The decline of the West, again

Helmut K. Anheier reviews four books on our unsettling times on Project Syndicate.

Heinrich August Winkler (2017). Zerbricht der Westen? München: H.C Beck.

Joschka Fischer (2018). Der Abstieg des Westens: Europa und die neue Weltordnung des 21. Jahrhunderts. Köln: Kiepenheuer & Witsch.

Jonah Goldberg (2018). Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Nationalism, Populism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy. New York: Crown Forum.

Kishore Mahbuhani (2018). Has the West Lost It? A Provocation. London: Allen Lane.

BERLIN – These are challenging and unsettling times for the West. The combination of resurgent nationalism and geopolitical uncertainty feels less like a temporary disruption and more like a fundamental transformation – one that may well spell the end of the era of Western global dominance.

As the sun sets in the West, many argue, it is rising in Asia. Indeed, the question no longer seems to be whether Asia will supplant the West as the world’s dominant region, but rather when that will happen – and how smoothly.

This shift lies at the heart of four recent books. Despite their very different perspectives, each – by Humboldt University historian Heinrich August Winkler, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the conservative-minded commentator Jonah Goldberg, and the Singaporean diplomat-turned-academic Kishore Mahbuhani – shares the fundamental view that the global balance of power is moving inexorably toward Asia.

This is of course hardly the first time observers have predicted the fall of the West. To paraphrase Mark Twain, whose obituary was once published prematurely, reports of the West’s death have often been greatly exaggerated.

In the last century, not a decade has gone by without some proclamation of the West’s demise. There was the fin de siècle melancholy of the late Habsburg Empire, the Great Depression, the wreckage of two world wars, and numerous military debacles in the post-war years. Citing factors like economic weakness, cultural decadence, moral bankruptcy, and a flagging will to lead, book after book – from Ottmar Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes in 1918 to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations in 1993 – proclaimed that the West’s days were numbered.

Today, many point to the series of crises that have plagued Europe, including the ongoing Brexit debacle, as evidence of the West’s decline. US President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, with its unilateral policymaking and condescension toward America’s closest allies, has also – and even more so – fueled anxiety about the future of the West. The peals of laughter that greeted Trump’s vainglorious boasts at the United Nations General Assembly about his administration’s supposed achievements highlighted how far the mighty have fallen.

Still, given commentators’ history of “crying wolf” about the West’s decline, it is only prudent to ask if these four books really do offer new perspectives on the future of the West, or if they are just the latest additions to an ever-growing pile of premature obituaries. What complicates any such assessment is that the “West” and the “East” are imprecise reference points: sometimes merely geographic units, sometimes implying civilization in a broad sense, and sometimes denoting, more narrowly, specific economic or political systems. 

Shaky foundations

While all four authors discuss other regions to some extent – they generally regard a more powerful Russia as problematic, for example, and largely portray the Middle East as a region of conflict – their main point of focus is the tension between the West and Asia, with China as the key rising power. It is this tension that sets the latest crop of predictions of the West’s demise apart from previous versions. In Asia’s economically successful countries, the world now has a clear alternative to the West.

Winkler, the celebrated author of The Age of Catastrophe and the doyen of German historians, is the most meticulous in assembling the evidence on which the current state of affairs can be judged, though he is also the least ambitious in suggesting answers. Set against a broader narrative about the origins of the West and the European Union, his latest book delivers a detailed account of how, over the last four years, the West – and especially the EU – ended up in a situation that threatens its shared foundations: human rights and the rule of law, secularism, representative democracy, separation of powers, and civil society.

What, Winkler asks, has driven the rise of illiberalism in Hungary and Poland; surging neo-nationalism in Sweden, Finland, and Germany; the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom; and Trump’s presidency in the United States? The major culprits he identifies include widening economic inequality and national governments’ loss of control over international financial markets – trends that are rooted in the neoliberal policies of the 1970s and 1980s and the push for globalization after 1989. The digital revolution has also played a major role, including by weakening the established media’s influence over public opinion.

Political opportunists have seized on these developments to weaken the core institutions upholding the post-World War II Western normative consensus. The result is a profound test of electoral democracy, the resilience of the judicial system, and civil society. But Winkler offers no answer to the question of how the West might resist backsliding, beyond emphasizing the core values that comprise its normative foundations. In this sense, the learned historian is perhaps overly cautious. Still, he leaves the reader with a sense that while the West’s future is uncertain, it is not necessarily lost.

