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Simon Heffer: The West Is Losing Its Grip

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The nature of national power has changed, writes Simon Heffer, author of A Short History of Power, published by Notting Hill Editions.

Countries now seek economic, rather than territorial, expansion. In his 1989 essay, The End of History, Francis Fukuyama was perhaps premature in contending that there had been some sort of resolution in history, with the "logic of modern science" and the "desire for recognition" leading inevitably to the collapse of tyrannies.

Perhaps, in his determination to read the last rites over Karl Marx, he neglected to note that there was more than one potential opponent to the American, or liberal democratic, way of doing things. It is ironic that he should wish to dispatch Marx, because his own belief in history as progress is Marxist as much as it is, in the English context, Whiggish.

This 19th Century optimism seems profoundly out of place now. Strife between civilisations and financial collapse have brought new perspectives on the world, and reminded us that the pursuit of power by individual polities, for all the traditional reasons, is a constant. Nothing is yet settled; and probably it never will be.

In the early 21st century it remained clear that the achievements of democracy were not recognised by all civilisations; and, indeed, were challenged by forces in the world sufficient to ensure that the acceptance of democracy as the basis for the world's future would not be automatic. Conceptions of history such as Fukuyama's arise in ages of plenty and of optimism - Macaulay, the godfather of this creed, developed it at a time of the seemingly unlimited expansion of British power and prosperity. The worst global economic downturn for 80 years, and the threat to Western values offered by militant Islamists, have returned the world to a state of pessimism. One feature of that pessimism should be our understanding that the pursuit of power, by whatever means, is an eternal phenomenon, and eternally destabilising.

Democracy itself, in the first decade of the present century, showed its vulnerabilities and opened itself to challenges. The decision by America to pre-empt, or supplant, the United Nations and lead an invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not how modern democracies were supposed to behave. This exercise cannot be compared with the first Gulf War of 1991: then, Iraq had undertaken an act of aggression against Kuwait; Kuwait appealed to the world for help; the world helped under the agreed auspices of the United Nations; when it had achieved its war aim of doing what the Kuwaitis had asked, it went home. Democracies are entitled to defend themselves and their values against provocations: however, the basis upon which the 2003 adventure was justified at the time was quickly shown to have been unstable. No evidence has yet been found that a threat to the security either of America or the rest of the Western alliance was presented by the continuance of the tyrant Saddam Hussein in power. What followed therefore appeared to be an exercise in American imperialism. The exercise of power in extending the hegemon's values was done through the ancient means of the control of territory.

It has also been an underpinning of belief in liberty that its prevalence is required for the operation of a free market, and that such a free market is the means by which the prosperity of a society is maximised. This notion is challenged especially by China, where growing prosperity is achieved despite the absence of democratic values. By ignoring many of the add-ons that go with democracy in the West, such as employment laws and health and safety regulations, China can undercut those economies in which these social considerations are deemed essential. Furthermore, the near-collapse of the West's banking system because of regulatory failures and the perceived decadence of over-remunerated capitalists has offered an extra challenge to the supposed supremacy of that means of conducting economic and political life.

Fukuyama also failed to predict the differing approaches that the most important parts of that liberal consensus - America and Europe - had to furthering the new orthodoxy, or so-called new world order, a division that would offer opportunities to the enemies of liberalism. When the West had a common enemy during the Cold War it was relatively easy (though not inevitably so) to reach accord on matters of policy. Once the common enemy evaporated there was much more room for debate among the Western allies about goals for the future.

To Europe, the new post-Cold War orthodoxy would be furthered by the liberal means of enabling a victory of ideas after a period of persuasion and argument. To the Americans the new order would be imposed, if necessary, by force, and America would be the leading power in doing so. Indeed, America before the events of 11 September 2001 saw itself (following the collapse of the Soviet Union) as the only world power, the unquestioned power for the future, and one that by wealth and geographical situation was invulnerable either to economic or physical assault. History shows that no such assumption, though similar have often been made, is reliable.

