Is the Decline of the West Inevitable?

Author : Bogdan Cristea | Wednesday, March 7, 2012
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Abstract:

This essay was written as part of an examination for an MA course in International Relations and Organizations. The assignment came with two supporting articles, that of Andrew Moravcsik, (Europe: Rising Superpower in a Bipolar World) and that of Cynthia Roberts, (Polity Forum: Challengers or Stakeholders? BRICs and the Liberal World Order) which were to be used as aid in the research.

The purpose of this paper is to offer a comprehensive analysis to the examination assignment posed by first clarifying the concepts of what “the West” might be in the general acceptation of the term and applying the filters of various schools of thought which exist as part of the International Relations Theory, since a theoretical characterization was a requirement.

Whereas accurate predictions in the field of International Relations and general evolution of the situation of the world and world politics in general are difficult to make, this work will aim at using the somewhat limited information available to the general public and draw a more general conclusion by analyzing the most common concerns and recent transformations related to the question at hand.


Introduction and clarification of concepts.

General ideas and purpose of the essay

This essay will attempt to offer a comprehensive analysis to the question posed, “Is the decline of the west inevitable?”. In order for such a question to be answered, it is first necessary to pose a sub-question first, that of what “the West” is in the first place.

Using the case of any former communist state, it can easily be observed that the definition of the West has changed over time; the case of Romania is particularly confusing since the country can be seen, depending on the perspective applied, as belonging either to the East or to the West or even as a liaison between the two. The reality of this situation is that former communist countries were formerly considered as part of the East, hence the umbrella term “Eastern Block” used to describe them previously, while subsequent accession to what were considered “Western” organizations, (e.g., NATO, the European Union) has made it appear that these states now belong to the West.

If this inquiry is to be made, then of course a natural, corollary question develops from that: “who belongs to the West?”. Therefore, in order to carry a thorough discussion on the original question of this essay, I find it imperative that the issue of “what the West is” be examined.


The “West”: a look at the meaning of the term

What exactly is “the West”? The concept is quite elusive, since, over the course of history, the general idea of what was considered to be western has changed, and with it the criteria of inclusion into the category. Before the collapse of communism, the rift and distinction between the East and West was quite clear: the line of demarcation followed the shape of the Iron Curtain, with the two blocs separated. However that was simply a mere snapshot of history, and going either forward or backwards in time draws a different picture all together. For instance, going back to the 19th century, it is possible to see that Tsarist Russia was considered to be a “western power”, with an important role in the Concert of Europe, in a time when it was the European powers that exercised undisputed collective hegemony over the affairs of the world[1]. If we are to consider Europe as being “the West” at that point in history, we could even take into account the now defunct Ottoman Empire, who at that moment in time was still involved into the European affairs and controlled a significant portion of territory in the south-east of the continent; it’s current successor-state however, Turkey, is not considered to be a part of the West.

Moving further through history, it is possible to see that, at the end of the First World War, Soviet Russia (later the USSR) was excluded from the generally accepted idea of what the West was, which later paved the way for the clear split between the Eastern and Western blocs during the Cold War, once Soviet dominance was enforced over half of Europe and the United States established a firm presence within European affairs. The West was (and to some extent still is) thus perceived as being capitalist and democratic while the East was made up of states with a totalitarian communist system[2].

In fact, this description of the West being capitalist and democratic, still influences today’s perception, and once the communist regimes in Europe had collapsed, the states in question began a transition towards meeting those two criteria. With the accession of most of those states to the “Western” Organizations, like NATO and European Union, it is possible to view the border of the Union as being the border between East and West today. Thus, the West, in today’s perception, can be described as a North-Atlantic affair, a relatively loose bloc consisting of the United States and Canada on one side of the Atlantic, and the European Union on the other. Also, the West can be seen as a socio-political and cultural model, capitalist and embracing democratic values (e.g., free elections, human rights, rule of law), although with certain differences between the Western actors as to the degree of capitalism (some retain more influence of the state in the economy) and some standing issues with imperfect democracies (particularly valid for the new EU member states).