A battle for the future

The same cannot be said of Fischer, whose take is both bolder and bleaker. The founder of Germany’s Green Party, Fischer – a former member of parliament, foreign minister, and vice-chancellor (under Gerhard Schröder) – is a long-time political maverick and now a sought-after political consultant.

In The Decline of the West, Fischer focuses on China’s geopolitical rise, America’s nationalism-fueled decline, and the EU’s weakness and uncertainty. He stresses the transitory nature of our times: Pax Americana lasted for nearly 70 years, and the new order is yet to emerge. This period between epochs fosters uncertainty, which breeds insecurity and creates new opportunities, both good and bad.

The EU could seize this moment of economic and geopolitical flux to increase its capacity to act globally, including by building a credible common foreign and security policy and completing the project of European integration. As it stands, however, the three countries that could propel Europe forward are not only divided among themselves, but also face their own internal struggles: the UK is preoccupied with Brexit; France is restrained by domestic inertia; and Germany’s government is beset by infighting and challenges from the left and the right. In particular, neo-nationalists are exploiting the anxieties, emotions, and longings that emerge from epochal change to expand their influence.

The connection Fischer draws between neo-nationalism in domestic politics in Europe and the US, on the one hand, and international politics, on the other, is one of the key strengths of his analysis. The battle between neo-nationalists and the defenders of multilateralism and liberal democracy, Fischer compellingly argues, will determine the fate of the West in the twenty-first century. Given recent political developments – especially the Brexit vote and Trump’s presidency – he is not optimistic.

Unlike Winkler, Fischer offers concrete proposals for defeating the neo-nationalists, especially in Europe. The first step is to refuse to play the neo-nationalists’ game. Instead, proponents of liberal democracy should develop their political narrative or program, which must include a new, more egalitarian social contract that includes major investments in public goods, especially education.

Fischer calls on France and Germany to spearhead the creation of a two-speed EU based on inter-governmentalism. He also urges Europe to draw on its rich stock of diplomatic skill and experience to engage with the US and Asia in ways that advance its own interests.

Self-inflicted wounds?

While Fischer examines Europe mainly in the context of relations with the US and China, Goldberg – a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review – focuses on the US first and foremost. His book is, in a word, perplexing. It presents an argument that could easily be dismissed as half-baked , a mile wide and an inch deep.

Yet Goldberg is a leading political voice in the US, backed by institutions that form the intellectual backbone of the conservative movement. So, sadly, what he thinks matters for the future of America – far more than, say, Winkler’s learned historical analysis matters to the future of Europe.

Goldberg’s chosen title is telling: his book is not about the West’s “demise” or “collapse,” but about its “suicide.” The West is not in decline because external forces – whether Russian oligarchs or the Chinese politburo – are attacking it. It is destroying itself, by choosing “entitlement” over “gratitude.”

In Goldberg’s view, people choose entitlement when they think their membership in a tribe, a nation, a social class, an ethnic group, or any minority gives them a right to resources or some desired good. Tribalism, nationalism, left- and right-wing populism, and identity politics all fuel this dispensation. The EU figures little in Goldberg’s argument, but where it does appear, it is mostly viewed as a problem, precisely because of its emphasis on entitlements, which also, according to Goldberg, defines the life of elite US universities.

For the West to prosper again, Goldberg insists, it must renew its focus on gratitude: regarding the individual as the moral center of society. Armed with reason, facts, the rule of law, and morality, individuals should be judged on their own merits.

Choosing gratitude over entitlement means, in Goldberg’s mind, staying true to the “Miracle” of liberal-democratic capitalism – rooted in the Enlightenment and the advances of the Industrial Revolution – which brought unprecedented economic prosperity and social progress. Goldberg calls on the likes of Karl Marx and Max Weber to help explain why and how the Miracle happened, but his main point is not the Miracle’s origins. He is more interested in how things are going wrong.

