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August 1, 2012

The Folly of Forgetting the West

What the talk about American and European decline misses

The idea of decline is in fashion — so much so that a so-called “geopolitics of emotions” proposes to map the world around each region’s expectations about its own future: helpless and resigned in the West but hopeful and domineering in the East, and resentful and even vengeful in the South. Yet, it should be clear that the emergence of new powers, which is real, need not be construed as the fall of others. Admittedly, a state no longer needs a Western identity to exert global influence and even seek primacy: That alone represents a compelling change. It suggests that for the first time in quite a while the West is no longer decisive and can no longer remain exclusive. But still, entering this new era, the West stays ahead of the rest because the rest cannot afford to be without the West. This essay is, therefore, a case against the case against the West: Somewhere in the shadow of Francis Fukuyama’s much-maligned forecast of the “endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution” there stands a Western world restored.1

Farewell to yesteryear

Entering the second decade of the 20th century one hundred years ago there were 50 countries at most; few of them were dubbed great powers, and those that qualified as world powers were mostly European states. This was a Western world whose dominance had deepened while India and China far in the East, and Turkey at the margin of the West, fell steadily behind. This was a belle époque — a time when, as Simon Schama wrote, Rudyard Kipling’s “fantasy was potent magic” that helped conquer empires in the morning and gather “home for tea” in the afternoon. This also looked like a good time to be alive — until the summer of 1914 when a horrific and unnecessary war that was to last over three decades made it a good time to die. “We were born at the beginning of the First World War,” wrote Albert Camus of his generation. “As adolescents we had the crisis of 1929; at twenty, Hitler. Then came the Ethiopian war, the civil war in Spain and Munich . . . Born and bred in such a world, what did we believe in? Nothing.” This, feared (or hoped) the French humanist, was “humanity’s zero hour.”

That the West stayed on top nonetheless, amidst the ruins of the entire European state system, was owed to a massive investment of American power and leadership that inaugurated a post-European world around a triumphant America with the consent of its new charges. Thus told, and without imperial intent from the United States, the history of the 20th century grows out of the rise of American power but also, and especially, the collapse of everybody else.

Entering the second decade of the 21st century the past looks very distant — like a millennium away. It seems hard to remember, but in the previous epoch, the nation-state ruled and military force prevailed, leaving the weak at the mercy of the strong. This was an epoch of state coercion and national submission, of conquests and empires; this was an epoch, too, when time took its time, and territorial space kept its distance. In the new era, there is little time for a timeout from a world that brings ever more quickly the “over there” of yesteryear over here. Nation-states are fading, and institutions occasionally matter more than their members. Territorial overlaps impose additional measures of state cooperation but they also facilitate a global awakening to the “better” things available elsewhere — and, therefore, more and more pressing bottom-up demands for instant access to them. Now, too, military force is rarely decisive. On the whole, wars are no longer in fashion and other forms of power are favored to shape the world rather than rule it. 2

There are over 200 countries now, and dozens of them can claim moments of relevance during which their influence extends beyond their region and to the world at large. So many states thus featured by history above the others create an unusual condition of zero-polarity: a structure of power in which many states are necessary but none can prove sufficient, and floating transnational loyalties find their voice in multilateral groupings that pretend to be the “brics” of a new world order but lack a decisive steering organization or even shared goals. Across time, this moment — an intermission rather than a transition — is haunted by the ghosts of the previous century’s interwar years, another zero-polar moment whose ugly memories linger.

The specialists and country watchers of the Cold War seem a bit lost and out of place in such a world; they were acrobats who juggled the arithmetic of weapons and other specific attributes of power. Now, their act is less in demand. Replacing them, generalists enjoy an overdue intellectual revenge; they are historical architects who mend the fragmentation of time and space. Staying out of consensual bandwagons fueled by the fashionable trend or issue of the day, they shy away from mass-induced certainties and cautiously acknowledge the unpredictability of the moment. Judges and penitents are one: Final verdicts are postponed pending the discovery of those “grains of gold in the river,” to which Lord Acton referred in 1895, while reflecting on the coming of a new era as well.3 Lord Acton was right to delay judgment: The 20th century had a late start, with a war that the European powers could neither avoid nor settle after it had ended, and with a revolutionary reset of neighboring Russia that its ideological masters could neither complete nor vindicate. These events, as well as the coming of age of America as a world power, proved to be the prelude for the tragedies ahead. Most likely, the same will be said about the 21st century. The years behind were mere foreplay; it is the years ahead that will be decisive. For much better or much worse, standing still is not an option.

