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The Decline of the West Revisited

Author(s): Robert Skidelsky

The terrorist slaughter in Paris once again brings into sharp relief the storm clouds gathering over the twenty-first century. Given the dangers we see almost daily, it is worth pondering what we may be in for.

From Project Syndicate:

The terrorist slaughter in Paris has once again brought into sharp relief the storm clouds gathering over the twenty-first century, dimming the bright promise for Europe and the West that the fall of communism opened up. Given dangers that seemingly grow by the day, it is worth pondering what we may be in for.

Though prophecy is delusive, an agreed point of departure should be falling expectations. As Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute reports: “The assumption of an automatically better future for the next generation is gone in much of the West.”

Today the word “decline” is taboo. Our politicians shun it in favor of “challenges,” while our economists talk of “secular stagnation.” The language changes, but the belief that Western civilization is living on borrowed time (and money) is the same.

Why should this be? Conventional wisdom regards it simply as a reaction to stagnant living standards. But a more compelling reason, which has seeped into the public’s understanding, is the West’s failure, following the fall of the Soviet Union, to establish a secure international environment for the perpetuation of its values and way of life.

The most urgent example of this failure is the eruption of Islamist terrorism. On its own, terrorism is hardly an existential threat. What is catastrophic is the collapse of state structures in many of the countries from which the terrorists come.

The Islamic world contains 1.6 billion people, or 23% of the world’s population. A hundred years ago it was one of the world’s most peaceful regions; today it is the most violent. This is not the “peripheral” trouble that Francis Fukuyama envisioned in his 1989 manifesto “The End of History.” Through the massive influx of refugees, the disorder in the Middle East strikes at the heart of Europe.

This movement of peoples has little to do with the “clash of civilizations” foreseen by Samuel Huntington. The more mundane truth is that there have never been any stable successors to the defunct Ottoman, British, and French empires that used to keep the peace in the Islamic world. This is largely, though not entirely, the fault of the European colonialists who, in the death throes of their own empires, created artificial states ripening for dissolution.

Their American successors have hardly done better. I recently watched the film “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which relates how the United States came to arm the Mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. At the end of the film, as America’s erstwhile clients turn into the Taliban, Wilson, the American politician who got them the money, is quoted as saying “We won a great victory, but fouled up the end game.”

This “fouling up” is a continuous thread running through American military interventions since the Vietnam War. The US deploys overwhelming firepower, either directly or by arming opposition groups, shatters local governmental structures, and then pulls out, leaving the country in shambles.

It is unlikely that US policymaking reflects the grip of some ideal view of the world, in which getting rid of dictators is the same thing as creating democracies. Rather, the belief in ideal outcomes is a necessary myth to cover an unwillingness to use force persistently and intelligently enough to achieve a desired result.

However much military hardware a superpower owns, decay of the will to use it is the same thing as a decay of effective power. After a time, it ceases to overawe.


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