Rather than cherish and nurture the Miracle – the “goose that lays the golden egg,” as he repeatedly calls it – people are becoming thankless. A major reason is that families are failing to instill appropriate values in their children, owing to the baleful influence of the standard conservative bugbears: moral relativism, political correctness, and a politicized education system. Moreover, the intellectual elite is propagating anti-capitalist, anti-establishment ideologies. The result, Goldberg claims, is surging popular resentment and the corruption of society’s “core morals.” America, in short, is rotting from within.

What Goldberg is really doing is attempting to craft an intellectual fig leaf to mask the colossal failures of the conservative movement in the US – failures that fueled the rise of Trump. Goldberg dislikes Trump not for what he stands for, but rather because of his outrageous persona. But what Goldberg views as the only prescription that can restore the US to political health – more “virtue” in society – is no substitute for an honest reckoning by conservative intellectuals with the Republican Party’s vulnerability to Trump’s takeover.

Reason for Hope

As the title of his book suggests, Mahbubani, Singapore’s former ambassador to the UN and the long-time dean of the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, seeks to provoke. But his provocation, at just 100 pages, would have benefited from being longer (just as Goldberg’s would have benefited from being shorter). What his book does offer in the way of analysis comes packaged as recommendations.

While Mahbubani’s approach to both China and the West is well-meaning, he views the two very differently. China, it seems, can do no wrong, while the West can no longer get anything right. For example, whereas Western societies are losing trust in their governments, Chinese – and Asians more generally – are discovering the virtue of good governance.

The West, Mahbubani seems to think, is blinkered by its media, which are too consumed by domestic issues to appreciate phenomenal achievements in the rest of the world, including major progress on poverty reduction and the rise of new middle classes. Though few Asian societies are democracies, their economic success speaks for itself. In fact, it is this combination of undemocratic political systems and thriving economies that poses the most serious challenge to the narrative that has long underpinned Western dominance.

Mahbubani’s diagnosis is pretty much standard fare. But regardless of whether one agrees with it, there is real value in the proposals he advances for the West, which can be characterized with four words: minimalist, realistic, multilateral, and Machiavellian.

The West, according to Mahbubani, must come to terms with the fact that it no longer has the capacity to rule – in a maximalist, hegemonic way – over the “rest.” This will require it to be far more self-critical , recognizing that its failed policies in the developing world since 1989 – including, for example, in Iraq, Libya, and Syria – mean that it is now rarely viewed as an effective or benign force abroad. Indeed, the only way to reverse the decline in the West’s geopolitical standing is to re-legitimize international institutions such as the UN. This may be all the more important given the need for Europe and the US to adjust with “strategic cunning” to their diverging interests: the US must focus on China, while Europe must focus on the Arab world and Russia.

The future is unwritten

Has the West Lost It? is ultimately a call for the West to get off its high horse and recognize the reality of its position in today’s world. For Mahbubani, the West is not doomed so much as confused and insecure. Yet it can and should come back – a development that would be good for the world.

Goldberg, too, believes that the West – which, to him, revolves around the US – can reverse its decline, but only if it returns to the type of Christian morality that he believes underpinned the “Miracle” of liberal democratic capitalism. Given surging neo-nationalism and populism across the West, however, Goldberg probably holds out less hope than Mahbubani.

For Fischer, the West is too divided and exhausted by crisis to be able to pursue collective action. Given this, we may be headed toward geopolitical chaos and even armed conflict – a conclusion reflected in increased talk of a “Thucydides Trap,” in which the challenge a rising power (China) poses to an established one (the US) leads to war. Yet steps can be taken to bolster the West, especially greater European integration and NATO reforms that expand Europe’s role in global security.

Winkler, for all his learnedness and astute observations, leaves the fundamental question of the West’s future unanswered. He implies that the coming shift will be bumpy, because the West that may not rise to the coming challenge. Still, it could end up muddling through. Perhaps Trump will overplay his hand, leading the Republican establishment to turn on him. Perhaps the political winds will turn against the Brexiteers and Europe’s illiberal leaders in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and elsewhere.

For all their differences, all four books anticipate a future that is decidedly more bleak than that presented in other recent works of macro-historical analysis. For example, Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus proclaims a coming golden age in which humanity conquers famine, plague, and war. If nothing else, the popularity of Hariri’s book which has undoubtedly sold many more copies than these four combined – serves to remind us that no matter what happens to whatever notion of the West we cherish, its legacy of reason and liberty will live on.

Read the original piece on Project Syndicate.

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