Is this a time of Western weakness ? Many are convinced it is. In his latest bookWorld Order, former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger gives a bleak outlook on the West’s ability to keep alive even the relatively modest concept of Westphalian order it invented four hundred years ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin keeps reminding his fellow countrymen (and some eager listeners in Europe) how rotten and degraded Western culture is. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote a pathos-laden swan song to Western civilization, in which he bemoans, in essence, the suicidal nature of Western culture.
Somehow, such doomsaying feels more like a perceived weakness than a real one. All facts indicate that the West is very strong indeed, stronger by a long stretch than all other parts of the planet. Practically all relevant categories—standard of living, life expectancy, health, education, employment, access to information, innovation, rule of law, corruption, crime, gender equality, and, of course, military strength (even in underperforming Europe)—show a West that is way ahead of the rest.
And yet the malaise is tangible : the utter pessimism of Western discourse. In Europe, that pessimism has eaten its way from the collective nervous system into the political system. There, it is beginning to bear fruit in the form of nationalism, inwardness, and contempt for the very institutions that keep the European continent together. Even in the United States, where pessimism is basically deemed unconstitutional, there is nothing but bleakness.
Maybe I am not sensitive enough to grasp the obvious, or maybe I don’t have enough imagination. But my question is this : Why is it that the West is incapable of singing a song other than the loud and almost joyful hymn of impending doom ?
Part of the explanation is that skepticism is one of the pillars of Western civilization—the other one being irony. Questioning the status quo is deeply engrained in Western thinking, and it is an enormous source of strength and innovation. But before it becomes that positive source, curiosity can be painful and agonizing.
Another dimension is that of course the West is in relative decline, simply because others are getting stronger. That is as it should be. But the West is deeply aware of this situation. And instead of seeing Chinese growth rates, Indian population increases, or any other indicator of strength elsewhere in the world as a great success, the Western response is to go into pessimist overdrive.
But the main reason for Western doom and gloom is something else. The West is so pessimistic because it is recovering from a binge-drinking night out. For twenty years, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the beginning of the financial crisis in 2007–2008, the West imbibed its own greatness with avid gulps. Now the party is over—just as every big night out must come to an end. And it is not the rise of China that is giving the West a nervous fit but the fact that there is no going back to the great exuberance of the past.
The West started to believe that being on top of everything was a normal state of affairs and that very little effort was required to sustain it. Former UK chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown even believed for a short period that he had found the key to eternal growth without economic downswing or recession. The West’s expectations grew bigger than what it actually had—and now that it has less, the hangover is monstrous.
It is not the rise of others that frightens the West, but the West’s decline relative to its own expectations. Westerners have failed not against Chinese or Russian or Indian standards but against their own. There is nothing as demoralizing as disappointing yourself.
Westerners instinctively understand that it will take enormous efforts to maintain the successes that have been achieved. The West knew that even while it was binging. That only adds a little bit of guilt to the mix, a potent enhancer of existing pain. And now the West fears the painful work it will take to return not to the orgies of the past but to a level at which the West can be partly happy with itself again.
In other words, the West is caught in its own negative downward spiral psycho trap.
There are two pieces of good news in all this. First, the solution lies within the West’s own mind-set, not in its relationship with allegedly more successful but illiberal and authoritarian regimes elsewhere. This is where the admirers of Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are wrong. This message is so important because it is the key to fighting off nationalists and populists like France’s National Front, the UK Independence Party, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland.
The second bit of good news is that if you are scared the West might be plowed under by others while it focuses on rebuilding itself, you needn’t worry too much. The West is actually blessed with its opponents and enemies. China will inevitably remain large and powerful, but the economic and political ruptures following its own binge will arrive sooner rather than later, and they will be very painful, perhaps even catastrophic.
Russia is a faux giant built on brittle foundations. It is a society in protracted auto-aggression with all socioeconomic indicators pointing toward a bleak future. And radical Islam, as represented by Hamas, Hezbollah, or the so-called Islamic State, has failed to build even the most basic elements of a successful social model that could compete with Western levels of civilized innovation. There is no Alexander the Great or Hannibal knocking on the door of Western civilization ready to conquer and replace it.
It is true that external challenges can and will cause great pain and a costly engagement for a West trying to get out of its mental slump. Initially, this effort might even increase the slump considerably, as the debates over the Islamic State and the Ukraine crisis show. That is why foreign policy remains a crucial element in the debate about the future of the West.
But the West’s real enemy lies in its own anti-Western instincts, triggered by a self-inflicted lack of confidence and trust. It is as true as ever that the only thing the West has to fear is fear itself. Worrying about decline is much more dangerous than decline itself, which is largely imagined. Now how about some optimism ?