Europe after the Second World War identified the ideology of the nation state as the source of conflict in so many of its wars since the Treaty of Westphalia. This was because of the desire of nations from time to time (and notably, since the mid-19th Century, Germany) to overturn a balance of power and to assert the values of their own particular nationalisms. As a counter to this ideology it developed a variant of its own, which has become just as powerful an ideology in its way: supra-nationalism.

It has sought through the European Union to begin a project of eliminating nations and nationalism from the ideas of Europe, and forging instead a common European polity. Power will always remain a driving force: supranationalism is an attempt to reduce and eliminate the conflicts that arise in the pursuit of power, not least by establishing common systems of territory, markets and values, and (in the European context) doing so in a predominantly secular way. This is one model of civilisation; it is challenged both by the notion of Islam, which remains theocratic in its driving force, and by the rise of other fundamentalisms, such as among Christians in America.

The Treaty of Lisbon, ratified in 2009, was the latest and most significant part of the diplomatic process used to further supranationalism, with its provision for the European Union to have its own foreign minister and foreign policy. A single currency and economic policy were already extant, though do not - yet - include all 27 members of the EU. Although in Samuel Huntington's view, the West is a common civilisation, one of the driving forces behind European integration has been to create a power bloc capable of matching that of America. Rivalries and differences are inevitable, and not just between these two regions in the same civilisation. They are also happening within Europe, because of the discrete histories, identities and ethnicities within the European Union, and may yet happen in America, where a gulf is already visible between the 'liberal' east and west coasts and the more conservative 'middle America'.

It is believed by European idealists that Germany can become, within the European Union, something like Texas, with a definite identity of its own but also with a sense of belonging to something with a common future. However, the historical sense of the various European peoples, with distinct national identities, ethnicities and atavistic senses of nationhood that far transcend those loyalties applying to states in America, may continue to make unity difficult. Germany had certainly for decades been compliant in the unity project, not least because of its consciousness of its guilt for the events of 1933-45.

However, restiveness in 2010 about Germany's supposed obligation to bail out economically weaker members of the EU who had fallen victim to their own economic delinquency stemmed from a growing belief that Germans, 65 years on, had apologised enough and made sufficient amends for their grandfathers' evil. Old ideas of nation die hard.

One principal means of achieving unity in Europe has since 1999 been through the attempt at a single currency. As was seen in the financial crisis after 2008, and not just in Germany, such a union strains the notion of supranationalism. When Greece in particular was the beneficiary of a rescue package in 2010, German taxpayers asked why the fruits of their labours should be used to subsidise those not prepared to work so hard or take such risks. The answer was that it was in the interests of the European ideal. The German sense of national identity, consciously suppressed since 1945, is now sufficiently resurgent to find this problematical.

Robert Kagan argued in 2003 that the West was divided in its attitudes to the exercise of power for the future: 'One of the things that most clearly divides Europeans and Americans today is a philosophical, even metaphysical disagreement over where exactly mankind stands on the continuum between the laws of the jungle and the laws of reason.'

His argument is that Europe has chosen to pursue a Kantian 'perpetual peace' while America 'remains mired in history, exercising power in an anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable, and where true security and the defence and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession of military might'. He contended that Europe, which now seeks to settle differences by the application of reason, has the luxury of doing so only because America is standing to one side waiting to settle things by the application of force. It is what Kagan calls the 'double standard' of America's advocating restraint by others while being always prepared itself to exercise force.

Kagan wrote those words before the full humiliation of the Bush regime in Iraq, and its further difficulties in Afghanistan. His original thesis was underpinned by a sense of certainty that America would prevail (even though the lesson of Vietnam should have made him cautious on that front), and would continue to allow Europe the luxury of elegant displays of rationality. History subsequently showed that American prevalence was not inevitable; that even an American administration, under George W. Bush's successor, could start to see the damage done to their nation's reputation in the world by the perceptions of the philosophy Kagan was expounding; and that an element of reasoning may, after all, have to be brought into play by a nation for which, hitherto, force had appeared to be enough.