It is important to note that, even though there is the idea of the West being characterized in terms of capitalism and democracy, simple geography and older perceptions still play a role in its definition, since it is possible to find countries outside the North-Atlantic space who are capitalist and democratic, but are traditionally considered to be in the far East (e.g. Japan), South (e.g. Australia) or other geographical location. Thus, the concept implies a matter of geographical perception as well, which comes from simple conventions laid down in the previous centuries.


Hegemony of the West or of Western states?

Another important issue which requires addressing is the nuances of the expressions. In order for the West to decline, we must of course pre-suppose that it enjoys a period of hegemony at the current time, and the future is that of a potential loss (decline) of that hegemonic status. But it is important to pose a question here: “are we speaking of hegemony of the West or of some Western states?”. At first sight there might not seem like there is a big difference between the two concepts, but on closer scrutiny it becomes clear that considering “the West” as a whole implies the existence of a single, relatively unified bloc, which conducts a unitary foreign policy.

However, this is clearly not the case, as shown by historical events, when various Western states had different, sometimes divergent, opinions and policies. The “Ostpolitik” of the Federal Republic of Germany from the early 1970’s, during one of the historical periods when the West was at its most united, is certainly a good example, as a country from the Western bloc tried a policy of “openness” while the two leading superpowers were in the middle of an arms-race.

A more recent example involves the split which occurred within NATO, when the American intervention in Iraq was hindered by the policies conducted by France and Germany, which opposed a military action, leading to a general feeling that the North Atlantic alliance itself might be in danger.

These examples serve to prove that, as far as foreign policies are concerned, the West cannot be seen as being a unitary entity and that even within what is considered to be a Western alliance, NATO, rifts and diverging opinions can occur. If we are to further look for hegemony of the West, rather than specific Western countries, we need to look elsewhere rather than foreign policy or power projection, namely finances and overall ideology.

Indeed, if we are to look at these components, it is possible to observe the current domination of the West in world finances and economics, even in the midst of the current financial crisis, as the financial and economic integration of the West is very high due to a long period of liberal, free-market practice. Likewise, the overall ideology of democracy and rule-of-law can also be identified as a common denominator of the Western world, being unquestionable fundamental values. Based on the matters stated above, it can be concluded that it is generally safe to speak of the West as a whole when it comes to the socio-political and cultural environment and also financial markets and economy. However, when looking at it from the classical realist perspectives involving military, power projection, strategic and security approaches and foreign policies it is clear that we should rather speak of dominance by certain states from the West rather than the whole entity, particularly in the light of the new approach NATO has taken by employing “coalitions of the willing” rather than the whole alliance acting in a unitary fashion.

Also, it is important for this matter to discuss the meaning of hegemony and analyze if the West is truly dominant at the present time. Hegemony has, at one point, been defined as some sort of gray area between completely independent entities and one single global government, a gray area which allows for one actor to heavily influence the external policies of other actors present in the system, but with a limited influence on the others’ domestic order[3]. However, it is visible in today’s world that the West seeks to spread its values and system, as can be seen by the forceful interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya by either NATO or so-called “coalitions of the willing” (made up of countries considered to be Western) through which the West it trying to change the domestic order and system of the states in question.[4] From this point of view, it can be concluded that hegemony of the West exists, since the forces present in the aforementioned intervention come mostly from Western countries who work together. If hegemony is to be defined not only in terms of the ability to exert significant influence on the foreign policy of other actors but also in terms of the capability of intervening in their internal affairs, a challenge to the whole idea of Western dominance might appear. One might argue that the West has neither the will nor the strength to intervene in the domestic affairs of other Great Powers, (e.g., China or Russia) nor in their immediate sphere of influence. This, however, is not entirely true; if what Andrew Moravcsik states in his article is correct, then the West in general, and the European Union in particular, are preeminent when it comes to mobilizing civilian instruments and soft power in order to influence international relations[5]. If such instruments can be mobilized by the West on the international arena, it makes sense that it is possible to mobilize them in order to interfere in the domestic settings of other Great Powers. Such an example could be seen during the recent unrest in Tibet, with some voices claiming independence from China and the establishment of a sovereign Tibetan state under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. After these events, the Dalai Lama was swiftly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a highly politicized trophy, the awarding of which is controlled by the West, signaling a somewhat muffled Western support for the cause of Tibetan independence, with no real political commitment from Western governments but real support from non-governmental factors.

