The greatest threat to the West, is itself

Flip Buys writes on the relative decline of Western civilisation and the shifting balance of power

The end of the end of history

10 October 2022

The British statesman Winston Churchill concluded his famous speech in the British Parliament on 18 June 1940 with the echoing line: “… if the British Empire last for a thousand years, men will still say: ‘This was their finest hour.”

Yet not even this great statesman could foresee that his beloved Empire would symbolically come to an end a mere 20 years later in the South African parliament in Cape Town. It was here, on 3rd February 1960, that Britsh Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivered his "Winds of Change" speech. 

The support for decolonisation that Macmillan expressed in this speech also signaled Britain's intention to dissolve the Empire. Although the British Empire came to its end lying peacefully on its bed  - not destroyed by blood and bombs as Hitler’s Thousand-year Reich was after only 12 years - it was soon replaced by what is mainly a symbolic Commonwealth.

Ancient Egypt

It was not just the British’s greatest leader and his mighty Empire that took eternal existence for granted. The Egyptian Civilisation lasted for almost 30 centuries, from 3 100 BC onwards. Even this most enduring of civilisations eventually fell with its takeover by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. The English Romantic poet Percy Shelley passes an ironic comment about the inscription on the fallen statue of King Ozymandias, the Greek name for Rameses, one of the greatest Pharaohs:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

The Persians and the Romans

According to the Biblical book of Daniel’s interpretation of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about the future, Babel was forecast to be succeeded by the Persians, followed by the Greeks and then by the Roman Empire. Back in the year 539 BC the Persian King Cyrus, the “King of Kings” of the first empire of the world in history, boasted: “I am Cyrus, King of the Universe, King of Babylon, King of the Land of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the world.” Whereas his empire stretched from Libya to India, today the Persians only rule Iran.

Centuries later it was the turn of the “eternal city of Rome” and of the Roman Empire. A century before Christ the Roman poet Tibullus described Rome as the “eternal city.” Rome was known as “Caput Mundi”, or capital of the world. The fall of the “eternal” Rome in the year 467 AD came as such a shock to the ancient world, that the great Christian philosopher Augustine wrote a treatise, The City of God. His comforting message was that the new Jerusalem would be the eternal city. Today, the Vatican is the world’s smallest state, consisting of just 44 hectares and 825 residents.

The end of history

Yet humanity did not want to bow to the evidence of history, namely that no world empire is eternal. Karl Marx believed history was moving unstoppably towards an eternal communist paradise. At the end of the Cold War in 1990 the Stanford political scientist Francis Fukuyama best articulated the triumphant spirit of the zeitgeist in his elated conclusion that: “... humanity has reached not just the passing of a particular historical era, but the end of history as such. That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

After the Cold War the USA was the only remaining superpower and tried with all its might to Westernise the East and the South. Its model of democratic capitalism was regarded as the pinnacle and endpoint of human development, which now had to serve as a universal blueprint for the world. It was, in the words of Pres George W. Bush, “the new world order.”

“Globalism” was now the catchword, not just the phenomenon of a global village but of a new ideology. The “Davos people” became the new world leaders. Samuel Huntington of Harvard refers to them as “the global elite” or the “gold-collar cosmocrats” who have “little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.”

However, there is a catch in the view that Western liberal democracy has now become the global universal gold standard, namely that universalism inevitably requires imperialism to enforce it – which provokes major world-wide resistance to the West. Moreover, wokeism is alienating large cultural blocs in the world such as the Chinese, Asians, Islamic countries, the Russians and many in Africa, and it is exacerbating the West’s isolation.

The end’s end

Global liberalism’s eternal reign was short-lived. A mere 30 years after Fukuyama’s epitaph of history, the end of the end of history arrived in 2020 with the Covid pandemic, the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Russian war in Ukraine a year later.

