The Decline of the West?

Some countries fall from greatness. For them, decline is absolute. Others face increasing competition from rising powers. Their decline is relative. However there is a third kind of decline that has more to do with degeneration than with failure, and less to do with competition than diminishing potential. This is a kind of morbid decline. It echoes the ‘decadence’ of the late 19th Century but without the implied culture of excess. The countries of the West might be accused of falling prey to this morbidity, so Benjamin Rowland and his contributors argue. Hence it is worth asking why that should be happening and what is to be done about it.

The analysis differs depending upon the country. Some cases of decline are simply a matter of bad luck. This is the case Dana Allin makes in reference to the United States. The American people elected Barack Obama as an inspirational and visionary president, comparable in many ways to John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The challenges Obama faced were unprecedented. And while he has managed to avoid catastrophe while at the same passing major legislation, Obama’s legacy will be tarnished by developments outside his control. The polarization of American politics and society is foremost among them.

Other countries made bad choices or set the wrong priorities. Russia falls into the bad choices category. As Hannes Adomeit argues, the decision to base government finances on energy prices without investing either in improved extractive capacity or in industrial diversification was a mistake that will have lasting consequences. For the European Union, the situation is different. Gabriel Goodliffe suggests that the recent crisis was not the result of a bad decision so much as a consequence of elevating fiscal austerity and free market liberalism above other values related to solidarity and legitimacy.

Bad institutions also play a role. This is the claim made by Mark Gilbert in the Italian context and by Benoit d’Aboville with respect to France. In both cases, the economy is moribund and society is blocked. Decisive reform is required. The challenge is to generate sufficient energy and momentum.

On a more positive note, decline is neither inevitable nor inescapable. Stephen Szabo shows how Germany moved from being the ‘sick man of Europe’ to its leading power in less than a generation; Lanxin Xiang argues that the rise of China is best understood as a return to past glory. Even Europe may recover, as Thomas Row suggests while reflecting on the Habsburgs as a ‘cosmopolitan empire’.

This collection offers a host of provocative arguments, admirably framed with an introduction by David P. Calleo. The editor, Benjamin Rowland, sadly passed away soon after the volume was published. He will be sorely missed.

Is the West in Decline? Historical, Military, and Economic Perspectives. Edited by Benjamin M. Rowland. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books, 2016. Xx + 214 pp.

NB: These essays were presented with Professor David P. Calleo as part of the SAIS European Studies Distinguished lecture series.  A video of the presentation is available here.

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