In 2012, I named my fledgling blog The State of the Century. Never have I been more pessimistic about the state of the 21st century.
All empires fall. One day, the West too will be a faded memory, to be idealized by those attempting to emulate its affluence, just as the Holy Roman Empire was meant to be the rebirth of its namesake. But never would I have imagined the cause of the West’s decline to be so insidious: a cancer that rots its founding pillars. I intend to trace the growth of this cancer, and present a desperate call for rationalism to prevail.
The West is a haven of peace and prosperity. Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea (which I will collectively refer to as ‘the West’) is home to more than a billion people. Imagine for a second, Norway and Sweden going to war, or Japan collapsing into civil war, or Australia annexing New Zealand, these scenarios currently remain preposterous. In this region people do not starve and they are not slaughtered. Never in humanity’s history have more people enjoyed a higher quality of life.
As such, I greatly fear the collapse of the Western world order. Everyone who lives within its borders must as well; anyone who doesn’t is not self-interested. Even those living on its periphery should fear the West’s fall – a rising tide raises all ships, and a drowning swimmer is liable to drag others down. There are those who exploit the corruption and authoritarianism of the periphery for their personal advantage (Vladimir Putin is an example), who would greatly benefit from the West’s fall. But the periphery’s masses should, and generally do, want to join the West or benefit from the prosperity it enjoys.
The phenomenon of the West, and the prosperity it brings, was made possible by many competing forces, but none more important than the rule of law. All other causational forces (democracy, technology, the free market etc.) can be traced back to the rule of law. Democracy would not function if it were not for a respect for the rules. Technology could not flourish if it were not for the scientific method (in itself a set of laws; evidence must trump prejudice). The free market could not function if contractual obligations were ignored by the wealthy and powerful.
If a future civilization is lucky enough to experience institutional learning, its textbooks will trace the West’s decline back to the first year of the 21st century, 2001. It was then that a ragtag suicide cult flew a few planes into a few buildings. This group hated the West, and sought its destruction. Their ringleader hatched a plan that in hindsight can only be called brilliant (evil yes, but brilliant). Osama Bin Laden was an extreme xenophobe. In his mind, his nation (people who share his cultural and religious identity) must conquer all others. But how does a small group of guerilla fighters overcome an empire?
Terrorism, as warfare, does not seek victory on the battlefield. It seeks to disrupt and ultimately disintegrate the enemy. It is meant to cause enemy forces to overreact, to be cast as brutal oppressors, and to sap the enemy nation of its will to fight.
The West’s reaction to 9/11 can only be described as an overreaction. The Bush administration possessed an inflated sense of the nation’s capacity for war. The group that occupied Washington’s halls of power on September the 11th, 2001, could not remember defeat at the hands of an enemy. The Cold War, Desert Storm, and the Balkan Wars had all been won. What does a warrior nation do when it has no one left to fight? With the national fervour still high, and early Afghan victories ripe in the national consciousness, the Bush administration turned on a familiar enemy, but one that had no connection whatsoever to the terrorists it sought to bring to justice.
Predictably, no tangible benefit was brought to the citizens West in the West’s response to 9/11, and as the years ground on the West lost the plot, and with it legitimacy. It ceased to be the prosperous haven of humanity’s collective imagination; it became to many a tyrant reigning over the world order.
Although the narrative of the West’s decline begins on September 11th, 2001, it is a mistake to attach too great an agency to 9/11 and its aftermath. Globalisation, itself caused by the rise of the Western world order, has presented a challenge the West has yet to overcome, rising inequality. Inequality is a fundamental challenge to the Western world order because it erodes the ideal the West was founded upon: the rule of law. If the system works to advance the position of the powerful to the detriment of the weak, the perception is that all are not equal before the law. When no obvious answer to this new challenge presented itself, the Western masses became restless, angry, and eager to lash out.
