The Folly of Forgetting the West: What the talk about American and European decline misses
September 19, 2012
The idea of decline is in fashion — so much so that a so-called “geopolitics of emotions” proposes to map the world around each region’s expectations about its own future: helpless and resigned in the West but hopeful and domineering in the East, and resentful and even vengeful in the South. Yet, it should be clear that the emergence of new powers, which is real, need not be construed as the fall of others. Admittedly, a state no longer needs a Western identity to exert global influence and even seek primacy: That alone represents a compelling change. It suggests that for the first time in quite a while the West is no longer decisive and can no longer remain exclusive. But still, entering this new era, the West stays ahead of the rest because the rest cannot afford to be without the West. This essay is, therefore, a case against the case against the West: Somewhere in the shadow of Francis Fukuyama’s much-maligned forecast of the “endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution” there stands a Western world restored.1
FAREWELL TO YESTERYEAR
Entering the second decade of the 20th century one hundred years ago there were 50 countries at most; few of them were dubbed great powers, and those that qualified as world powers were mostly European states. This was a Western world whose dominance had deepened while India and China far in the East, and Turkey at the margin of the West, fell steadily behind. This was a belle époque — a time when, as Simon Schama wrote, Rudyard Kipling’s “fantasy was potent magic” that helped conquer empires in the morning and gather “home for tea” in the afternoon. This also looked like a good time to be alive — until the summer of 1914 when a horrific and unnecessary war that was to last over three decades made it a good time to die. “We were born at the beginning of the First World War,” wrote Albert Camus of his generation. “As adolescents we had the crisis of 1929; at twenty, Hitler. Then came the Ethiopian war, the civil war in Spain and Munich . . . Born and bred in such a world, what did we believe in? Nothing.” This, feared (or hoped) the French humanist, was “humanity’s zero hour.”
That the West stayed on top nonetheless, amidst the ruins of the entire European state system, was owed to a massive investment of American power and leadership that inaugurated a post-European world around a triumphant America with the consent of its new charges. Thus told, and without imperial intent from the United States, the history of the 20th century grows out of the rise of American power but also, and especially, the collapse of everybody else.
Entering the second decade of the 21st century the past looks very distant — like a millennium away. It seems hard to remember, but in the previous epoch, the nation-state ruled and military force prevailed, leaving the weak at the mercy of the strong. This was an epoch of state coercion and national submission, of conquests and empires; this was an epoch, too, when time took its time, and territorial space kept its distance. In the new era, there is little time for a timeout from a world that brings ever more quickly the “over there” of yesteryear over here. Nation-states are fading, and institutions occasionally matter more than their members. Territorial overlaps impose additional measures of state cooperation but they also facilitate a global awakening to the “better” things available elsewhere — and, therefore, more and more pressing bottom-up demands for instant access to them. Now, too, military force is rarely decisive. On the whole, wars are no longer in fashion and other forms of power are favored to shape the world rather than rule it. 2
There are over 200 countries now, and dozens of them can claim moments of relevance during which their influence extends beyond their region and to the world at large. So many states thus featured by history above the others create an unusual condition of zero-polarity: a structure of power in which many states are necessary but none can prove sufficient, and floating transnational loyalties find their voice in multilateral groupings that pretend to be the “brics” of a new world order but lack a decisive steering organization or even shared goals. Across time, this moment — an intermission rather than a transition — is haunted by the ghosts of the previous century’s interwar years, another zero-polar moment whose ugly memories linger.
The specialists and country watchers of the Cold War seem a bit lost and out of place in such a world; they were acrobats who juggled the arithmetic of weapons and other specific attributes of power. Now, their act is less in demand. Replacing them, generalists enjoy an overdue intellectual revenge; they are historical architects who mend the fragmentation of time and space. Staying out of consensual bandwagons fueled by the fashionable trend or issue of the day, they shy away from mass-induced certainties and cautiously acknowledge the unpredictability of the moment. Judges and penitents are one: Final verdicts are postponed pending the discovery of those “grains of gold in the river,” to which Lord Acton referred in 1895, while reflecting on the coming of a new era as well.3 Lord Acton was right to delay judgment: The 20th century had a late start, with a war that the European powers could neither avoid nor settle after it had ended, and with a revolutionary reset of neighboring Russia that its ideological masters could neither complete nor vindicate. These events, as well as the coming of age of America as a world power, proved to be the prelude for the tragedies ahead. Most likely, the same will be said about the 21st century. The years behind were mere foreplay; it is the years ahead that will be decisive. For much better or much worse, standing still is not an option…