Western civilisation is in terminal decline.
Is the sun setting on the dominance of Western civilisation? (Image: KathyS, Flickr)
Explainer by Dr Paul Monk
There is a widespread tendency to see the 21st century as “the Asian century”, and to view Europe and the United States as receding. Indeed, some believe that the West is in “terminal” decline: it’s not just becoming less powerful, it’s coming to an end – perhaps even a quick and inglorious collapse.
Of course relative decline, absolute decline and terminal decline are quite different things. And given that the West has been in eclipse or crisis at various times in the past, what exactly do we mean by “Western civilisation”? Do we mean the civilisation that dates back to Greece and Rome; or the Christian civilisation that gave us the culture we are all familiar with; or the optimistic and materialistic culture of the Enlightenment; or industrial civilisation; or simply Western dominance of world politics?
This complexity means that it’s easy for people arguing about terminal decline to talk past or around one another. The following summary aims to cover a wide range of important issues in the debate without blurring the lines between different concepts.
The West has steadily been losing power and influence
Western civilisation expanded to dominate the world between 1492 and 1914. Since then its prestige and power have been falling. That decline is now terminal because even the United States is losing ground in political, economic and military terms, while Europe’s power in world affairs is gone beyond recall.
The West is in a demographic crisis
The populations of all the European states are aging and shrinking. Were it not for Hispanic immigration, the United States would be experiencing the same.
The West has lost touch with its core spiritual values
The heart of Western civilisation was the Christian religion. It is now thriving in Africa and Latin America, but it is fading in much of Europe and has decayed in the United States, where dubious fundamentalist splinters and new-fangled, rootless religions hold sway.
The West is turning its back on the progress it has made
The modern West was based on two planks: the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment vision of progress. Both have lost prestige as more and more people reject the ideals of the Enlightenment, embrace cultural relativism, and see technological progress as the cause of ecological disaster.
The West is serving as a model for the world like never before
Far from being in terminal decline, Western civilisation is in a powerful position: all over the world now, the physical sciences, industrial technologies, political institutions, moral values, modes of dress and popular entertainment pioneered in the West are taking root.
The West has the ability to renew itself as the world changes
Western civilisation sets itself apart from others by its insistence on critical reflection and institutional renewal, much as the Greeks set them themselves apart from Persians, Egyptians, Indians and Chinese. We are now in a stage of enormous critical reflection and institutional change and these things will shape the 21st century.
It is too early to write off Western civilisation
As early as the fifth century CE, St Augustine and other Christian figures thought that they were living in the old age of the world. As it turned out, the greatest accomplishments of Western civilisation lay well over a thousand years ahead. Western civilisation is incomparably richer and more dynamic now than it was in the fifth century, so it’s far too early to speak of terminal decline.
The rise of the “rest” is not as overwhelming as sometimes portrayed
The states seen as challenging the West, most notably China and India, have only made progress by embracing what the West has had to offer. In any case, they have serious problems of their own and it is by no means clear that they will do better than the West in the next few decades.
Western civilisation is already taking steps to reform itself
The most insistent and best-informed calls for scientific integrity, political reform and ecological responsibility are coming from the great centres of learning in the West. If they are heeded, the 21st century will see a renovation and renewal of Western civilisation. We should bet on them prevailing.
- Civilisation: The West and the Rest (book) by Niall Ferguson – argues that the West is facing the prospect of “outright collapse”
- America’s ‘Oh Sh*t Moment’ by Niall Ferguson – summarises his argument and suggests that the West can avoid total collapse… if it “reboots the whole system”
- Think Again: American Decline by Gideon Rachman – Financial Times commentator argues that this time, the decline is “for real”
- Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline by Robert Kagan – argues that decline is only inevitable if people convince themselves it is inevitable
- The Post-American World (book) by Fareed Zakaria – argues that the major trend isn’t the fall of the West, but the rise of the rest
- The Rise of the Rest by Fareed Zakaria – edited extract from The Post-American World
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