The Decline of the West Revisited

Since its publication in 1918, “The Decline of the West” by Oswald Spengler, which predicted the end of what he called Faustian Civilization, has been on the minds of thinkers and intellectuals. You can say that the current crisis in the United States and Europe — a consequence of American capitalism’s inherent lack of ethics and Europe’s inability to function — give credence to Spengler’s theory concerning the inadequacy of democracy as well as his rejection of a western civilization driven by greed.

However, determinism in history has always been defeated by human will and, in this case, by the West’s extraordinary capacity to renew itself even after cataclysmic defeats. It is evident that the West can no longer dictate the world order and that its values will be challenged more and more by powers on the rise, but the path of its decline is not linear or irreversible.

There is no doubt that the West’s military dominance and economic advantage have been substantially reduced recently. In 2000, the United States’ GDP was eight times larger than China’s; today, it is only twice as large. To make matters worse, income disparity, a battered middle class, ethical missteps and generalized impunity are fueling disenchantment with democracy and a loss of trust in a system that has betrayed the American dream.

However, this is not the first time that the values of the U.S. have triumphed over the threat of populism in times of economic crisis. In the 1930s, Charles Coughlin’s fascist-like agenda against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “banker’s alliance” took root. Coughlin’s National Union of Social Justice, which had a large following, was defeated by American democracy’s powerful antibodies.

As to Europe, the euro crisis has demonstrated democracy’s inadequacy in handling economic emergencies, as well as the failure of the European Union. In Greece and Italy, failed politicians have been replaced by technocratic governments. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is pushing for the restoration of an authoritarian government. These examples seemed to indicate the return to a time in Europe when democracy’s failures gave way to more “timely” forms of government.

Yet, while Europe’s future is up in the air, the U.S. is showing tenuous economic growth and job creation. Furthermore, even if China became the leading world economy, let’s say by 2018, Americans will continue to be wealthier, with a per capita GDP four times larger than China’s.

Of course, economic inequality and social injustice are concomitant with Western capitalism, but competitors like China and India are in no position to judge. In comparison to Indian capitalism, the ethical failures of capitalism in other countries seem benign. A hundred Indian oligarchs own assets equivalent to 25 percent of the GDP, while 800 million of their countrymen survive on less than a dollar a day. Politicians and judges are easily bought, and natural resources worth billions of dollars are sold to powerful corporations for next to nothing.

A world power needs a large economy to maintain military superiority and dictate world order. Thus, the West’s reversal of power signifies a more intrepid struggle to protect the relevance of fundamental components of its value system, such as democracy and universal rights.

Europe, with its almost post-historical mentality, has long abandoned the idea of being a military power. The same cannot be said about the U.S., whose setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been a consequence of misguided policies, which tried to use force to solve problems that needed a different approach, rather than a decline in military superiority.

Recent large scale cuts in military spending in the United States are not necessarily indicative of a decline; it could mean the beginning of a period of a more intelligent defense based on innovative ideas, strong alliances and the development of its ally’s capabilities. Shifting military priorities to Asia and the Pacific region makes sense for the U.S. because it was excessively focused on the Middle East and it is unnecessary to maintain a military presence in Europe.

The missionary zeal of the U.S. to save the world from faraway perverse autocrats, restrained by its citizens’ fatigue with these foreign adventures, will be greatly reduced, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that China will take over for the United States. Even after the recent cuts, the U.S. defense budget is still five times larger than China’s. Even more telling is that China’s long-term strategy requires that it focuses on the short-term to satisfy its insatiable craving for energy and raw materials.

We are not fooling ourselves; eurocentrism and the West’s hubris have suffered severe blows recently, but — for those in the West who feel defeated by fatalism and self-doubt — a message of hope emanates from the “Arab spring” and Russia’s resumption of an unfinished revolution that ended with communism. Furthermore, the incoherence between capitalism and the lack of civil liberties has not been resolved in China. We cannot dismiss the possibility of a “Chinese spring.”

The West faces serious threats… as always, but the values of liberty and human dignity that drive Western civilization continue to be the goal of the majority of humanity.

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