Within a few years of Kagan's having written these opinions, his economic assumptions about the growing might of America began to look wrong and outdated; his understatement of the threat by China not so much in the military sense, but as an economic power, in relation to America looks ill-judged; and America, the once inevitably powerful, seems to be withdrawing within itself, thanks to a combination of falling reputation and growing economic troubles undermining its self-confidence, and a national debate about the nature of the American identity and values.

The difficulty that America found itself in during the winter of 2011, when its former ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising, demonstrated the decline of America's ability to change the weather in international relations. Egyptians proclaimed that this was their revolution, and not America's; and the concept of American intervention, toxified after the Iraq expedition, made it so.

Plainly, it is impossible accurately to predict the future course of history. The speed with which China, India and Brazil have grown as economies, and the potential they have to command markets around the world and to enrich themselves accordingly, have taken America very much by surprise; but then recent history has been full of surprises. The lingering shock of the end of the Soviet empire to those who benefited from it helps explain how difficult it has been for Russia to adjust to no longer having its neighbours as its supplicants. And the shock felt in America by the attacks of September 2001 was not least because the country's own intelligence services had not prepared the people for the eventuality of such a murderous assault, and the notion of the invulnerable home had never been challenged.

The split between the two wings of the West about how to exercise their power reflects the shift in the motivation for conflict. Having been used, for the whole of the 20th century, to fighting wars rooted in ideological differences, the West is now having to cope with an ill-defined religious insurgency with a strong ideological aspect. For America, the means it used to deal with threats during the Cold War - a nuclear arsenal and heavily funded conventional forces - remain. As for Europe, it has decided it would rather spend money on welfare than on arms; indeed in some of the constituent nations that had been decided before their own economic troubles forced retrenchment on all fronts. This was the so-called 'peace dividend' trumpeted by Western leaders immediately after the end of the Cold War.

Long before the rise of al-Qaeda, and long before the end of the Cold War, Europe had however been happy to shelter under the umbrella of a friendly superpower against the threat of an unfriendly one. However, just as the nature of exertion of power appears to have changed one more time, from the martial to the diplomatic or economic, there is - as with Hitler, and Stalin's reversion to medievalism in the 20th century - evidence that a new reversion has taken place: the desire by militant Islam to impose its ideological-religious will by force of arms.

Fukuyama asked: 'Is history directional, and is there reason to think that there will be a universal evolution in the direction of liberal democracy?" If it was thought the answer was "yes", there has been a diversion, or even a reverse, thanks to the surge of radical Islam. In the immediate aftermath of the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 it was clear that a transition to what the West calls 'democracy' could not be taken for granted: partly because of the survival of political vested interests, partly because of an opportunity presenting itself to Islamists who reject democracy on the Western model. Nor is an extreme religious ideology the only cause of a breach with the Fukuyama doctrine. There is also a retreat from democracy in post-Soviet Russia, and with it a disdain for democratic values such as the rule of law, blind justice, freedom from corruption and the resolution of differences by diplomatic means.

In his own extended rumination on the future, Huntington argued that the world order had been remade after the Cold War. Nations were no longer what mattered, but civilisations; and conflicts in future would largely occur between them. He drew a map of the main civilisations: Western, Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese. These divisions raise further questions: not least, as has been discussed, how coherent is the West? The Kagan thesis about the coherence of one of Huntington's civilisations, which is compelling, has it that the community of view between Europe and America may not last. Even within Europe there are divisions, based on different political cultures (such as dirigisme against liberal economics) and histories, and alignments continue to change.

The Orthodox civilisation includes some former Soviet republics whose relations with Russia are toxic and look likely to remain so. Two of the most powerful and rising civilisations, the Hindu and the Sinic, are for the most part nations - India and China. But Huntington's point is well made, not least because of the strong identification of common interests between nations in the Muslim world, sub-Saharan Africa, the English-speaking world (which through Britain has a bridge into Europe) and Latin American nations: though how far the last of those civilisations will remain coherent if Brazil surges far ahead of its neighbours is an interesting point. Finally, though not least, there are, as has been noted, similar tensions in post-banking-crisis Europe, because of the economic predominance of Germany.