No time for a timeout

There are moments when the most gradual evolution of the present into the future is known to be determining. On the way to a post-Western world, this is one such moment — a turning point, although not a crossroads since there is no other way: To deny the unfolding reconfiguration of power and insist that there is no power to cede and no influence to share would soon lead to a sure historical dead end.

Forget about the so-called New World and bury the allegedly Old Europe: At last these clichés have run their course.

At the crossing, the point of maximum pressure is not external but internal. The trip into a new, post-Western order will be more chaotic if the West loses its assurance and cohesion. On both sides of the Atlantic, such a risk is discernible and even growing. Too much doubt among Europeans about the United States, as well as about each other; and too much doubt among Americans about themselves, but also about the states of Europe, is an invitation to seek alternatives elsewhere — for the United States outside Europe, and for the states of Europe beyond their union. That would be repeating in the 21st century the fatal mistake that Europe made after 1919 when it attempted to keep going on its own and without its newly rediscovered partner across the Atlantic. Admittedly, after several decades of renewed intimacy Americans and Europeans are getting tired of each other. But alternatives to their union would be worse — far too demanding, much less rewarding, and certainly less comfortable. America can be more of a trans-Pacific power without turning into less of a transatlantic partner, and Europe can engage Russia or renew its Asian vocation without turning its back on the Atlantic.

Forget about the so-called New World, then, and bury the allegedly Old Europe: At last these clichés have run their course. In truth, America has been “young” for too long — and a “new” Europe has been growing older long enough. By now, both are at the same advanced age when sulking turns into a bad habit and bonding looks like a bad instinct, when slowing down ceases to be a choice and memory lapses reflect a lack of interest and a shortage of attention — when a resignation to relative decline is explained as overdue maturity and can even pass for serenity. But they have not reached retirement age, and giving up is not an option. Rather, as Americans and Europeans look back, the historical reality they uncover is that the time behind has been used well and is a powerful motivation for moving forward together. In the 2010s, the disassociation of the Euro-Atlantic alliance or the disintegration of the eu would hurt each state on both sides of the Atlantic, and would help no other state elsewhere: If not the United States with the states of Europe, with whom; if not the states of Europe as a union, how?

Cynicism, wrote George Santayana, is “the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer.” At the risk of being cynical, so it is with primacy: Save it while you can until losing it when you must. The good news is that it is under conditions of existential crisis that Western societies are most capable to find the will to resist and change. Thus, the West produced all kinds of leaders during the past century. In 1940, Winston Churchill was Britain’s main asset until Franklin D. Roosevelt became Churchill’s best asset. That produced an existential triumph. Moving into a Cold War the West did not start, the best and brightest of the postwar years showed the vision needed to force history to change its ways by keeping America engaged and Europe peaceful. Remember Harry Truman, initially miscast as ordinary and provincial but now praised for his exceptional qualities of character. What Truman and his counterparts across the Atlantic started, Reagan ended — himself a reportedly “relentlessly banal” man who felt the issues better than he understood them. Closer to us, remember the 1970s, as another period of retrogression and gloom which ended with the election of a new wave of political leaders and made of the 1980s winning years for the West: Britain’s Margaret Thatcher (1979), Ronald Reagan (1980), France’s François Mitterrand (1981), Spain’s Felipe Gonzales (1982), and Germany’s Helmut Kohl (1983) — not to mention Pope John Paul II and others elsewhere.

Citizens expect from their governments more of that which has come to define the West: affluence, democracy, law.

Now, a decade into this century and twenty years after the Cold War, good leadership is lacking: A few leaders inspire but do not lead while others lead but do not inspire, and most do neither. Competence is not a prerequisite for greatness. But good leadership, which needs not be great on all accounts, needs some competence — at least once in a while. Admittedly, in a period of growing complexity, it is paradoxical that simplicity — meaning, the discreet fact of ignorance — can be hidden as competence, while inexperience — meaning, the claim of innocence — can be viewed as relevant. But as the future rushes unto us, this is a moment when citizens expect nonetheless from their government more of everything that has come to define the West — affluence, democratic openness, the rule of law, civil society, respect for the environment, and more. Failure to accommodate such expectations would have drastic consequences: already, there has not been as much populism in the world since the 1930s, hardly a reassuring precedent.

