The decline of the West, 1918-2018

A century ago this year, in the summer of 1918, when World War I was drawing to a close before what would become the November armistice, Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his influential The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes) . One hundred years later, he again spreads that we are facing the decline of the West –and even more so of the relatively liberal world order that he established–, even if it is in relative terms and has little to do with the causes that Spengler attributed to that evolution. The German thinker, who rejected the Eurocentric vision of history seen as ancient, medieval and modern, considered as inexorable, and almost mechanical, the development of what he called “high cultures” (“civilization” saw it as the beginning of the decline), in four vital phases: youth, growth, flowering and decline. And in 1918 the turn of this last phase had come to that fratricidal West, one of the eight high cultures that it sighted: Babylon, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican (Aztec / Mayan), classical (Greek / Roman), Arabic ( Hebrew, Semitic and Christian-Islamic) and Western or European-American. It is a vision of what “civilization” is not so far removed from that of Samuel Huntington’s “shock”, but very different from that of the Iranian-Canadian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo. This one, in his recent Decline of Civilization, 100 years after Spengler’s book, goes further. He considers that we are in a process of “de-civilization” of society, which does not mean the absence of civilization, but rather “a senseless and unthinking state of civilization”, with a “deficit of empathy”, not only in the West but also in the world in general. Spengler was wrong, of course, but not without interest. The First World War (1914-1918) resulted in the rise of the United States to world preeminence and later to a global superpower after the second phase (1939-1945) of what was a European civil war and a world conflict, which ended up leading to the loss of their empires to the powers of the Old Continent. Meanwhile, the Soviet Revolution, the USSR and the Cold War that the West won, arose and collapsed (1917-1991), although perhaps not as much or as well as was believed. For while the West was winning it against the USSR, China re-emerged from the hand of Deng Xiaoping’s Four Modernizations starting in 1982. And since the dividing line of 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen massacre – a nationalist Russia has revived that the West failed to attract and incorporate when it could. Above all, China, with a regime of communist party and mixed economy, is recovering a place in the world even more important than it had before 1870, partly thanks to having known how to take advantage of the liberal order and globalization that the West promoted.

Some, like Francis Fukuyama, believed they saw in that western triumph and the fall of the Soviet system an end of history, with the universal triumph of the liberal-democratic model, although before him, it was proposed by Hegel and in his wake Alexandre Kojève. In fact, the West during the Second World War and the Cold War managed, thanks to the military and economic power of the United States, to set up this liberal world order for an important part of the world, which remained in the phase of unipolarity. On its decline, analyzes are beginning to spread in the West itself. Like Richard Haas, for whom the US decision, with Trump, to abandon the role he has played for more than seven decades “marks a turning point.” Does the decline of the liberal world order mean the decline of the West? It’s the other way around? At the same time, as we have previously explained in the Blog, democracy and the rule of law are in question in some cases within the West and its institutions (Turkey and Poland) and disruptive populisms are rampant.

Authoritarian regimes abroad, such as China and Russia, are reinforced with their own political and economic models, while Westerners are retreating from defending their values ​​and principles. Or they even question the latter. A series of recently published books (by William Glaston and Timothy Snyder, for example) wonder if it is no longer the liberal world order but democracy itself as understood in the West that is in danger. The liberal or Western world order is questioning not only the others, but those who built them, with the Trump Administration at the helm from Washington, in reaction to what they see as the excesses of globalization. However, many elements of that order persist from NATO to the EU, passing through the Bretton Woods institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the former GATT and now the World Trade Organization), in which China participates. But Beijing, and others, are trying to change this order while building another parallel.

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