Weighing the Decline of the West, Again

Will the cliché ever come true?

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The decline of Western hegemony is hardly a new theme. In America, the tradition of hailing the nation's decline goes back to before its founding, as James Fallows explains in the February issue of The Atlantic. Western Europe long ago resigned itself to losing its imperial supremacy. But recent demographic projections have made writers revisit the question: Are American and Western decline inevitable and irreversible? Are they exaggerated?

  • Decline Is Demographic  In The Guardian, Dominique Moisi points to a study predicting that by mid-century, "the western world will represent only 12% of the world's population, with Europeans reduced to 6%." He wonders if "the white man's loneliness" will replace imperialist catchphrase "the white man's burden." He recommends the U.S. and Europe work together as they become less demographically important:
Confronted with revolutionary demographic and economic transformations, Americans and Europeans should behave in a much more responsible manner. Instead of ignoring the other (the American way) or lamenting a wounded ego (the European way), they should confront the common challenges they face as a result of a globalisation process that they are no longer able to master.
  • Decline Is Psychological  Acknowledging that decline can happen blindingly fast--particularly in the case of the British empire--Mark Steyn is fairly skeptical of the narrative Moisi espouses. "For years," he writes in the National Review, "Sinophiles have been penning orgasmic fantasies of a mid-century when China will bestride the world and America will be consigned to the trash heap of history. It will never happen: As I've been saying for years, China has profound structural problems. It will get old before it gets rich." Instead, he agrees with Charles Krauthammer that "decline is a choice." It is a choice Democrats, he says pointedly, are "offering." But "what matters is accepting the psychology of decline," he contends, quoting economic historian Arnold Toynbee: "Civilizations die from suicide, not from murder."
  • Decline Is Relative  Conrad Black of National Review thinks the "cliché" of U.S. decline is true, but not "irreversible." The U.S. "has been there before," he says, bouncing back from Watergate and Vietnam to "eminence" exceeding that of the Roman Empire. That said, the current situation is unusual: "all the Great Powers are in decline, except China." The key, though, is that China's potential is not unlimited either. Thus, "America appears weak, compared to what it has been and should be; not, thankfully, compared to its rivals." If Barack Obama plays his cards right, Black suggests, he can gain a strategic victory on the scale of the collapse of the Soviet Empire--perhaps in the Muslim world.
  • I'm So Sick of 'Decline'  The Atlantic's Megan McArdle writes, "It seems that for my entire adult life, the nation has been just on the brink of plunging over some abyss or the other." The business blogger agrees that "the American government doesn't work that well," but she's irritated by pundits' wailings about the country being ungovernable, based merely on the failure of health care reform: "We will continue to muddle along. Neither our government, nor our country, will be close to perfect. But you need only read some history, or travel in the third world, to realize that imperfect as they are, things will still be really damn good."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.