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The Decline of the West Revisited

MADRID – Since the publication in 1918 of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, prophecies about the inexorable doom of what he called the “Faustian Civilization” have been a recurrent topic for thinkers and public intellectuals. The current crises in the United States and Europe – the result primarily of US capitalism’s inherent ethical failures, and to Europe’s dysfunction – might be seen as lending credibility to Spengler’s view of democracy’s inadequacy, and to his dismissal of Western civilization as essentially being driven by a corrupting lust for money.

But determinism in history has always been defeated by the unpredictable forces of human will, and, in this case, by the West’s extraordinary capacity for renewal, even after cataclysmic defeats. True, the West is no longer alone in dictating the global agenda, and its values are bound to be increasingly challenged by emerging powers, but its decline is not a linear, irreversible process.

There can be no doubt that the West’s military mastery and economic edge have been severely diminished recently. In 2000, America’s GDP was eight times larger than China’s; today it is only twice as large. Worse, appalling income inequalities, a squeezed middle class, and evidence of widespread ethical lapses and impunity are fueling a dangerous disenchantment with democracy and a growing loss of trust in a system that has betrayed the American dream of constant progress and improvement.

This would not be, however, the first time that America’s values prevailed over the threat of populism in times of economic crisis. A variation of the fascist agenda once appeared in America, with Father Charles Coughlin’s populist onslaught in the 1930’s on Franklin Roosevelt´s “alliance with the bankers.” Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, whose membership ran into the millions, was eventually defeated by the American system’s powerful democratic antibodies.

As for Europe, the eurozone crisis has exposed democracy’s weaknesses in dealing with major economic emergencies, as well as the flaws in the European Union’s design. In Greece and Italy, technocratic governments have taken over from failing politicians. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pressed for an authoritarian “re-establishment of the state.” Such cases seem to point to the return of a European past in which democracy’s failures gave way to more “expedient” forms of government.

And yet, while Europe remains a question mark, economic growth and job creation, however fragile, are back in America. Moreover, even if China becomes the world’s largest economy in, say, 2018, Americans would still be far richer than Chinese, with per capita GDP in America four times higher than in China.

To be sure, income inequality and social injustice are a concomitant of capitalist culture throughout the West. But challengers like China and India are in no position to preach. Compared to Indian capitalism, capitalism’s ethical failures elsewhere look especially benign. A hundred oligarchs in India hold assets equivalent to 25% of GDP, while 800 million of their compatriots survive on less than a dollar a day. Politicians and judges are bought, and natural resources worth trillions of dollars are sold to powerful corporations for a pittance.

Having the largest economy is vital for a power aspiring to maintain military superiority and the ability to define the international order. Hence, the receding power of the West means a tougher fight to uphold the relevance of key components of its value system, such as democracy and universal rights.

Europe, with its almost post-historical mentality, has long abandoned the pretension of being a military power. The same cannot be said of the US. But, rather than reflecting a decline in its military superiority, America’s setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan are the result of wrongheaded policies that sought to use hard power to solve conflicts that were simply not amenable to it.

The recent massive cuts to the US military budget need not signal decline; they can launch an age of smarter defense, one that relies on innovative ideas, strong alliances, and building partners’ capacity. The shift of US military priorities to the Asia-Pacific region is an understandable strategic rebalancing, given America’s excessive focus on the Middle East and its maintenance of an unnecessary military presence in Europe.

Tempered by the US public’s fatigue with overseas adventures, America’s missionary zeal to save the world from the wickedness of faraway autocrats will be reduced substantially. But this does not necessarily mean that China will automatically take over ground from which America withdraws. Despite the recent cuts, America’s defense budget is still five times higher than China’s. More importantly, China’s long-term strategy requires that it focus in the short term on satisfying its vast appetite for energy and raw materials.

Make no mistake: Euro-centrism and Western hubris have been dealt severe blows in recent years. But, for those in the West overtaken by fatalism and self-doubt, a message of hope is now emanating from the Arab Spring, and from the resumption in Russia of the unfinished revolution that ended communism. Nor has the inconsistency between China’s capitalism and its lack of civil liberties been resolved yet. A Chinese Spring cannot be ruled out.

The West faces serious challenges – as it always has. But the values of human freedom and dignity that drive Western civilization remain the dream of the vast majority of humanity.