The challenge globalisation presents exists independent of 9/11. But 9/11 created the climate in which the anger caused by globalisation developed. More than a decade after 9/11, the narrative had turned against the West. The Western political establishment was now at best incompetent in its response to the terrorist threat, at worst it was seen as corrupt and colonial. At the same time, there were those that were inspired by Osama Bin Laden’s brazen rebellion to the Western world order. The Arab Spring brought about failed revolutions, failed states, misery, suffering, and mass migration. It also presented a gaping wound for a group of disenfranchised radicals to infect. Globalisation allowed Western citizens (themselves disenfranchised by the West) to join the infection of ISIS – a cruel twist in the story of the West’s decline. But worst of all, ISIS presented a new narrative to the citizens of the West.
A decade and a half after 9/11, it becomes necessary to recap the interrelated forces that are contributing to the West’s decline. First, the existing political establishment is seen as incompetent and corrupt. Rising inequality is eroding the hope the Western order inspires. The Western masses are angered. A villainous insurgency persists on the West’s periphery, itself a regrown head of the hydra that the West had initially sought to slay. Technological advances work to spread the hydra’s xenophobic message. And, no easy answers present themselves.
With no easy answers, the collective Western imagination is tempted by the memory of the golden decade the West enjoyed at the end of the 20th century. What had changed between then and now? The world then had been less globalised and connected. It is easy for the collective imagination to become enthralled by the belief that global connectivity is itself the route of problem. This belief is particularly attractive because it is not entirely untrue; however raising walls will not work to advance the position of the Western world order.
When the Western masses are fed a daily stream of reports of peripheral terrorists thwarting Western responses, and when these terrorists flaunt a message of national superiority (ie. “our nation is superior”), it is easy for the Western masses to respond with an equally xenophobic message (ie. “no, our nation is superior ”). With mass migration brought about by both globalisation and the Arab Spring, it is easy for a small group of nationalist bigots to inspire a perception that barbarian hordes are at the Western gates.
When times are desperate, when the existence of the nation is threatened by barbarian hordes, the rule of law becomes secondary to security. Efficiency becomes all important. It becomes necessary to center power upon a few who can focus the nation’s efforts against its perceived enemy. When the ends justify these means, patriotism becomes fascism. In America, this new fascist trend has been embodied by an ill-qualified narcissist (as fascist trends often are).
Not all nationalism is fascism. The support you hold for your country’s World Cup team is nationalism, but not fascism. Fascism is when an authoritarian government derives legitimacy from ultra-nationalist sentiments. The rise of fascism is the advancement of nationalist government policies, the correlated vilification of other nations both foreign and domestic, and general erosion of the rule of law as power is centered upon a single authority. With its demonization of outsiders and opposition alike, it is difficult to describe the political trend that the West is currently experiencing as a desire for anything but fascism (even if the authoritarian aspect has not been achieved quite yet).
It is the rule of law that makes the Western world order what it is, and it is the rule of law that is most compromised by the rise of Western ‘strongmen’ who spout false hope and exploit the trumped-up national fear of being overrun by ‘barbarians’. Those who present a reasoned and nuanced solution, wherein globalisation itself works to spread the rule of law through greater connectivity, fail to inspire those in search of an easy answer. Technological advances combined with the Western ideal of freedom of speech (itself a necessary component of the rule of law) work to drown out the complicated in favour of the simple.
And so the rise of Western fascism becomes a vicious cycle. Easy answers and misinformation spread like contagion through globalised communications technology. The truth becomes murky. Facts can be debased and dismissed as mere opinion. Conspiracy theories can be paraded as legitimate debate. Then, when our constitutional foundations are breached, how can we hope to reverse the decline? How can we hope to counter the onslaught of fascist ends-justify-the-means rhetoric? The problem is endemic, insidious, and a cancer that rots the institutions that make the Western world a haven of prosperity.