The “revolt of the masses,” about which Spain’s José Ortega y Gasset wrote eloquently, finds its way into a web of spontaneous revolutions — a universal awakening stimulated by excessive expectations that conditions that were endured historically, or at least for a lifetime, can be immediately removed — like poverty and inequities, but also like oppression and even, why not, unhappiness — if only . . .  what? The removal of the tyrant is not enough, as shown, say, in the Middle East. During the Arab Spring, nearly 110 years of collective authoritarian rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were ended in about 180 days — with more challenged and likely to fall. Results thus far are hardly conclusive — including widening concerns that the region may have been better off when it was worse off. Over the past few years Japan, on the other side of the world, has turned into a political comedy à l’italienne but without the dolce vita, and India, increasingly dysfunctional, meanders as a heavy economic elephant moving on the delicate political legs of a panda.

This is not a moment when leaders find it easy to do better; but this is a moment when citizens find it difficult to not do worse. While the West is said to be racing to the bottom, races to the top are run by the rest at the expense of the many at the bottom. In China, hundreds of millions of people have been taken out of poverty. For the most part, however, this means that they can eat now, and they can even read, write, and count some, and preferably also speak a few words of English. But they cannot grow out of their few-dollars-a-day factory jobs, which they enter at age fifteen, as a life sentence from which there will be no parole for most of them until they get too old or too sick, whichever comes first. As an aggregate, the Chinese economy is the world’s second largest — with the world’s biggest consumption of Western luxury goods; for its citizens it does not rank among the top 100, with a gdp per capita about a fifth that of Greece and behind Albania — still a long way from Western luxury. For India, catching up with China seems beyond reach — from life expectancy and infant mortality to education and health. But for most of these basic societal indicators, how to explain India’s difficulties in keeping up with Bangladesh? Meantime, Russia is astray: historically defeated, politically recast, and geographically reconfigured since the Cold War, it is showing the dna of a failing state. This is a demandeur state, admittedly too close to be ignored and too big to be offended as a power in Europe (though not a European power), but too distinctive and insufficiently capable to be effective as a power in the world (let alone a world power).

The rest without the West

After the unipolar moment, and past the zero-polar intermission, multipolarity is the most likely configuration of power: It is not in place yet, but its time is coming. In a multipolar configuration, any power can align with any other power. This is the theory. In practice, however, some face “handicaps” that reflect a state’s unwillingness or inability to align with one or more states which are especially hostile or whose values are especially incompatible. As a result, choices of capable allies and partners can be limited or at least get complicated. Thus, relative to the United States and the states of Europe, emerging China and India, and recast Russia, can only fake special partnerships: Too much history and not enough geography stands between them. An imperial power in remission, Russia holds no China card; a pre-imperial power on the make, China, too, has no Russia card of value; and a post-imperial construct still in search of national cohesion, India has no interest in any “card” with either. That alone leaves this emerging geostrategic troika behind the West as all members of the troika are more interested in the United States or Europe than in each other.

Russia momentarily viewed the rise of China as a strategic option to unwanted partnerships with a U.S.-led nato or a Germany-led eu. Bilateral relations were historically at their best, including during the Cold War years when both states embraced the same ideology. Yet prospects of Sino-Russian strategic intimacy are dim, and neither country can credibly hope to use the other as a trump card against the West. Whether in the mid-1920s at the start of their civil war, in the early 1950s during their difficult war with the United States in Korea, or after that when they struggled to define their cultural revolution, the Chinese learned that they cannot expect much from Russia. During the past three decades, they have also learned to enjoy the benefits of normalization with the United States and the rest of the West, including but not limited to Europe. Now, Chinese collusion with Moscow would be even less beneficial than it was during the Cold War, and collision with the West would occur at an even higher cost even in the absence of a highly unlikely war.

For Russia, the United States is a counterweight to a rising Asian neighbor, rather than the other way around.

