth centuries” are now looming over the world. Western intellectuals’ and political leaders’ grip on the historical narrative has held too long, outlasting the West’s political triumph over communism. “A fixation on the crimes of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler managed to obscure the long centuries of global violence and dispossession that made Britain and the United States uniquely powerful and wealthy,” says the Indian commentator and writer Pankaj Mishra. 

Without a change in point of view to make the narrative less West-centric, many in the West won’t be able to appreciate those other views of history. This growing multipolarity of worldviews may even be the reason for the numerous clashes of opinions about the war in the Middle East. We are likely to face a mixed bag of forces fighting each other rather than one large coalition fighting for one big victory over one evil dictator. 

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more