It is truly unfortunate that at this time in history, when the West is most divided by false hope and hatred, the most perilous problem humanity has ever faced has presented itself: climate change. The western world is addicted to a fuel that provides prosperity but undermines our planet’s terrain. As such, it deserves the Western world’s entire focus. But climate change is a problem that cannot be personified upon an enemy. Thus, the solution is anything but easy, and the masses have already become drunk on simple sentiments and xenophobic lies spun by ‘strongmen’ who have been and are being swept to power around the Western world. It is now that the West can least afford complacency.
I find little on which to base optimism for the state of the Western world order. The solution is not easy. It lays (as I have alluded) in a reasoned and nuanced approach, the scope of which I do not attempt to describe. Terrorism is a distraction. Misinformation is the problem. Reason and rationality must triumph, or else the West will fall. But when half-truths can be elevated to doctrine by neo-fascist Western leaders, I have little hope for reason.
I call those who share my affection for rationality to remain vigilant. Do not be complacent when you hear an opinion that advances the insidious spread of Western fascism. Stand up and be counted. If nothing else you will be remembered as being on the right side of history, as it is presented by the textbooks of some future civilization that lays on the far side of the dark-age humanity currently stares in the face.
Anyone who glances at the Eurasian map and concludes that the countries that make up the continent came about due to the decisions of men or women is sadly mistaken. Although government actions are indeed at times a factor, the overriding force that forms nations, states, and empires in this region is geography. Anyone studying Eurasian politics should be aware of these geopolitical realities.
On Eurasia’s western end (Europe) there exists a collection of countries, while its eastern end is dominated by a single state: China. Eurasia’s northern swathe is controlled exclusively by Russia, while its south is divided amongst a number of countries. These are the realities of the Eurasian map; they do not come about because of mere chance, but are caused by geography. I will examine these realities.
Europe consists of a multitude of states while China consists of one
Looking at the Eurasian map, does it not appear peculiar that while the West consists of so many states that none dominate the region, the East is clearly dominated by a single state? This phenomenon has existed throughout history. Since 221 BC, China has been a single unified nation. China has occasionally disintegrated during ‘warring states’ periods, but generally a single dynasty has always maintained control of the area. This fact is due to geography. Meanwhile in Europe, no single state has ever dominated the entire continent – at one point Rome may have come close, but this remains the exception. The continent resisted the aspirations of Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Hitler. This fact is again due to geography.
Europe has a highly indented coastline. It has five large peninsulas, all of which evolved independent people, languages, and subsequent governments. These peninsulas are Norway/Sweden, Denmark, Portugal/Spain, Italy, and Greece. Europe also has two major islands, Britain and Ireland. Europe is further carved up by a series of mountain ranges, the Alps, Pyrenees, Carpathians, and the Norwegian Border Mountains. Finally Europe’s two major rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, serve as borders to further divide the continent. The division of Europe by geography served to develop a multitude of ethnic groups, governments, and states. Such is Europe’s division that its nations have historically been in a state of near-constant war, be it between the Athenians and the Spartans, or between the Prussians, Habsburgs, and Ottomans, or between the British, French, Germans, and Russians. Today Europe’s peoples bicker over economics and are less unified than many would have us believe.
China, on the other hand, has a much smoother coastline. Only the Korean peninsula and the peninsula of South-East Asia are sufficiently separated to allow for the formation of separate nations. China’s two largest islands, Taiwan and Hainan, are each less than half the size of Ireland. Japan is the only island to be large enough to form a separate state. China’s only mountain range (the Himalayas) separates it from India rather than separating its people. China’s heartland is bound together by two long navigable rivers, the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. North and South China are bound together by a relatively easy connection between these two rivers that was later linked by the Grand Canal. Europe’s two major rivers are much smaller, and connect much less of the continent, and thus do not serve as the unifiers that China’s rivers do. What appears as peculiar at first is really quite simply a result of geography.