Considering the questions raised above, it can be concluded that the West does indeed enjoy at the moment a period of global hegemony when it comes to the appeal its socio-cultural, political and economic models have and the employment of non-governmental instruments in order to exert influence. Also, certain Western states are hegemons even from the classical realist perspective, since at this moment the only states that are capable of intercontinental military power projection come from the West[6].


Theoretical framework and its possible application to the question at hand


Realist perspective and its possible answer to this inquiry

A realist theoretical perspective is likely to focus on more palpable aspects of international relations and behavior of international actors. It views the proceedings of the international arena as a zero-sum game[7], from which there can only be winners and losers. Hence, if such a view would be applied to the question this essay poses, the potential rise of other Great Powers or even new Super Powers who do not belong to the West (e.g., Brazil, Russia, India, China) can only mean that the power and influence of the West itself would decline. The classical realist point of view in fact focuses almost exclusively on the behavior of the Great Powers, the conflict between them and their struggle for power.[8] If such an assumption is true, then the only way the West could stop its decline is by somehow halting the progress and rise of the other non-western powers by various methods, including outright economic war (classical war would be out of the question in today’s settings because of nuclear deterrence). However, since the world economy has become more and more integrated, such potential action by the West might in fact lead to another sort of “mutually assured destruction”, unlike the one which would result from a nuclear war, but an economic one, with markets and currencies collapsing[9] and which would ultimately result in a lose-lose situation, rather than a win-lose. Promoting such an approach would in fact be contrary to the very origin of realism in the first place; with its roots embed in the practices of the 19th century, Realpolitik, which involved actually taking a close look at the existing real-world situation and making a pragmatic foreign policy decision which would be beneficial to the state involved.

The issue of polarity, another important concept employed by the realist approach[10], should also be mentioned. If we look at the current world as being unipolar, with the United States as a dominant power and this dominant power clearly belonging to the West, then it is clear that the transition from the unipolar order to a multipolar one [11]signifies a clear decline of the West, and since such a transition is predicted and appears unavoidable, the Western decline seems, from the realist perspective, as inevitable.


A Liberal theoretical approach, possibly better suited?

Applying a liberal theoretical framework to this issue could lead to a radically different answer. The liberal approach, unlike the realist, views the “game” of international relations as being one of positive-sum[12]. With its main assumptions being that states behave rationally[13] and that international institutions can successfully intervene to preserve a peaceful climate. If such presumptions are correct, then not only is the decline of the West avoidable but it can even be put into question if such a decline exists at all, in spite of the general perception which is mostly emotionally influence by the current period of relative economic instability which the West is going through. It can thus be argued, from an economist’s perspective, that such periods of economic contractions are inevitable in free market capitalist systems and once the recovery begins, a new rise of the economical power of the West will be observed. In fact, the current level of global economic integration and interdependency is another key feature of the liberal theoretical approach[14]; based on that view, a liberal perspective will state that any sort of conflict, even an economical one (which the realist theory might assume is the only way to prevent the downfall of the West) is highly unlikely and that the rise of other non-western powers, such as China, Russia or India, does not in any way mean that the power of the West or of Western states will decline. It is even possible to consider that the Western values are spreading even within these rising states, with China for instance seeing a relative liberalization in recent years as compared to its previous situation; if a transition to democracy in the long run (albeit an imperfect one) is the next logical step deriving from this relative liberalization, then the liberal theoretical framework will continue to point out to the idea and possibility of democratic peace[15] in a possibly reformed international system with no conflicts and mutually beneficial cooperation. In short, a liberal theoretical perspective might hold forward that not only is the west not declining, but that it’s values will continue to be propagated through the internal systems of the rising powers, which would in fact mean a complete victory for the Western way of thinking.