For Russia, the United States is a convenient and cost-free counterweight to a rising and potentially domineering Asian neighbor, rather than the other way around. In the same vein, Russia can rely on America’s influence to keep Europe free of its former nationalist demons: The Russians may not welcome a united and strong Europe but history has taught them repeatedly to fear strong but divided European powers even more. In retrospect, the Grand Alliance with the United States was Russia’s best geopolitical experience in the 20th century — the only time when Russia ended up on the side of the winners, unlike the all-European Triple Entente for World War I, the odious 1938 nonaggression pact with Germany before World War II, or the convenient Sino-Soviet alliance during the Cold War. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s exalted idea of the “holy” Russian soul that defeated the realities of geography, withstood the trials of history, outlived inept governance, and denied or cleansed corrupting “transplantations” from the West is no longer tenable.

The Indian politician Jairam Ramesh has evoked a composite Asian giant comprised of India and China, which he called “Chindia.” That, too, is unlikely. While maintaining a loose strategic balance, both countries hold incompatible visions of a regional order in Asia. More specifically, they perceive differently the U.S. presence as a trans-Pacific power, which India mostly favors — unlike China. Nor do they have mutually acceptable views of their respective roles in a multipolar world order — no more than each of them does with Russia, and all of them with other new influentials. In Asia specifically, China and India are both aware of the other’s hegemonic impulse, with India more affected because of China’s arrogant tendency to dismiss India’s capacity to live up to its potential while relying on Pakistan’s potential to weaken India’s capacity further. The Indians like to be taken seriously, and President Clinton may have been the first Western leader to fully understand that need and act accordingly. The Chinese are less worried and would prefer to not be bothered so long as their trading routes remain opened and their identity respected — including a territorial integrity about which they are likely to remain most intransigent.

In short, keep on watching, there and elsewhere. No verdict can be expected for a while — the jury is still out, and many hung juries are likely to be heard before any final judgment can be rendered on the final form of a post-Western world. This is what Dean Acheson used to call a Scottish verdict — “Not proven yet.”

Rather the West than the rest

Good leadership in the West will make the journey into a post-Western order easier. But from within as well as relative to others, the Western position in a recast world should not be assumed or asserted with self-serving claims of philanthropic benevolence and sporadically angry bursts of misanthropic resentment. No longer can the West seriously claim, and hope to impose, a right of birth to dominate and educate the rest — to lead a good and rewarding life while other states are left behind and in relative squalor until they learn how to elect good governments that respond to Western rules of political governance and economic fair play. That time is gone.

This remains an American moment, as Secretary of State Clinton likes to tell her audiences at home: a moment, that is, when the world still “looks to us . . . to solve problems on a global scale, in defense of our own interests but also as a force for progress.” As a matter of fact, American power, as well as the legitimacy of its leadership, remains on the whole without rivals. This is also “a pivotal moment,” as President Obama likes to remind his audiences abroad: a moment, that is, which is expected to condition much of the century ahead. This is what happened after 1811, when four years reversed the seemingly irreversible ascent of a revolutionary Europe and “restored” a world that had passed for dead since 1789. That is also what happened after 1911, when the following three years determined the decades that followed; the difference in 2011 is that how soon the world was about to be redefined was not known then, but it is known now.

For the West and the rest alike, it is now the Middle East that stands out as history’s new geographical pivot. There more than anywhere else the past neither dies nor fades away. It just lingers, casting an ever darker shadow on the present. Conditions in that region have little to do with what is remembered of Europe after 1945; rather, this has much to do with what has been forgotten about Europe after 1919. During the Cold War, the U.S. goals for a region it hardly knew were relatively limited: to keep the Soviet Union out, Israel up, and oil coming. To meet these goals the United States spent an estimated $200 billion — a modest expenditure relative to what was at stake. Occasional Soviet intrusions in the region were troublesome but never conclusive because not sustainable; Israel maintained superiority on its neighbors, at a deep discount after American diplomacy helped achieve a peace treaty with Egypt; and for nearly half that period, oil prices were kept profitably low, while American influence on Saudi Arabia kept them short of unreasonable highs for the rest of the time.

Even the most determined Western skeptics agree on the reality and, to an extent, desirability of Western preeminence.

