The new proliferation of theories of Western decline, particularly US decline, is sure to have an impact in policy design on the global stage, writes Gamil Matar
President Barack Obama will commence his second term of office in a few days amidst widespread speculations over his country’s future. Discussion initially honed in on the future of US foreign policy, then turned to the decline in the US’s prestige and international influence, after which it ranged into the historiographical and philosophical realms related to the decline not just of the US but of the West in general.
I found it hard to find the notional and locational points of departure for this “contemplative boom”. Generally, such portentous subjects arise in times of severe crisis in a given society. In the US, in particular, they percolate through research centres and major think tanks before winding their way to decision-making agencies.
But the process was different this time. There is a crisis, without doubt. But it is hardly a new one. Its roots extend back to the war in Afghanistan, to the tremors that Guantanamo and the excesses in the war against terror sent through prevailing value systems, and to the problems at the heart of the capitalist system and, specifically, in the fiscal and banking centres of that system. So we are not speaking of a sudden shock, as occurs with a military defeat or a natural disaster, but rather of a gradual and constantly escalating phenomenon. Moreover, there is unanimous consensus that it only culminated when it became clear that efforts to solve it or alleviate its severity failed. Another difference this time is that crisis indicators did not come to us through studies and reports published by research centres, but rather via official speeches, actions and decisions, which is to say the practices and behaviour of the highest government agencies.
There are three sets of indicators that are sufficient to convince me, at least, that the tide of speculation over the future of the US will not abate until a substantial change occurs in the US political system. The first sign that led me to anticipate, before many others, a surge in discussions over the future of the US came in the form of a report issued several weeks ago by the US National Intelligence Council. “Global Trends: 2030”, as the report is called, served as the starting gun that set minds racing after having discovered that senior defence and political authorities publicly admitted that the US had begun its downward slide and, moreover, that out of several possible scenarios for 2030 people in the highest echelons of government felt that the most likely scenario was the worst case scenario that predicts that the globalisation process will grind to a halt or that the US will become isolated or both.
Where did this fear for globalisation come from? To what degree has fancy overwhelmed fact, leading US officials to expect that globalisation will stop? I speak, here, of the second set of factors to draw my attention. Recent weeks have brought a spate of articles on the “ebb of globalisation”, and some offered analyses with facts and figures demonstrating that the ebb has already set in. They speak of the slowdown in US investments abroad and investors’ mounting fears due to the risks involved in investing in emerging economies and various nations. They write about the many banks that are being nationalised in different parts of the world and about the alarming decline in professional ethics in the banking and other financial sectors. Many of the writings I have come across discuss the problem of the decline in the volume and value of international trade in recent months and the plunging rates of cross border exchange within the EU, apart from the movement of labour. They all agree that the fact that no one is sticking to the G20 agenda is incontrovertible proof that globalisation is on the decline.
If these analyses and conclusions are correct and accurate, it seems that we should give closer attention to the “Global Trends: 2030” report. One of its premises is that the future of the US is contingent on the fate of globalisation. It argues that the US cannot remain a superpower or sustain its superiority without a dynamic and growing globalisation process.
The second set of indicators includes current controversies over specific policies or decisions. Of particular note is Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel and John Kerry for his second term cabinet. Part of the debate over these appointments has veered into metaphysical territory with some pundits claiming that they reflect Obama’s conviction that the US is declining. Some, such as Parag Khanna, argue that the decline is the product of causes outside US control. Others, such as Paul Kennedy, maintain that the US is to be blamed for its own decline due to its imperialist expansionism and its growing responsibilities abroad. A third group disagrees with both the foregoing views and holds that the US is not in a state of decline at all. Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, and George Friedman, founder of the Stratfor strategic research foundation, champion this body of opinion.
Central to these positions are a number of policies that are under debate. Prime among them are the US’s policies in the Middle East and towards Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in particular. Washington’s apparent oscillations in reviving its attention to its European allies and, to some, its excessive pressures on the UK not to withdraw from or reduce its ties to the EU, have occasioned readings that favour one or another of the above viewpoints. Also of critical importance and closer to home to us in Egypt is the question of the future of Washington’s handling of political Islam, in which subject there has been renewed interest after decades in which academic and political opinion in the West had resigned itself to the belief that the Islamists are the dominant political power now and for the foreseeable future in the Middle East.
The third set of indicators relates to a revival in the civilisational decline theory of the German historian and philosopher Oswald Spengler. Many now believe that the West as a whole and not just the US is in the process of decay, as he predicted in his book The Decline of the West (1922). It is noteworthy that many prominent political scientists concerned with US foreign policy were influenced by Spengler in one way or another. Chief among these are Henry Kissinger, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr.
The significance of the revival of this type of historical theorising regarding the rise and fall of nations increases when we realise that Spengler’s ideas system served as the “ideological vindication” (if we may use the expression) for the notions of Western civilisational hegemony and American exceptionalism espoused by Francis Fukuyama in his theory of the “End of History”. Fukuyama had famously held that democratic capitalism was the crown of humanity and the pinnacle of history. Therefore, as we watch capitalism writhing in its worst crisis ever in its 200 year history, and we see how democracy fused with exorbitant campaign funding loses its essential meaning, we can understand the sudden rise in the popularity among Western thinkers of Spengler’s prediction of the US and West’s immanent demise.
It was due to his awareness of the importance of Spengler’s postulations that Samuel Huntington rejected the term “universal civilisation”. Both thinkers believed that history told the story of a succession of civilisations, each distinguished by a unique culture that it sought to spread — and that spread in fact — before the civilisation declined. It is precisely because each civilisation is different and unique that there cannot arise and persist such a thing as a universal civilisation.
The Spengler model of civilisational cycles predicts, among other things, declining birth rates as each major civilisation approaches its end. It also predicts the evanescence of folk customs and traditions and the spread of megalopolises that are cosmopolitan in substance and composition, the rise of women’s movements, and the adoption by the poor and lay classes of the aspirations of the elites.
The debates over such ideas in the US are intense and often heated. It is little wonder as the issue has to do with the future of the US and, to some, the future of the West as a whole. It would be mistaken to imagine that a controversy of this nature does not have an impact on US foreign policy design or on the future of Washington’s relations with the rest of the countries in the West and its relations with us.
The writer is a political analyst and director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.