The need for a different approach in explaining the existing situation and predicting a possible outcome

As previously show, the two dominant schools of thought as far as International Relations are concerned can offer completely different answers. But if the two pivotal theories offer such different perspectives and predictions, one cannot help but wonder which one would be accurate; after all, not both of them can be correct about the same situation. Providing an answer to this question is complex and inaccurate at best, and only time and history will offer an answer and will select who was right or wrong. However, in order to make a prediction which is more accurate, a better educate guess, a new and different approach is necessary. As has been stated, no single theory can in fact explain the behavior of the international system and of its actors; there are no fully liberal or fully realist states, nor do their foreign policies specifically follow a certain set of theoretical rules.

A different, more factual approach needs to be performed in order to make a prediction regarding the fate of the West in the future. Such an analysis needs to account for several factors, such as the general cultural links and values the West shares, history as per previous experiences that shape today’s policies and actions of the states in question and their position inside the big system that is the international arena.


An analysis of the current world situation and a prediction based on available facts


An overview of the West: current situation and challenges

At the present time, it is safe to say that the West is challenged with a multitude of problems, all of which threaten to undermine its dominant role in the world affairs. The global financial and economic crisis that swept throughout the world and is still persisting in some countries has dealt a major blow to the influence and power held by the Western states; countries whose economies were deemed safe enough to adhere to the euro zone have endured a nearly catastrophic collapse of their economic systems (e.g., Greece) with others being in danger of following suit (e.g., Portugal, Ireland). This goes a long way from the victorious image the West had projected in the aftermath of the Cold War, when the democratic and capitalist systems seemed to have won a total victory at a global level.

Moreover, at present it appears that the financial sector is suffering a partial collapse, with the control of banks and other financial institutions declining. If such a decline will continue, there is a possibility that global economic priorities will shift (or rather revert) from the currently finance-centered mentality towards a focus on the production of palpable goods; basically, if a transition to a post-capitalist, post-monetary type of economy is to occur in the future, the West in its current form will face tremendous challenges, as the means of production have been mostly externalized.

Apart from the economic problems which riddle the Western states today and which pose an immediate concern, another deeper yet known problem is at hand, particularly in Europe: the aging of population and sharp decrease in fertility rates[16]. Whereas Andrew Moravcsik argues that this is not an era where the realist views of the 19th centuries – viewing the power of the country in terms of “core” indicators like population – should be applied anymore, since the West is using “smart power”[17], I disagree with such a perspective. While population – and implicitly military manpower – is not indeed an imminent need in the current international setting, since no wars which claim high numbers of lives are being fought, this decline in overall population represent nothing less than a time-bomb. An aging population with a decreased fertility rate will, eventually, lead to a sharp decrease in the overall number of people, with the work force being vastly affected and overall productivity of the West crippled. Moreover, the rising concerns over the migrant communities, who have much higher birth rates than the natives, are prompting a clear rise in nationalistic tendencies which will most like hinder (if not grind to a halt) future migration that would compensate for the lack of such a workforce. In fact, the potential replacement of the native European population with a population comprised mostly of descendants of migrants is quite a real threat, with estimates showing that, by mid-century, the Muslim population of Europe might reach a fifth of the total[18]. If such a trend continues and if a significant percentage of the native population is replaced by one of migrants, we might not only witness a decline of the West, but a whole process of “Orientalization”, leading to the complete demise of the West as we know it today. In fact, to counter this potential threat, the Western countries are already starting to turn inwards and, riding the wave of rising nationalism, leaders of the most important countries of the European Union – Germany[19], Great Britain[20] and France[21] – have proceeded to denounce the policy of multi-culturalism which had so far been religiously promoted and protected.