Now, conditions have become dramatically more difficult to manage, and infinitely more expensive to assume. The end of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the Palestinian bid for statehood and its conflict with Israel, the Arab Spring and its Islamist aftermath in Egypt, the risks of new civil wars and more failed states, the region’s continued hold on the global energy market, the lingering effects of the wars that came after September 11 and the persistent threat of new acts of terror, and more — much more — are all issues that are coming to a head. It is like Theodore White’s evocation of a beautiful white whale dying on a magnificent European beach after 1945, and threatening to stink up the entire world; but there are several whales, this time, which all lie on crowded beaches in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and are all in a terminal condition. For the necessary clean up, there like elsewhere, American power matters but it cannot suffice: More than a power-like-any-other, the United States is needed for contributions known to be indispensable. These contributions can no longer be conclusive and thus exclusive: Neither the United States without the rest of the West, nor the West without the rest, nor the rest against the West will do to give the Middle East the stability it lacks. But there will be little order for any country or region in the post-Western world without that stability either.

Even the most determined American declinists and Western skeptics agree on the reality and, to an extent, desirability of continued American and Western preeminence. Significantly, U.S. leadership is most applauded in Asia. Indeed, countries that are the most confident in the United States as a trans-Pacific power are also seemingly least concerned about Chinese ascendancy — like India, which expects the United States to stay ahead of China over the next decade. To the Indians, this is good news: Pro-American sentiments rose from 56 percent in 2006 to 76 percent in 2009, while pro-Chinese sentiments fell to 46 percent, down from 56 percent in 2005. For in the end, it is in the United States that are located the best available contractors for stabilization as well as reconstruction, from the architectural blueprint to the furnishings. Who else can do any better now, and if it is not done now, when? If the baton of Western leadership has not been passed on yet, the way it was handed to the United States by the states of Europe several lifetimes ago, it is because no one is ready to take it.

The 20th century was not only, or even primarily, about the rise of the United States and its power, but also, and arguably mainly, about the collapse of all others. Over the period, moving the power count down from many to one and now zero, has meant that even the more powerful states find it necessary to share the burdens of global responsibilities with others, preferably like-minded but most of all capable and also relevant. In a zero-polar moment there is too much to do for any state or institution to do it alone, however powerful it might be, and there is nothing that can be done alone which could not be done more effectively and at a lesser cost with others, however irresistible the temptation of unilateral action may be. The imperial use of a national “we” has ceased to be practical. But even the definition of what a collective “we” might be is questioned for its restrictions on whom is to be included: Everywhere the need for enlargement is compelling: Why include Russia in a quartet for the Middle East and not Turkey?; why single out India for a permanent seat in the Security Council of the United Nations and not Brazil?; why is there so much of Europe in the governing body of the International Monetary Fund and so little China? For all emerging powers and new influentials, exclusion is no longer acceptable.

A Sarajevo moment

While awaiting the new multipolarity it is time for the rest of the world to get serious about America and the West, just as it is equally time for the West to get serious about the rest of the world. In this decisive period of strategic uncertainties, economic austerity, and political foolishness, that seriousness is not always apparent. The geopolitics of power may have given the West too much time for imperial control, but the geopolitics of emotions is giving the rest too much premature satisfaction. Hear one of Asia’s leading strategists, Kishore Mahbubani, declaring the Western era over a few years ago: Ironically, the death sentence was carried out in Libya for the “intellectual smugness” of the West, which, he wrote, had spent several decades working to bring down Qaddafi before coming to terms with him.4 Well, with Qaddafi gone, with a un-mandated, Western-managed, and nato-enforced send-off, who looks smug now?

It is when dealing with China that the timidity of the Western powers is most troubling and comes to the edge of mendacity. “Our advocacy of human rights,” Vice President Biden told his Chinese hosts in the spring of 2011, “or what we [Americans] refer to as human rights” is “at best an intrusion, and at worst an assault on your [Chinese] sovereignty.” There should be limits on such timidity, not only because of what America does, which is plenty good, but also because of whom Americans are, which is also plenty good. These standards are readily outdone by other Western powers: There is no need to make a case against the rise of the rest, but there is no need to make instead a case for the demise of the West. If nothing else, the past ten years have confirmed — through 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the great recession of 2008, the euro crisis of 2010, and the Arab Spring of 2011 — that what is good for the West need not be good for the rest; but more decisively, the past decade has also shown that what is bad for the West is bad for others too — at least equally bad and possibly worse.

