The Decline of the West Revisited

The terrorist slaughter in Paris has once again brought into sharp relief the storm clouds gathering over the twenty-first century, dimming the bright promise for Europe and the West that the fall of communism opened up. Given dangers that seemingly grow by the day, it is worth pondering what we may be in for.

Though prophecy is delusive, an agreed point of departure should be falling expectations. As Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute reports: “The assumption of an automatically better future for the next generation is gone in much of the West.”

In 1918, Oswald Spengler published The Decline of the West. Today the word “decline” is taboo. Our politicians shun it in favor of “challenges,” while our economists talk of “secular stagnation.” The language changes, but the belief that Western civilization is living on borrowed time (and money) is the same.

Why should this be? Conventional wisdom regards it simply as a reaction to stagnant living standards. But a more compelling reason, which has seeped into the public’s understanding, is the West’s failure, following the fall of the Soviet Union, to establish a secure international environment for the perpetuation of its values and way of life.

The most urgent example of this failure is the eruption of Islamist terrorism. On its own, terrorism is hardly an existential threat. What is catastrophic is the collapse of state structures in many of the countries from which the terrorists come.

The Islamic world contains 1.6 billion people, or 23% of the world’s population. A hundred years ago it was one of the world’s most peaceful regions; today it is the most violent. This is not the “peripheral” trouble that Francis Fukuyama envisioned in his 1989 manifesto “The End of History.” Through the massive influx of refugees, the disorder in the Middle East strikes at the heart of Europe.

This movement of peoples has little to do with the “clash of civilizations” foreseen by Samuel Huntington. The more mundane truth is that there have never been any stable successors to the defunct Ottoman, British, and French empires that used to keep the peace in the Islamic world. This is largely, though not entirely, the fault of the European colonialists who, in the death throes of their own empires, created artificial states ripening for dissolution.

Their American successors have hardly done better. I recently watched the film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which relates how the United States came to arm the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. At the end of the film, as America’s erstwhile clients turn into the Taliban, Wilson, the American politician who got them the money, is quoted as saying “We won a great victory, but fouled up the end game.”

This “fouling up” is a continuous thread running through American military interventions since the Vietnam War. The US deploys overwhelming firepower, either directly or by arming opposition groups, shatters local governmental structures, and then pulls out, leaving the country in shambles.

It is unlikely that US policymaking reflects the grip of some ideal view of the world, in which getting rid of dictators is the same thing as creating democracies. Rather, the belief in ideal outcomes is a necessary myth to cover an unwillingness to use force persistently and intelligently enough to achieve a desired result.

However much military hardware a superpower owns, decay of the will to use it is the same thing as a decay of effective power. After a time, it ceases to overawe.

That’s why Robert Kagan’s 2003 neo-conservative proposition, “Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus,” offered such a misleading guide. True enough, the European Union has gone farther down the pacifist road than the US. It is the weak nerve center of a flabby semi-state, with almost defenseless frontiers, where humanitarian rhetoric masks spinelessness. But America’s sporadic, erratic, and largely ineffective deployment of power is hardly of Martian quality. 1

The decline of the West is juxtaposed with the rise of the East, notably China. (It is hard to tell whether Russia is rising or falling; either way, it is disturbing.) Fitting a rising power into a decaying international system has rarely occurred peacefully. Perhaps superior Western and Chinese statesmanship will avert a major war; but this, in historical terms, would be a bonus.

The increasing fragility of the international political order is diminishing the global economy’s prospects. This is the slowest recovery from a major slump on record. The reasons for this are complex, but part of the explanation must be the weakness of the rebound in international trade. In the past, trade expansion has been the world’s main growth engine. But it now lags behind the recovery of output (which is itself modest), because the kind of global political order hospitable to globalization is disappearing.

One symptom of this has been the failure after 14 years to conclude the Doha Round of trade negotiations. Trade and monetary agreements are still reached, but they increasingly take the form of regional and bilateral deals, rather than multilateral arrangements, thereby serving broader geopolitical goals. The US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, is directed against China; and China’s New Silk Road initiative is a reaction to its exclusion from the 12-country TPP.

Perhaps these regional bargains will prove to be a step toward wider free trade. But I doubt it. A world divided into political blocs will become a world of trade blocs, sustained by protectionism and currency manipulation.

And yet, even as trade relations become increasingly politicized, our leaders continue to urge us to gear up to meet the “challenges of globalization,” and few question the benefits of cost-cutting through automation. In both cases, politicians are trying to force adaptation on reluctant populations who crave security. This strategy is not only desperate; it is also delusive, for it seems obvious that, if the planet is to remain habitable, competition in economic growth must give way to competition in quality of life.

In short, we are far from having developed a reliable set of precepts and policies to guide us toward a safer future. Small wonder, then, that Western populations look ahead with foreboding.