The Northern swathe will always be dominated by a single aggressive nation
The Russia political elite have historically always believed they must defend Russia from influence and invasion by securing its frontiers. This foreign policy paradigm is traceable to the thirteenth century, when Russia was smashed by the Mongols who rampaged across Eurasia, and was denied access to the European Renaissance. Russia was thus branded with bitter feelings of inferiority and insecurity. To maintain its security, Russia must conquer as much territory as it can. Kaplan argues throughout Russia’s history, it has acted as “a land power that had to keep attacking and exploring in all directions or itself be vanquished.” We see this in the 1800s when Russia pushed into Eastern Europe in an attempt to block France, and again in 1945 when Moscow used Eastern Europe as a buffer-zone against a resurgent Germany. Russia has also pushed into Afghanistan to block the British during the Great Game, and conquered the Far East to block China. These same motives were at play when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Moscow again felt vulnerable when the Soviet Union dissolved and it lost the buffer-zone it gained in 1945. This is why today Putin believes the European Union is a threat, and why the Kremlin attempts to bring Eastern European countries back into its sphere of influence, and why it invaded Georgia in 2008. My article The Wiley Bear – Russian Motives for the Nord Stream Pipeline analyses this phenomenon in relation to pipeline politics.
Only analysing Russia’s paradigm today ignores the fact that throughout history any nation that controls Eurasia’s North acts in this way. Just as the Mongols devastated medieval Europe, the Huns sacked Rome, and the Scythians raided from the east before that. The Great Wall of China was built to defend against steppe raiders. Each of these nations aggressively secured their frontiers in a similar manner to that of Russia in the last century. This fact is caused entirely by geography. From the Hungarian plain, through Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and Central Asia to Manchuria of the Far East lays the Central Asian steppe, the world’s vastest grassland. It was called “the great grass road” by Russian scholar W. Bruce Lincoln. Any peoples who reside on this steppe are inevitably insecure, because they have no natural defenses such as mountains or forest. They must conquer or be conquered. After the High Middle Ages, Russia became the single nation to dominate this region, but this region has always been dominated by a single nation, be it the Mongols, the Huns, or the Scythians, and this fact is due to geography.
The Middle East and Southern Asia: again a multitude of states
Because of geography a single state dominates Eurasia’s north. It is also because of geography that Eurasia’s south is divided. Like in Europe, no single nation has dominated this region. Although the Persian Empire of 500 BC, Alexander the Great, and the Ottoman Empire have each come extremely close, these remain exceptions to the rule.
Geography defines the Middle East’s borders. The borders of Iran are defined by the Iranian plateau while the borders of Turkey are defined by the Anatolian land bridge. The Arabian Peninsula is dominated by Saudi Arabia. Yemen exists at this peninsula’s south because this area is characterised by mountains and a network of oases.
India too is defined by geography. It is a peninsula framed by the Arabian Sea on its west, and the Bay of Bengal on its east. The mountainous Burmese jungles separate it from the nations of South-East Asia, while the Himalayas separate it from Tibet. But geography has also left India vulnerable to attack from the northeast. India is bordered by the Persian-Afghan plateau, which consists of a gradual incline rather than a divisive mountain range. India is thus dangerously close to the Central Asian steppe. It is from here that India has faced invading Greeks, Persians, and Mongols. The British Empire felt most vulnerable at this frontier during the Great Game, and it is here that India faces its rival Pakistan today. I outlined this last fact when I argued India is ‘cursed by geography’ in my article The Era of the Eagle – American Hegemony is Here to Stay. But while India is indeed defined by geography, it is also divided by it. India does not have the same unifying rivers that China does. Its multitude of river systems (be it the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Tungabhadra, Godavari etc.) only divide the region. Its weak borders mean other nations such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh exist on the Indian subcontinent. These non-unifying factors mean historically India has been made up of many polities, and more recently a Hindu-Muslim drama has occurred.
Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Kaplan, Robert D. The Revenge of Geography. New York: Random House, 2012.