Tartu, Estonia. 21 October. Does the West want to lead? In his masterpiece The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire first published pointedly in 1776 English historian Edward Gibbon wrote, “The five marks of the Roman decaying culture: Concern with displaying affluence instead of building wealth; Obsession with sex and perversions of sex; Art becomes freakish and sensationalistic instead of creative and original; Widening disparity between very rich and very poor; Increased demand to live off the state”. Sequestration, Syria, Snowden and Shutdown America shows at least some of the signs of Gibbon’s Rome.
The other day I was in conversation with one of NATO’s most senior and distinguished officers who alluded to the strange symmetry of Western history. The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht brought a final end to Spain’s once great empire and opened a century of systemic struggle between Britain and France for global supremacy. In 1815 the Battle of Waterloo finally ended that struggle in Britain’s favour. A century ago Europe stood on the brink of the cataclysmic First World War that would end Britain’s dominion and slowly usher in the American century. 2013?
The United States pulled back from the brink this past week. However, all the signs are that this is but a temporary truce and that come January Washington ideologues on both left and right could well tip America and the West over the edge into self-induced recession. The damage to American leadership would be incalculable.
As for Europe the only saving grace at the IMF’s Global Challenges, Global Solutions conference in shutdown Washington was that for once Europe’s woes were not dominating the agenda.
Recent events have demonstrated the malaise from which politics and strategy is suffering in both Washington and Western Europe’s power capitals - Berlin, Paris and London. It is as though the very pillars of the West are beginning to buckle just as China is emerging to pose a systemic challenge to Western leadership. It as though the West has lost the will to compete. Indeed, British finance minister George Osborne spent much of last week trying desperately to sell Britain piecemeal to China.
It is not China’s rise that is risking the West’s leadership but rather the elite malaise so horribly self-evident in Washington these past weeks and Europe these past years. Absurdly self-abusive partisan politics, blindly destructive ‘visions’ that bear no relationship to citizens’ lives, corrosive political correctness that paralyzes policies by championing the needs of the few at the expense of increasingly alienated majorities who sit in silent, sullen and impotent witness at the follies of their leaders. Patriotism, duty and obligation are too often sneered at as passé by the very people charged with leadership. Gibbon would have recognised all of this.
Gibbon believed Rome fell because Romans became declinist and Roman leaders became so full of their own conceits that they were unable to see the big strategic picture. In the wake of the Washington fiasco China called this week for the “de-Americanisation” of the world. And on the face of it the Chinese may have a point.
So, is the West doomed? There is a very big difference between Gibbon’s Rome/Britain of 1776 and between Britain in 1913 and the West in 2013. In 1913 Britain was facing the hard consequences of rapid decline that had set in somewhere between the end of the American Civil War in 1865 and German unification in 1871. Indeed, in 1913 Germany’s industrial production was almost twice that of Britain’s.
However, whilst China’s economy is today worth some $12 trillion compared with an America worth some $16 trillion a range of structural political, economic, diplomatic and military power factors suggest that leadership is still there for America’s taking…if Washington wants it. The same goes for Europeans.
Here in Estonia on freedom’s front-line some forty kilometres from the Russian border the question of America’s will to lead and Europe’s willingness to act hangs in the air like mist in the forests of silver birch that surround me. For the first time in their scorched history Estonians thought they were secure, now they are not so sure.
Today is the anniversary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s great 1805 victory at the Battle of Trafalgar which cemented British naval supremacy for a century. If the West still wants to lead it must compete for as the great man said; “First achieve victory and then make best use of it”.
As for Gibbon the loss of the American colonies proved an irritating inconvenience for Britain but nothing more. Indeed, through the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which forbade European colonial ‘interference’ in the Americas the US effectively protected Britain’s back enabling a massive expansion in the British Empire to the south and east. Such is history.
Decline and fall? Only if we in the West will it.