How the West was Won
Written for Kosovo Online by Srdjan Garcevic, founder of The Nutshell Times
Peter Hitchens, one of Britain’s top columnists, recently penned a poignant piece about how America lost its sheen in the past half century since he first started visiting and working there. It was a realistic and sobering read, recalling the glory and glitz of late 20th Century America - flights on the Concorde, opulence and order – and how they were far off from the relative drabness of Europe at the time. Similarly, Marc Andreessen, one of Silicon Valley's great innovators and investors, often bemoans the state of his own country, grieving about its sclerotic institutions and incapable elites who are increasingly unable to help the country maintain its competitive and cultural edge.
Hitchens and Andreesen are only two more recent and intriguing Western thinkers trying to explain the reasons for and remedy the West's relative decline, yet they are far from alone. The hit US cultural commentary podcast, Red Scare, often touches on the disillusionment with the American dream, the promise of which made the parents of its two hosts decamp from Russia and Belarus. Even beyond these fashionable "dissidents", the Western mainstream opinion is that the system is grossly unequal and unfair, as demonstrated by the support that movements such as "Black Lives Matter" have from many officials.
Thus, it is difficult for anybody who closely follows and especially partakes in contemporary culture to understand the now ritualised outrage regarding widespread disenchantment with the West in Serbia. The latest, conducted on behest of the Umbrella Organisation for Youth NGO, showed that young Serbs are apathetic towards the EU and slightly more aligned with “the East" (Russia, China and Non-Aligned countries) than the "West" (the USA, UK and EU). For the past few weeks, the usual chorus of “analysts” and “activists” decried the findings as the result of the manipulation of nefarious, almost mystical forces from within or outside Serbia. As an explanation, they offered disinformation, tendentious education or oversized interest in what is going on in Kosovo and Metohija (where Priština authorities constantly oppress Serbs), everything and anything apart from informed consideration of interests and relative benefits.
Unsurprisingly, people whose literal livelihoods depend on having the "right" opinions believe that opinions you unquestionably receive from others are the primary determinant of your life outcomes. Even in that case, some concessions to reality should be made.
What is bafflingly rarely mentioned in this context is the highly unprincipled stance on the issues of sovereignty and general gaucheness of Western diplomats and those promoting "the West" in Serbia. Indeed, one of the more egregious recent examples was a diplomat wishing Serbs a happy World Beer Day on the anniversary of Operation Storm when hundreds of thousands of Serbs were ethnically cleansed from Croatia. This faux-pas came sometime after the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of his country's Parliament slandered the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and Methoija, giving more pretext for Priština authorities to continue their oppression. Let us not even get started on the endless broken promises around the EU accession, as well the example of Northern Macedonia, whose many concessions to the Western requirements did not lead to more leniency towards the country (nor a particularly booming economy).
One reason may be that the West had a significant draw for Serbs even during the 1990s when the two sides were openly in conflict, with Serbia (or rather, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) subjected to bombing and harsh sanctions. Anti-Milošević protesters were waving EU flags, and many of the country’s best and brightest sought to emigrate to the West. What made the West popular before 9/11 was its wealth, growth and confidence, which offered excellent individual prospects even if you disagreed with its politics, especially compared to the very depressing situation back home.
What probably sways the Serbian public opinion more are events like the haphazard retreat from Afghanistan, the series of blows to the Western positions in Africa, and the reduction in the gap in the standards of living between that average Serbian emigres can expect in the West compared what they have back home, or indeed, those they get when they venture to places like the United Arab Emirates and China.
These geopolitical changes are observable even on the streets of Belgrade. In the 1990s, British and French cultural centres were shiny, cosy places where Serbian occidentophiles flocked to read and listen to music in grey and poor Belgrade.
That has not been the case for a while. Today, the new and dazzling building of the Chinese cultural centre, on the spot of the Embassy that NATO bombed in 1999, is the one that draws in the crowds. The British Council downsized from its vast premises in Knez Mihailova long ago. At the same time, the French cultural centre decided to rent out part of its beautiful premises to a non-descript café, ironically around the same time when the French government tried to present itself as a guarantor (along with Germany) of a new proposed solution for the status of Kosovo and Metohija.
“How the West Was Won”, the grand 1962 Hollywood epic about generations of a pioneer family in the Wild West, is the best summary of what made the West appealing: the excitement of the open frontier, the promise of far-away wealth and the optimism of pioneers. Insisting that nothing changed compared to 1962, and even 2002 or 2012, is ultimately how the West can only lose in Serbia.