I started re-watching The West Wing this week. It has been quite a few years since I last opened up the first season of the seven box sets I collected in the mid-00s when my obsession with American politics was at its peak.
Watching it now is an odd experience. Of course Aaron Sorkin’s bold writing and the performances from an incredible cast make it eminently watchable and enjoyable (it is still, by far, the best TV show ever made), but watching it in 2019 is like you’ve been transported to a similar, relatable world with which you are familiar, yet somehow different.
Of course, given that began airing in the last months of 1999, the last months of the last century, some twenty years ago, you would expect it to have aged.
But it’s not so much the pre-HD imagery, the slightly stretched pictures, or the fact that in one scene Toby exclaims frustration when someone asks if the constitution is still in print and sends someone to find a copy instead of googling it. Or not even that the news agenda is set by the media and newspapers instead of Twitter.
No, the biggest change of all is in how the characters perceive their country and the west. It’s sheer confidence. The sheer, unquestioning belief that they are right. The incontrovertible belief that America is the true and unchallenged leader of the free world. That free trade, capitalism, and democracy have overcome their adversaries and could never be challenged.
In one scene, at the end of Crackpots and these Women (Leo’s big block of cheese day), President Bartlett gathers his closest advisors around him, and in summing up the day and the experiences of his staff, he ends with this paean to the greatness of human endeavour:
“… It was not a spaceship from another planet, just another time. A long since abandoned Soviet satellite, one of its booster rockets didn’t fire and it couldn’t escape the earth’s orbit- a sad reminder of a time when two powerful nations challenged each other and then boldly raced into outer space.
What will be the next thing that challenges us…That makes us work harder and go farther? You know, when smallpox was eradicated, it was considered the single greatest humanitarian achievement of this century. Surely, we can do it again. As we did in the time when our eyes looked towards the heavens, and with outstretched fingers, we touched the face of God.”
Such boldness, such audacity, such confidence that the time when two nations challenged each other was “another time”. That whatever the challenges of the future, they would be met and overcome.
1999, the year that season one aired and these words were broadcast, albeit from a fictitious white house, was, in hindsight, a year of heady optimism.
It was the eve of a new century, with the hope and belief that the wars, depression, and division of the 20th would be left behind. It was only nine years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany.
And it was only seven years since the publication of Fukuyama’s 1992 The End of History and the last man, in which he argued that mankind was reaching “the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but [also] the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
It was barely six years since President Clinton declared in his inaugural address: “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
It was three years since Tony Blair and New Labour had swept to power in Britain, while “Cool Britannia” ruled the airwaves, fashion scene, and art world.
1999 was the year that the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly opened. It was the year in which the Good Friday agreement was signed.
It was the year that the EU adopted the euro as its single currency and decided to open accession talks with Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Malta, and when both the EU and NATO spoke of working closely with Russia as an ally.
It was also the year that NATO successfully intervened to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, taking on the Serbian state forces of Slobodan Milošević.
It was the year that Tony Blair intoned, in his Chicago address: “We live in a world where isolationism has ceased to have a reason to exist. By necessity, we have to cooperate across nations … We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot refuse to participate in global markets if we want to prosper. We cannot ignore new political ideas in other countries if we want to innovate. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”
He then advocated that we should “establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society [as it] is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer.”
Those values were the values of the west: democracy and capitalism. The west was supreme, unchallenged, and unchallengeable.
Of course, within two years, the terrorist attacks of September 11th had changed everything. Doubt, a nagging suspicion that maybe all wasn’t well with the world. A world which wasn’t, as it seemed from Washington, London, and Paris, at peace.
By the mid-2010s, there was over a decade of war in the Middle East, wars in which the west, with all its arms and technology, fared terribly, simply by not having the stamina or democratic mandate to see them through.
There was a financial crisis that rocked the very economic foundations of our greatest democracies, leading to multiple crises of confidence in our leaders, both spiritual and temporal.
It is easy to see why the confidence we had in ourselves has disappeared and is now near non-existent.
But in a world of trade wars, a bellicose Russia, refugee crises, wars in the Middle East, even when the humanitarian case for intervention is clear, the west still obfuscates and does the least possible. In a world where over 50 per cent of young people in the USA don’t believe capitalism is “good”, national governments have lost their self-confidence.
Instead of seeking to expand, the EU is riven with division and scepticism with the UK seeking to leave. The SNP can now gain 45 per cent support to break up the United Kingdom. The very fundamentals of the international rules-based order are under threat.
I think it’s time for a change. I think it is time for a return of optimism. I think it’s time to believe in ourselves, our country, our way of life – to believe in the west once again.
Not so much for a return to the halcyon days of the misplaced and misguided optimism of 1999, for we know now that the rest of the world wasn’t as happy and contented as we were as the sun was setting on the “American Century”. And neither can we pretend that we can simply spread our values and beliefs across the globe and expect other peoples to be grateful.
But never has the world been more in need of hope than it is now, and that is ultimately what the west offers. The belief that no challenge is too great for human endeavour and ingenuity to overcome it.
And it is up to us to sell that positive, bold vision. It is up to us in to explain why free markets and free trade are essential to ending world poverty, not the creators of it,
It’s our job to talk about why internationalism and working together to overcome the world’s greatest challenges trumps isolationism, and about why there is so much more we can achieve together than ever we can achieve apart. It’s our responsibility to stand up and argue that we shouldn’t be afraid of defending those suffering evil and persecution.
We should unashamedly say that the west will be there to ensure your rights as human beings on this earth are protected from despots and dictators. To say, as Ronald Reagan said, that we will keep that shining city which, if it has to have walls, then the walls will have doors and the doors will be open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.
We know that we didn’t get everything right. But if we in the west cannot bring ourselves to champion freedom and democracy, with the optimism and confidence that tomorrow will be better than today, there is no hope for the future.
And hope is what we live for.