Neither the West nor the rest can afford a form of neo-isolationism: closing borders, withdrawing troops, and denying aid.

Entering a prolonged moment — possibly an era — of austerity, the U.S. temptation to stand aside is real, as it used to do; and so is Europe’s urge to remain aloof, as it has learned to be. Combined, these two trends add up into a form of neo-isolationism that neither the West nor the rest can afford. To achieve an instant retrenchment from the world — its quarrels, its people, and its goods — there are temptations to close borders for protection from unwanted consumers of scarce public goods; to withdraw troops for separation from internal strife or out of exasperation over insufficient results; and to deny aid for lack of compassion no less than a lack of funds. The irony is for everyone to see: Globalization was mainly a Western creation, but de-globalization of the post-Western world, should it occur, will likely be initiated in the West. Yet, even this conclusion confirms that on the whole the rest is fighting to join a world made in the West, rather than to bring it down.

It was at Churchill’s 69th birthday in Tehran that Stalin toasted America as “a country of machines” which he described as “the most important thing in . . . war” and which only Americans could produce in sufficiently large numbers to not “lose this war.” That was called “Lend Lease” then, and a full American warehouse helped Britain and Russia wage the war until the United States was literally forced to join it. That formula is now called leading from behind, and it was used in Libya in 2011. For this approach to work, however, it also will be necessary for the rest of the West to get equally serious about America and the world, beginning with the eu and its members. Regrettably, however, every concern about the United States applies to the states of Europe: the exaggerated declaratory policies relative to their execution; a pandering to China and other emerging states coupled with too much indifference to lesser and smaller or poorer states; widening gaps between capabilities, commitments, and purpose; increasingly erratic and dysfunctional forms of national and multilateral governance — and more, but often worse. A Europe that learned how to speak American as the price for its rehabilitation as a power in the world must now learn anew how to speak European if it is to be heard as a world power. Predictably, that will demand an institutional finality without which Europe will be too weak to follow, let alone to lead, and in the absence of which the United States would have to recast the West in some other ways, outside nato and without the eu, or with other partners that might not be equally appealing and compatible. That would not be the fairytale ending that can give the post-Western world the stability it needs for the global order it seeks.

The West has adapted before: from city-states to nation-states to member states, and it can adapt some more.

Entering the 21st century, do not sell, therefore, the West short. It has adapted before — from city-states to nation-states and now to member states — and it can adapt some more. “Adaptive capability,” wrote political scientist John P. Lowell four decades ago, “mean[s] those natural, material, human, and institutional resources of the nation-state that comprise its potential over an extended period of time for coping with present and foreseeable demands from the geopolitical environment, and for exerting a measure of control over it.” That is another attribute that defines the completeness of American power and the continued preponderance of Western power. What is found among the emerging powers looks more like an adoptive capability, meaning the ability to adopt what is being done elsewhere. The label “made in China” says it all, and Chinese President Hu Jintao’s promise to change the label to “created by China” remains an empty boast. And so does, for that matter, Chinese resiliency, should the past 30 years of growing prosperity fail to be sustained or should current inequities fail to be reduced. By comparison, or for inspiration, consider Japan. As this country struggles to recover from its most devastating shock since August 1945, it is useful to remember the 1929 Kyoto earthquake, which caused a 29 percent loss of Japan’s nominal gdp. Less than fifteen years later this presumably crippled country invaded Manchuria and prepared for a devastating surprise attack on the United States and a war that caused a reported 86 percent level of damage, according to the Bank of Japan; yet, a generation later the “new” remade-in-the-usa Japan was challenging America’s economic supremacy.

