With the West in terminal decline what is to become of the world order? The question is making the rounds in intellectual circles around the globe.
The other day, a Chinese analyst told the BBC that Europe had become “a museum for tourists from emerging nations”. In New Delhi, speculation about India’s global leadership is hot at dinner tables. In Tehran, official news agencies publish reports about the “imminent end of the American Great Satan” almost every day. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad peppers his talks with an “America is finished” wave of a hand.
In Europe and the United States talk of the “dying West” has bred a whole industry, known as “declinism”.
European and American television channels air talk-shows with declinist stars some of whom advise the West to bow out with good grace while others counsel a quest for a side-chair at the table of the future. Tomes with such titles as “The Post-American World” and “The End of the West” adorn the shelves of bookshops in Western capitals.
When it comes to building a new world order, however, declinists have few original ideas. They talk of a “multipolar system” in which India and Brazil become permanent members of the United Nations’ Security Council.
Before we examine the declinists’ “solutions” let us have a look at the premise of their theory.
A Western invention, the concept of decline has a long history. Thucydides saw its seeds in the Peloponnesian wars while Tacitus thought that the West peaked with Augustus. In the 19th century, Schopenhauer saw a West in decline. However, old declinists offered less comical arguments than their current imitators. (One Indo-American declinist asserts that because there are more mobile ‘phones in India than the United States the latter is in decline and the former in the ascendancy.)
Is the West really in decline?
If we take the West as a way of life, that is to say a version of civilisation based on capitalism, democracy and the rule of law, the term would apply to many countries outside Europe and North America, notably Japan, India and Brazil. In that sense, even Russia and China have embarked on a long trek to Westernisation.
As a way of life, “the West” now has no rivals outside North Korea. The other recluse, Burma, is trying to take the Western path while in Iran we have a Westernised society alongside a Soviet-style regime using a religious jargon.
As a model, therefore, far from being in decline, the West is at an historic peak of popularity.
It is in that sense that despots and dictators of all shades regard “the West” as enemy and pray for its decline and fall.
Even if we limit “the West” to its geographical dimension, the European Union and North America, the declinist theory could be challenged.
The two regions account for 10 per cent of the world’s population but claim almost 60 per cent of the global economy. They have 90 per cent of new patents and more than 80 per cent of scientific and technological innovations. Although cultural production is booming in many parts of the world, and this is certainly good news, the West’s literary and artistic scenes offer no evidence of decline.
Even in these days of economic slowdown, this “West” still maintains a modest rate of growth. To be sure, many countries of this “West” have large debts, at times approaching 100 per cent of gross domestic product. One reason for this, however, may be that people are willing, indeed keen, to lend to this “West” even at historically low interest rates. In contrast, despite usurious interest rates, Iran, for example, is unable to attract foreign investment.
When it comes to demography, the old “West” is not doing badly either. It does not suffer from the exploding birth-rates of “developing nations” but is not caught in demographic dead-end created by one-child policy in China and forced sterilization in India. Unlike Russia, the “West” does not face the threat of demographic meltdown.
Put to other tests, the old “West” would again appear in good shape. It is a space virtually free of prisoners of conscience while, by any yardsticks, it performs better than international averages in areas of social justice and equal opportunities. Although the condition of women in the West is far from perfect, the fact remains that, here, there is no gender apartheid.
What about the “solutions” that declinists offer for a non-existent problem?
Talk of “multipolarism” makes as much sense in politics as in geometry. By definition, you cannot have more than two poles, standing at opposite points.
One could have a world order based on a single centre of power, as was the case in the Congress of Vienna and, later, the Berlin Conference. In both cases, a handful of European powers claimed global domination and tried to divide the world among themselves.
One could also imagine a world in which several medium powers compete and eventually go to war over regional and/or global ambitions. This was the situation between the two world wars when the United States was in an isolationist mood while Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, militarist Japan and Imperialist Britain and France fought to protect or enlarge spheres of influence.
During the Cold War, there was a bipolar world order with the United States and the USSR heading rival blocs.
What we now have is an absence of global leadership, not a decline of the West.
Under President Barack Obama, the United States is trying to take the backseat wherever possible. This is partly prompted by the fact that Obama’s core supporters confuse a leadership role for the United States with Imperialism. Also, many Americans, perhaps a majority, are tired of a decade of war in distant places, in the name of global leadership. Even the strongest team needs the breathing space that half-time provides.
The question is how long the half-time lasts? If it lasts too long we could be heading for world disorder generating wars until a new global balance of power emerges.