The decline of the West

Time will tell but I have the feeling that whilst the forces pulling Europe apart are strong, the opposite forces pushing it together are even stronger

EU Council President Donald Tusk, with Chinese premier Xi Jinping
EU Council President Donald Tusk, with Chinese premier Xi Jinping

Call it what you want: globalisation, prolonged economic stagnation, challenging the status quo, popularism and perhaps more. The underlying factor gnawing at the base of the elected western democracies is that the west can no longer dominate the planet by determining the terms of trade worldwide, as it has been doing up to the recent past.

Look back at what started five centuries ago: The Spanish, the French, the British and, to a lesser extent, the Portuguese fought each other in a series of wars to dominate the rest of the world. The Spanish were the first to wade into the Americas, grabbed as much gold as they could find, attracting the French and the British to do likewise… whilst the Portuguese sailed round the Cape of Good Hope.

The assault of the West on the rest of the world, powered by unmatchable technology, guns, money and greed was unstoppable. The unexplored and underdeveloped world collapsed beneath the overriding superiority of the superior European powers. The Americas, all Africa, and most of Asia had to play ball. There was some prolonged resistance from the more sophisticated cultures, such as Japan and China. The Japanese restructured and became colonialists themselves. China, though divided into spheres of influence, was just too big to digest. The Chinese had to wait until Deng took over from Mao, but one has to keep well in mind that the industrialization of China does not translate into its westernization. On the contrary, its industrialization only took off when it abandoned the communist ideology, which – after all – was also an import from the west. China will never become a western country. 

For several reasons, the lion’s share went to the British. The first of the Europeans to industrialize, the British had the guns and the money to build an empire over which the sun never set. They could call the shots whenever, wherever to whoever. In India, they went as far as to have a privately owned army – 200,000 strong – fully armed with the latest western technology but officered by English gentlemen solely to keep the natives in place. The British even declared a war on China because the Chinese refused to become drug addicts and to trade tea for opium which the British merchants – who were the drug barons of the time – got for a song from Afghanistan. That is where much of the wealth of the City of London originated. 

‘Sic transit gloria mundi.’ All former colonies are now independent. China, with its population of 1,500 million is now industrializing, and India – with another 1,500 million – is not far behind. To follow are Brazil, Indonesia and Nigeria, not to mention the ever present Russia. 

Today China can produce anything Europe or America can produce and at a fraction of the cost. Within a decade it will be the world’s largest economy with a homegrown political ideology based on market forces and the diktat of the traditional oriental strongman. It is challenging the American dominance of the Pacific. After all, until relatively recently, China was always the dominating power in this region. All south east Asian countries, with their own Chinese populations running into millions, are now treating it with greater respect. The last to break away from unconditional American support are the Philippines, a former American colony. Japan will also soon have to take some difficult decisions.

And when Theresa May visited India in the forlorn hope of striking her first post Brexit deal, she was met with great politeness but not much else even if she donned a beautiful sari. Unlike the past there was no sign of the Royal Navy. Today the East India Company is owned by Indians, and Jaguar cars are produced in the UK by Indian owners.

This change in the worldwide terms of trade is upsetting all the West. For the first time in history the west has to compete with the Chinese, the Indians and others for the resources of Africa. When the USA put an embargo on Iran, the Iranians sold their oil to China. The so-called ‘third world’ today has many options to choose from and does not depend on the West.

The most significant symbol of the West’s superiority is, of course the USA. However, since the financial crisis in 2008 and the near collapse of its banking sector, the US has also been shaken. American manufacturing keeps moving to cheaper countries. The working class in the US is not managing to adjust in time and is feeling the pinch. Hence we have the Trump phenomenon – Time’s ‘man of the year’ dubbed as the President-elect of the Divided States of America. 

As has been recently said, it is as if the “American Century” – proclaimed in 1941 by Henry Luce, owner of Time magazine – has ended almost without notice. 

In Europe there has been prolonged economic stagnation, with crisis levels in unemployment – not to mention the euro crises in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, that some believe are not yet over. The result has been a political resurgence of the right, particularly in Eastern Europe, in the vain hope of building stronger fences to hold back the sea. A whirlwind is blowing across the established political class in the western world. In desperation the English went for Brexit.

This year we have seen Cameron, Obama and Renzi bite the dust while in France, Hollande did not even dare to try and face the whirlwind. The last bulwark in Europe is Angela Merkel and this is no surprise. After all Germany is the strongest in Europe. 

Evidently all the West is feeling the crush and the pips are squeaking. There is a sense of despondency, despair and some panic, particularly in the EU, that has moved from one crisis to another and where division – rather than unity – is the order of the day. 

In these circumstances one automatically asks whether Europe will make it through all this. Will it be able to adjust to a new world order where it can be a worthy participant but not the influential master? 

Time will tell but I have the feeling that whilst the forces pulling Europe apart are strong, the opposite forces pushing it together are even stronger. The reality on the ground is that Europe has no choice but to stick together in order to survive.

Not to lead the world – that will soon be China’s responsibility.

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