The capacity to adapt is also what characterizes Europe and its union. Selling it short would be a mistake as well, for this union is what emerged after all hopes had died, as we ought to remember, too. End the eu, and there will be nothing left to take its place — which is why such an end, repeatedly announced as imminent, could never materialize. Over 40 years ago, in Europe: An Emerging Nation?, the German-born American political scientist Carl Friedrich was already dismissing an excess of “clever talk about the ‘end’ of European integration, about ‘dead alleys,’ ‘crises,’ and ‘impending collapse.’” The story line of the skeptic’s tale has evolved over the past four decades, and yet the tale continues to be told, whether in the context of the single currency or of an elusive common defense policy. Maybe that is for the better after all: The best way to avoid the worst is to think about it during what Hannah Arendt called “moments of anticipation.” By comparison, Voltaire’s Candide was born in an age of reason that ended during an agonizing century of total wars. Machiavelli called the cultivation of the worst and the propensity for thinking tragically “constructive pessimism.” That is not a farewell to hope but a commitment to sustaining that hope in the face of adversity. This is not to claim that euroskeptic pundits have been the true believers in European integration, whichever planet they chose to locate it in — Mars or Venus. But it is to recall that the most skeptical European leaders have often presided over the most significant advances in the European process — including de Gaulle in the 1960s for the takeoff phase, Thatcher in the 1980s for the pre-union phase that launched the single market and its currency, and now Angela Merkel, who inherited the mantle of skeptic-in-chief as her colleagues are torn between the different meanings of an impending institutional finality for Europe.

Most of the richest, industrially advanced, democratically stable states are in, or affiliated with, the West.

For all the talk about the irresistible rise of the non-Western rest of the world, and for all the aggregate data and expert analysis put forward to make it look irreversible, the competition between the West and the rest remains a mismatch, while rivalries within the rest threaten to be less peaceful than in or with the West. Most of the richest, industrially-advanced, democratically stable states are in, or affiliated with, the Western world, where there is also the largest accumulation of hard power the world has ever seen. Much is written about economic growth in Asia, but its new wealth has been acquired in, and depends on, the West — its consumers, its technologies, and its capital. Standing ahead are many years and even decades of uncertainty for the main bidders for preponderant, or at least significant, global status. As noted, inevitability has a poor record in history: History does not share its options, and when picking winners and losers, best to hedge your bets. On the whole, Asia is a continent that has not yet lived its own century of total wars. The Western hope is that it will not, and that the 21st century will extend to “the rest” the peaceful, affluent, and democratic space secured for half of the world in the 20th century; the fear, though, remains that such a lofty aspiration might not be fulfilled.

In the meantime, two decades after the Cold War, the U.S. rise to preponderance need not be remembered with an excess of humility — the wars that might have been avoided, the crises that could have been better managed, and the better world that had been hoped for quicker. For half the world at first, and more next, History was forced to change its ways: regions were pacified, states were recast, and people were pampered. That goes for much of Europe but also for most of Central and South America, Africa whose states gained sovereign independence if not, or not yet, affluence and dignity, and Asia where hundreds of millions of people are waking up from their Western-induced long sleep into a changed world that the Western powers helped free and which they in turn will hopefully help make whole. Were Woodrow Wilson to come back to life and cast an eye on what has become of the world since he brought America back into it, he would be on the whole rather satisfied. The “tedious climb that leads to the final uplands” is taking more than the “one generation or two” forecast by Wilson, but early in the 21st century we stand closer to “those great heights where there shines unobstructed the light of the justice of God” than he envisioned one century, one millennium, one epoch ago.

That the uphill climb ahead will still prove Sisyphean cannot be ruled out. For a bit of the world at least, there is a temptation to return to the old ways of history to be heard or prevail. That is what makes the current moment urgent, as well as pivotal. The collapse from euphoria to hysteria, between 1911 and 1914, did not take long. Unbeknownst to all, the long peace enjoyed for 99 years since 1815 had little time left. In a sense, after another long peace, lived in anguish during the Cold War, there is also little time left for another timeout as a post-Western world is remodeled and refurbished with Western help.


Simon Serfaty is professor of U.S. foreign policy at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. The Zbigniew Brzezinski chair (emeritus) in Global Security and Geopolitics at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, he also serves as senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C. Some of his most recent books include Vital Partnership (2005 ) and Architects of Delusion (2008). His next book is A World Recast (2012).

1. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press,1992). This essay draws on some of the themes developed in the author’s A World Recast (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming in2012).

2. Robert A. Pastor, ed., A Century’s Journey: How the Great Powers Shape the World (Basic Books,1999), 333–334.

3. As quoted by Dean Acheson in Fragments of my Fleece (W.W. Norton & Company,1971), 82.

4. Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (PublicAffairs,2008), 111.