The Decline of the West … again?

In an article in The Guardian, historian and author Professor Timothy Garton Ash (Oxford) vod279_ENrevisits old ground, including in his own book, “Free World,” in  which he argues that “at the start of the twenty-first century, the West has plunged into crisis. Europe tries to define itself in opposition to America, and America increasingly regards Europe as troublesome and irrelevant. What is to become of what we used to call “the free Decline_of_the_West_1922world”?” The threats to the West that Professor Garton Ash sees are, in his words, “the great global challenges we face, from a rising China through a traumatised Middle East all the way to climate change.” In this he plows well tilled ground: nearly 100 years ago Oswald Spengler saw the Euro-America West entering the “winter” of its existence and, more recently, the American military historian Victor Davis Hanson argues that the “birth” of the West was when classical Greece triumphed over alien, Eastern Persia and that the rest of our history has been preserving Western, liberal values against the “others.”

The current catalyst for the angst amongst members of the Western intellectual commentariat is the US election in which, increasingly, Hillary Clinton and Donal Trump appear to be the equally unpalatable choices. Professor Hanson describes Senator Clinton as an “inveterate dissembler,” trapped in a moral “labyrinth of e-mail, Benghazi, Clinton Foundation, and Wall Street speaking-fees deceit;” Bernie Sanders as a “veritable dunce,”who is “clueless about the U.S. banking system, current U.S. financial statutes, and the basics of how the U.S. criminal- and civil-justice systems work;” and Mr Trump as “gratuitously mean-spirited, rude, and even cruel,” whose “knowledge of the issues, at least in traditional terms or compared with that of his Republican rivals, varies from spotty to nonexistent,” and who “often, like Hillary Clinton (e.g., dodging bullets in the Balkans) or Barack Obama (cf. the mythoi of his “memoir”), seems to make up details about his long business career.

I think the West, which used to be the “First World” ~ which now stretches from, say Midway Island through Vancouver to St third_world_mapJohn’s and Reykjavík, and to London (which some would argue is the intellectual “home” of modern, Western, liberal values) through Aachen, Rome and Athens (which others would argue are the “homes” of the West) through Tel Aviv to Singapore, Manila, Tokyo, Sydney and Auckland ~ is anything but finished. The current model of the West may be in decline, as Greece, and then Rome and then the West based on Aachen and then the ones based in Amsterdam, Vienna and London did, all decline, but it is changing, not finished. America seems to have grown tired of playing the leadership role. Who is next? New Delhi? Or, will America or a United Europe or even Britain, shake off the socio-cultural ennui and grasp the reins of leadership, again?

China has been China for nearly 5,000 years of recorded history; the West has been the West for about the same length of time, since the Minoan civilization, and India has been India for almost as long, since the Indus Valley civilization. None are going anywhere, all are in a constant state of flux. Turkey, for example, seems to be leaving the “West,” just as the Philippines is joining. What are constant, it seems to me, are several sets of values, what Samuel Huntington, back in 1993, described in an essay (later a book) called “The Clash of Civilizations.” The strongest of those are, in my opinion, are the West, India and China. (I think the Slavic East, the Arabs/Persians and West Asians and the Africans and others are all too divided and too lacking in common, cultural “roots” to be global leaders.) change-sign000014475635XSmall-249x300The clashes are ongoing: they need not lead to war. (I suspect that a major war, if it comes, will be the fault of either Russian or Middle Eastern despots.) But the clashes will lead to change, of that we may be sure.

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