Prediction for the future of the West: a personal view

“Predictability can be achieved when a small error in the initial conditions leads to only a small error in the prediction. However, if a small error in the initial condition leads to a big difference in the prediction then our predictions are likely to be poor unless our measuring instruments for the initial conditions are sufficiently precise and we are able to carry out appropriate measurements.’[22]

The situation of the West, which is discussed in the section above, represents the initial conditions of this prediction. Since access to certain, more detailed information can be hard, if not impossible to achieve, this prediction will have to rely on the data available in the current academic literature which could be retrieved; the mentioned detailed information is represented by (but not restricted to) possible action plans developed by governments of Western states towards emerging powers, which are not accessible to the general public, economic policies which are either classified or too complex to be comprehended by non-specialists, military plans and other materials of the sort.

Based on the information available, it can be observed that the West and Western states are now going through a period of decline already and are starting to see their dominant global status eroded by rising powers like the BRICs[23]. Such a decline will potentially make the Western values and Western system, based on democracy and capitalism, less attractive to developing countries, who might in turn seek to deploy other methods. The old axiom that democracy and a free market is required for development and prosperity to become possible seems to be proven wrong, as China and Russia with their autocratic politics and economies where state control is pivotal are today on the rise. However there is the question of imminence and inevitability. Even if the West is declining, it is unlikely that such a decline will happen overnight; it will probably take several decades for Western power and influence to be eroded to such an extent that is beyond hope and such erosion could only happen if measures are not taken. Simply stated, even though the West is currently declining, this decline will most likely be halted or, at the very worst, slowed down considerably. On the other hand, it is unlikely that the growth of the emerging powers will continue at such an alert pace as it has until now. If we are to consider the slow rate of decline and combine it with a future reduction in the growth rate of the “challengers”, then the future world will not be one where other non-western powers run the world, but one of multipolarity and regional centers, with the West losing its current status as sole hegemon but possibly becoming a member in a future collective hegemony, similar to the 19th century’s Concert of Europe.

As for the demographic problems of the West, it is imperative that measures are taken by the leaders to stimulate an increase in fertility rates among the native populations if a process of “Orientalization” is to be prevented and future civil unrest and economic burdens are to be avoided. The aging and decrease of population is probably the biggest threat the West is facing in the long run although, in all fairness, the potential challengers to western supremacy are not coping any better with this issue themselves; Russia has seen a steady decrease in its population following the collapse of the Soviet Union and China is now having problems due to the “single-child policy” which has been implemented in the past.

Another issue which might stop the rise of the “challengers” is the potential for civil unrest in their internal settings; as mentioned before, China has been struggling with Tibetan nationalism while Russia still has unrest in separatist Chechnya. In fact, one thing which the West still has in its favor is that it is comprised mostly of nation-states; this means that the centrifugal nationalistic forces, which have led to the collapse of European multinational empires in the previous century, have mostly fulfilled their goal and simply ceased to exist once their aims were reached. By contrast, the BRIC states (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are large, multinational/multiethnic constructions, subject to the nationalistic forces I have mentioned above which could be (and in some cases are) causing internal instability.

Finally, from the point of view of the economy, there is the necessity that the West halts the migration of its means of production and true-industry; the production of real, palpable goods which should be made available to the general population should be prioritized over the speculative financial sector, which is based on virtual numbers rather than actual products. Should measures not be taken in order to strengthen the goods-producing industries and diminish the overall influence of the banking system, the downward spiral in the Western economy might be further exacerbated.


Summary and conclusion


Briefly stated, the West, defined as the North Atlantic space, is enjoying hegemony in today’s world. However, it is indeed going through a period of decline, having to do with economic and demographic issues in the long term. The short term decline due to economic problems will most likely be resolved soon, but in order to resolve the deeper issue of demographics, decisive action needs to be taken in the immediate future. Also, the stimulation of production of goods the introduction of some economic regulations and a certain degree of planning at the macro-economic level might prove beneficial, as it has been shown that a completely deregulated market, such as the one created by the neo-liberal measures, leads to great imbalances in the long run.

