Is the decline of the West inevitable?

Is the decline of the West inevitable?

As the world becomes more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just, the West does not decline; it wins. It wins because nations champion and struggle for the rights and values, which have been noted down in historical monumental documents such as the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, or the American Declaration of Independence.

1. Absolute victory

Are we wired for pessimism? Is there an innate longing in the western hemisphere to overcome ‘evil’? There is evidence to answer yes to both these questions. At heart, people living in the “West” view and treat history as a process of evolving “modernity” in which they have achieved a series of absolute victories over “evil” and the forces of “backwardness.” As a result they have understood the notions of modernity, evolution, and progress in mainly economic terms. Hence, economic growth has been assumed to be an absolute “good” by their cultural mindset, which only seems to know the relentless pursuit of ever-higher growth rates. Little room is left for failure, loss, reflection, or the opportunity of going back. Therefore as they are faced with gloomy unemployment or economic growth figures, they are quick to assume the regression and decline of their societies. In the meantime, they enviously observe the flamboyant “growth markets” of the world as they outgrow and outperform those of the West. Whilst their economies, peoples, and institutions are hurting, they are not faced with a decline, but rather with a crossroad, one, which gives them the momentous opportunity to re-evaluate and re-position their countries. By adopting a new mindset and perception of global society, they could not only alter the way in which they reinforce the fundamental pillars of their own societies, but also announce how they will act in a world that is increasingly interconnected. The source for this new mindset could be an unexpected one, namely Chinese statesmanship, as this article will stress.

2. The tragic western man

Oswald Spengler with his apocalyptic saga The Downfall of the Occident by far makes one of the most implicit cases for the decline of western society. The work first published in the summer of 1918 is dominated by the image of the proud but tragic western man, who constantly strives for the unattainable, knowing it will never be reached. Spengler argues that like other “high cultures” (he mentions the Babylonians, Egyptians and Mayans amongst others) the “western” has outlived its phase of rise and will experience its decline. Broken up according to seasons, Spengler argues that after the first “awakening” of a community and the appropriation of pragmatism and rationality, a nation is inevitably set to reach its pinnacle. As this occurs fissures start to appear in the structure. Spengler refers to this moment as

“[…]the definitive form which betokens the end of the living development of the Culture and the exhaustion of the last potentialities of its significant existence[…]”[1]

What follows is materialism and democracy or, as Spengler refers to it in Marxist manner, “the rule of the rich.” Once the culture is exhausted, “Caesarism” kicks in. According to Spengler, the civilization and society loses the esprit, which once made it great and strong. In turn people cease to take part in political life, which leads the most qualified people to remove themselves from the political process enabling the elite political echelon to rule.

In this context, Chinese statesmanship exhibits a complete contrast to the “western” evolutionary progress. Chinese statesmanship tends to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future are all interrelated. The concept has been prominently introduced by Henry Kissinger, former US National Security Advisor who in his most recent publication On China[2] goes on to elucidate on the fine nuances of Chinese statesmanship. According to the senior foreign policy czar the traditional Chinese view of history emphasizes a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world can be understood but not completely mastered. This notion of a cyclical evolution clashes with the classical evolutionary one-way street, epitomized by the “western” model of history. Hence, Chinese statesmanship stresses a more practical approach to politics, being more interested in understanding human affairs as they are rather than how they ought to be. For China’s classical sages, the world could never be conquered; wise rulers could hope only to act in harmony with its trends.

If history tells us one thing, it is that power rarely gives up without a fight; therefore the West must cast aside its case for “moral authority” and utilize its “soft power.” Rather than lecture about history with its big teaching stick, the new West should be a quiet listener, which will point out to its equal counterparts that history and life are not always characterized by constant progress, but rather animated by cyclical interactions between good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, making the past and future all interrelated. Hence, any change must be organic. The people of the developing world will be the architects of their own future. Ultimately the West, the current headmaster, will become a mentor, a patient mentor, who will guide not dictate the organic urges of coming generations.

3. Universal human dignity

Therefore as the world becomes more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just, the West does not decline; it wins. It wins because nations champion and struggle for the rights and values, which have been noted down in historical monumental documents such as the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus, or the American Declaration of Independence. However this longing for human dignity and respect towards others shall not be understood as “western,” but rather as universal. The following generations will via trial and error come to discover their deeply instilled quest for and belief in human dignity, respect, prosperity, and security. This somewhat scientific approach to politics is underscored by the anecdote surrounding Thomas Paine, amongst others an amateur astronomer, who once speculated that every star is a sun like our own, with orbiting planets. Assuming that science is universal, he believed that inhabitants of other worlds would discover the same natural and social laws as ours.

by Robin Tim Weis

Robin Tim Weis is a current graduate student at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. He has worked for amongst others, the U.S department of commerce, UPS and UEFA. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the Free University of Brussels. // Twitter: @RobinTimWeis

[1] Oswald Spengler et al., The Decline of the West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 48.

[2] Henry Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).


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