Western Decline is Not Inevitable

The West’s self-pity is undermining its relevance in the multipolar world of the twenty-first century.

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao of China attend a meeting with business leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, January 19, 2011
Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao of China attend a meeting with business leaders in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, January 19, 2011 (White House/Samantha Appleton)

The West has had a tough time these last few years, flying from one crisis to another as if in a pinball machine and some of the levers seemingly controlled by the Chinese.

Some believe that the ongoing sovereign debt crisis is not only a crisis of globalization but also one of Western identity. Given the alarm with which many in Europe reacted to the possibility of Beijing coming to their financial rescue late last year, they might be on to something.

Yet it is not the rise of countries like China that is dispiriting. Rather it is the self-pity that their rise has engendered in the West. Our public discourse has a melancholic tone, often combined with morbid humor: such as the gag that Chinese leaders only visit the United States to collect the rent. This kind of talk about Western decline is exaggerated and I reckon that we can reverse our relative decline by learning from some of the mistakes of the last decade.

First, we need to take a step back from the West’s day to day crises and look at the bigger picture. Professor Julian Lindley-French, an associate fellow at Chatham House, has done this, and in the passage below he displays typical common sense:

While it is certainly the case that the emergence of China, India and others on the world stage is leading to a new balance of power, neither the West nor Britain are in terminal decline.

However, unless the despond of defeatism that seems to affect and afflict much of Europe is overcome decline could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy… [T]he zero-sum game and with it the idea that if power rises on one part of the planet it must by definition decline elsewhere, is a compelling and neat academic treatise. Unfortunately, it is wrong.

There is no automatic reason why an increase in the power of China, India et al should automatically lead to a loss of Western power. Power and its wielding are subject to many factors.

In the context of American decline vis-à-vis China, an interesting article has pointed out that,

Many studies note that the growth rates of China’s per capita income, value added in high technology industries, and military spending exceed those of the United States and then conclude that China is catching up. This focus on growth rates, however, obscures China’s decline relative to the United States in all of these categories. China’s growth rates are high because its starting point was low. China is rising but it is not catching up.

There are things we can do in the West to overcome the challenges we face in the twenty-first century. For example, there needs to be a fundamental change in the way the United States leads the Western alliance.

American hegemony is a good thing, in my view, but it has also had two harmful effects on Western cohesion. The almost universal power of the American military is a disincentive for the British and Europeans to spend money on defense with their security more or less guaranteed by others. Dan Trombly explained this point in more depth some months ago.

Because of the American hegemony, Washington also excludes NATO governments from its policy making; America decides on a policy — after bitter bureaucratic struggles — and informs its allies of the decision after it has been taken. This process wastes NATO governments’ expertise, leads to miscoordination and prevents British and European coownership of American policies.

President Barack Obama has begun to remedy the first problem with his decision to “lead from behind” in Libya but Afghanistan and the New START negotiations are perfect examples of the second one. A more inclusive policy making process will help the West overcome the challenges ahead.

There also must be clearly defined national interests separate from Western ones.

Western malaise is partly caused by an acute sense of overstretch, which was partly caused in turn by what I have called on these pages the “internationalization of the national interest.”

This is the belief that the world is so globalized and interconnected that every crisis is a threat to our security and it is vital we are involved in sorting out the problem. Try having a coherent foreign policy with this belief as your framework!

If the Western alliance is to be strong and united on the issues that matter to all its members then we also must appreciate there are issues where our interests are not at stake and cooperation must be more flexible. Germany’s position on Libya and, to a lesser extent America’s, is a perfect example of this.

It has been said that self-pity destroys everything except itself. The self-pity of many in the West about our supposed decline is destroying our chances of being relevant in the multipolar world of the twenty-first century.

This article originally appeared at Egremont, the official blog of the Tory Reform Group, January 31, 2012.