Political pundits have been prophesising about the imminent fall of ‘The West’. Speaking, not necessarily in the first half of the 21st century, but, since the first quarter of the 20th – many a politician, poet and social scientist have been consistently forecasting dark clouds over the Western Hemisphere. How many of these carry genuine academic content, and how many are disguised hopes; is a story for another day. But, what is more important, is the question itself – Is the West Declining?
To proceed, we need to be clear on terminologies. What is the ‘West’? A random amalgamation of countries lying to the West of Prime Meridian, a common religious heritage, a similar political system or a set of familiar values? I am not sure if the proponents of the Decline theory have themselves reached a consensus, as to what the word exactly means. But, I believe, there is a broad agreement as to what the word implies. A rough combination of geography and ideology; Western Europe and North America, with liberal socio-political ideals (at least, for themselves) would somehow bracket the fluid term.
Now, when it is purported, that the West is declining, does it mean the internal, enlightenment ideals of Post-Renaissance Europe are falling apart? Or, the (neo)colonialism perpetrated by these countries is rolling itself back? While most people, for the sake of convenience, prefer not to draw lines between the two, it is of supreme importance to see the daylight between these entities; that are not only distinct, but, sometimes mutually exclusive as well. The Norwegian Sociologist, Johan Galtung, considered to be the principal founder of Peace and Conflict Studies, impressed upon the same point, when he famously said in an interview, “I Love the US Republic, and I Hate the US Empire”. This distinction is apt to make and has been held even by people resisting Western Imperialism, like the Druze which after fighting the French and establishing a provisional government in the Druze country issued a proclamation to win complete independence for Syria; so as to apply ‘the principles of the French Revolution’. While they fought the un-French rule of the French as we fought the un-British rule of the British, it was never forgotten that the fight is against imperial ambitions, and not ideals that have incidentally taken root in Europe, more strongly than they did here.
While some economists might argue, that within a decade China will surpass the USA in her size of economy, and with players like Russia and Turkey out-manoeuvring the West (especially, the USA) in many geo-strategic theatres; many also see a shift from a uni-polar to a multi-polar world; one must not forget the distinction between superpower realism and human values. Is civilizational strength only to be measured by the arithmetic of GDP, or the muscle flex of geo-politics?
Were we to draw proportionalities between a civilization and its aircraft carries in alien waters, still, the Decline Theory would be somewhat dubious, at least for the near future. But, the point here is that we must see civilizational strength; in its ability to uplift human populace. And for that, the very division of mankind into mutually hostile spheres; seems absurd. There have been times in human history when the Eastern parts of the world have far exceeded the Western parts in human upliftment, and there have been times when the opposite has been true as well. To be more nuanced; there have been people, movements, organizations and states in every part of the world who have upheld enlightenment values better than others, at one point or the other.
In recent human history, while the Western nations have designed their foreign policies in terms of realpolitik and used methods; good, bad and ugly – to further their interests abroad, enlightenment values have also found sound ground in these countries, where (within their borders) human values are usually held in high respect. While we denounce and resist the former, we must differentiate it from the latter. Latter, which though rooted more in the Western World, consists of values that are common to all. From the declaration of the French revolutionaries, ‘Men are born, and always continue, free, and equal in respect of their rights’, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrining the equality and dignity of the human person; there is nothing which can, or should be, confined to, or by, geography. While the dwindling of Western Imperialism is a possible and hopeful prospect, the twilight of these enlightenment ideals, would ring bells of despair for the entire humankind.
When the Western military ambitions are conveniently clubbed with the universally accepted (at least, on paper) ideals of freedom, dignity, equality and democracy; what usually follows are lame apologetics for socio-political dictatorships; where a King, a patriarch, a leader, or a party assumes the mantle of an entire nation and decides on its behalf, with fatherly condescension and draconian methodology, under the guise of cultural relativism – what is right and what is wrong. George Orwell, no fan of Western Imperialism or capitalism, refutes a similar false equivalence in a write-up from 1941, ‘Bourgeois Democracy is not enough, but it is very much better than Fascism’.
While I dare to hope for a day; when the external policies of Western countries reflect their internal ideals, I fear for the day when these nations revert back to anachronistic ideologies and dictatorships. It is in this sense, I contend, that ‘West’ is not, and more importantly, should not decline. While we remember protests against the Vietnam War and for the Civil Rights movements, I find the same people renegading on their long-held freedoms, hard to conceive. While we have seen resistance to imperialist ambitions in Western countries itself, to imagine them on the streets of London, Berlin or New York asking to undo women suffrage or to revive slavery, seems impossible.
Postscript: The Soviet activist and writer Maxim Gorki in a letter, written in 1906, defined Socialism as the ‘religion of liberty, equality and fraternity’- the very ideals of the French Revolution. Genuine movements throughout the world have fought for furthering these ideals, and not for constraining them. If the West declines in civilizational terms, it would not be for the excess of these ideals, but from the lack of it.
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