Should measures be taken and sustained, the decline of the West will not be inevitable and might even be completely stopped and reversed.

Author:

Bogdan Cristea, M.A. International Studies

bogdan.cristea@workmail.com


References:

1 Adam Watson, Hegemony and History, London & New York, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2007, passim, p. 98-103.

2 Cynthia Roberts, Polity Forum: Challengers or Stakeholders? BRICs and the Liberal World Order, Polity, 2010, Vol. 42, Iss. 1, p. 5.

3 Adam Watson, op. cit., p. 80.

4 Cf. Ibidem, p. 80-81.

5 Andrew Moravcsik, Europe: Rising Superpower in a Bipolar World, in Alan Alexandroff and Andrew Cooper (eds.), Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance, Washington D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2010, p. 151-153.

6 Ibidem, p. 152.

7 Ibidem, p. 153.

8 Knud Erik Jørgensen, International Relations Theory: A New Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2010, p. 78.

9 Cf. Cynthia Roberts, op. cit., p. 7.

10 Knud Erik Jørgensen, op. cit., passim, p. 78-94.

11 Ibidem, p. 93-94.

12 Andrew Moravcsik, op. cit., p. 153.

13 Knud Erik Jørgensen, op. cit., p. 57.

14 Ibidem, p. 57-58.

15 Ibidem, p. 68.

16Karoly Lorent, The Demographic Challenge in Europe, Brussels, 2005, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/inddem/docs/papers/The%20demographic%20challenge%20in%20Europe.pdf

17 Andrew Moravcsik, op. cit., p. 152-153.

18 Timothy M. Savage, Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing, The Washington Quarterly, 2004, Vol. 27, Iss. 3, p. 28-29, http://www.twq.com/04summer/docs/04summer_savage.pdf

19 The speech of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the Youth Gathering of the German Christian-Democrat Union, October 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11559451

20 The speech of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12371994

21 The interview of the President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy for French television channel TF1, February 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSA04Mgbh-0

22 Michael Nicholson, Causes and Consequences in International Relations. A Conceptual Study, London and New York, Pinter, 1996, p. 36.

23 Cynthia Roberts, op. cit., passim.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Conventional Sources

Knud Erik Jørgensen, International Relations Theory: A New Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke and New York, 2010.

Lorent, Karoly, The Demographic Challenge in Europe, Brussels, 2005, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/inddem/docs/papers/The%20demographic%20challenge%20in%20Europe.pdf (last retrieved March 7, 2012).

Moravcsik, Andrew, Europe: Rising Superpower in a Bipolar World, in Alan Alexandroff and Andrew Cooper (eds.), Rising States, Rising Institutions: Challenges for Global Governance, Washington D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2010.

Nicholson, Michael, Causes and Consequences in International Relations. A Conceptual Study, London and New York, Pinter, 1996.

Roberts, Cynthia, Polity Forum: Challengers or Stakeholders? BRICs and the Liberal World Order, Polity, 2010, Vol. 42, Iss. 1.

Savage, Timothy M., Europe and Islam: Crescent Waxing, Cultures Clashing, The Washington Quarterly, 2004, Vol. 27, Iss. 3, http://www.twq.com/04summer/docs/04summer_savage.pdf (last retrieved March 7, 2012).

Watson, Adam, Hegemony and History, London & New York, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2007.

Multimedia Sources

The interview of the President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy for French television channel TF1, February 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSA04Mgbh-0 (last retrieved March 7, 2012).

The speech of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12371994 (last retrieved March 7, 2012).

The speech of German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the Youth Gathering of the German Christian-Democrat Union, October 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11559451 (last retrieved March 7, 2012).

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