The most prominent feature of the Covid crisis was how quickly governments proved their globalism to have been lip service. In the same year in which Trump’s “America first” policy was ridiculed and then voted out the leaders of the world’s richest states put their own countries’ interests first. Poor countries had to fall in at the back of the queue for vaccines. A former British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, would surely have smiled when his “realpolitik” was once again proven right – countries have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

If the rise of power blocs such as China ushered in a new era of a multipolar world, the Russian invasion was the symbolic turning point of the Pax Americana, or the end of (relative) world peace anchored in US political, economic, cultural, and military power.

It would appear as if “the end of history” and a perpetual global liberal unanimity have been replaced by Huntington’s “clash of civilisations” instead, and it seems that culture is again replacing ideology as the most important defining line of groups. It is no longer about what you believe but who you are.

In contrast, the “Great Awokening” in the West is part of the process of cultural self-dissolution. Historic Western Christianity and culture have been replaced by a “progressive” secular ideology, and “nation” has been replaced by “population” and multiculturalism. The question is whether a culture can sever its roots that helped to make it successful while still sitting in the shade, enjoying its fruits?

Global balance of power

The half-hearted reaction to the Russian invasion and Western-led sanctions from power blocs such as China, India, large parts of the Muslim world as well as from African countries such as South Africa, point to the threat of the “West against the Rest.” If this happens it would cause a major upheaval in the global balance of power, moving from the undisputed dominance by the West in 1990, to a skewed balance of power with the West and Japan on the one side and Russia, China, India, Muslim states and many African countries on the other.

History does not follow linear paths. No one could have foreseen in 1990 that by 2020 the global balance of power could swing so rapidly against the West for the first time in centuries. However, those who revel in the West’s weaker position should be mindful of what they wish for. Historically, values have always followed upon the acquisition of power, and no one knows what a world under non-Western domination and run according to non-Western values would look like. For this reason, Huntington warns: “As Asian and Muslim civilisations begin to assert the universal relevance of their cultures, Westerners will notice the connection between universalism and imperialism, appreciating the benefit of a pluralist world.”

However, since Oswald Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes in 1918, predictions of the downfall of the West have been proven premature. To paraphrase Mark Twain’s remark about reports of his death – predictions about the death of the West are “greatly exaggerated.” The West has been through major crises in the past but has always revived itself.

The new world

The overestimation in the 90s of the West’s position of power and the viability of Western liberalism in other countries, has contributed to the underestimation of the consequences of China’s rise. Thus, an opportunity was missed to pull Russia into the Western order as a counterweight to China, almost similar to the USA using China as a counterweight to the former Soviet Union.

Russia may create a crisis for the West in the short term, but China remains the strategic challenger to a US-led world order. As statesman Henry Kissinger put it: “Superpowers are not interested in working within the international system; they are striving to become the international system themselves.”

This means that the world is no longer “Western”, that is, the West can no longer determine the course of events in the world by itself. An important indicator of this situation is that where the West constituted 20% of the world population in 1950, its population will decline to just 10% by 2050.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said in the 1940s that white people in South Africa represent a microcosm of the West in the world, and what happens in South Africa could be an important indicator of the future of the West. South Africa could possibly be an example of the first large grouping of Westerners living in a post-Western country.  

Western leaders should seriously heed Huntington's cautionary advice: “The West should realise that interference in the affairs of other cultural blocs could be one of the main causes of global instability. The West should not try to transform other civilisations according to its image but should instead preserve and renew Western civilisation.”

In his book Civilization the historian Niall Feguson admits that over the centuries the West has been responsible for the same historical evils as those committed by other civilsations. “However, the Western cultural package still seems to offer human societies the best available set of economic, social and political institutions – the ones most likely to unleash the individual human creativity capable of solving the problems the new century brings.”

The greatest threat to the West does not come from other civilisations, but from the West’s lost of confidence in its own culture and the ignorance of history that feeds it.

Flip Buys is the chairperson of the Solidarity Movement.