Huntington's main point, as has been seen, is that power is shifting from its traditional home in Europe, and its recent home in America, to parts of the planet that used to be called 'third world': China, India, Brazil and, possibly, Russia, depending on its political stability, its conduct of international relations, and the value in the global marketplace of its natural resources. What marks Russia out from the other three powers is its determination to bring 20th-century methods into the 21st-century context to get its way. India has a long-standing issue with Kashmir, but otherwise it, China and Brazil see the acquiition of power now as something to be accomplished purely by economic success rather than by force and conquest. The idea that they wish to advance - even in its own way China - is capitalism.

Russia, as it showed in Georgia in 2008, is still willing to aggress against its neighbours if the opportunity arises. It has been destabilising in various ways its former possessions in the Baltic States, including by cyber-attack, and has raised aggressive protests against Poland when it was proposed to site an American missile shield on Polish soil. Whereas it seeks to acquire influence by intimidation, an emerging power such as China acquires it by investment: notably in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

In the 21st century power consists in some new, but also in some surprisingly traditional, forms. Who has the money and the arsenals it buys still matters profoundly; but who has the natural resources to survive and prosper becomes an ever more important consideration. Polities with both - and scarce resources will command high prices, thereby creating wealth and the ability to arm for those who have them - will inevitably take the commanding heights.

Nor is energy the sole commodity that will confer power: water, biofuels, cultivable land and food will all become increasingly significant as populations grow and the means to keep them alive dwindles. Nations that offer expert services at competitive prices, such as Switzerland, or manufacture high quality innovative goods, such as Japan, will always exercise considerable economic power. But in terms of the commodities that are likely to be important in the 21st century, they will be customers rather than suppliers, and in a seller's market, with the constraints on their growth that that must entail.

The late 20th century saw various attempts by smaller polities to challenge or get on equal terms with superpowers by pooling power: as well as the European Union there was, in a different way, the Organisation of African Unity, which has sought to create a common voice for Africa without aspiring to any form of economic union; and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. There is an attempt under way to replace the Organisation of American States, which has long been regarded as a tool of United States policy, with a new Latin American power bloc whose 32 members met for the first time in February 2010 and excluded America and Canada.

Tensions within such actual or notional federations between established vested interests make them unstable and divisible. The real threat to established powers is either presented by the economic growth of rivals or by a ruthless decision to use force. Just as the pursuit of power remains an eternal phenomenon, so too is it a constant truth that from economic power flow other forms of might. With seven admitted nuclear powers on earth (and for all one knows twice that number actually) the threat of mutually assured destruction still exists, and still holds back major powers from pursuing armed solutions to quarrels; this is the greatest change from even just a century ago.

With certain exceptions, such as the dispute over Kashmir or the insurgency in Chechnya, territorial ambitions no longer drive the pursuit of power. Even America's attempt at imperialism through the control of territory in Iraq was temporary, as it had had to be in Vietnam. The religious/ideological fervour of militant Islam seeks power for a renewed Caliphate; but China is conquering Africa by stealth, by massive economic investment and ownership of resources, not by imposing its rule or appointing governors general.

It is also making huge investments in European businesses. The martial and financial weakness of many sub-Saharan African countries makes such a stealthy imperialism possible in the way it is not in resource-rich but still economically fragile Russia.

With oil and gas being finite resources, and often to be found in unstable polities, the pursuit of power to acquire the natural resources that sustain economies and living standards will in time become paramount; and many smaller and more vulnerable polities will find themselves marginalised or under serious economic threat. The fashionable, post-modern view is that in an age of democracies, power is widely dispersed through societies, weakening states and once-powerful institutions and the individuals who embody them. That can only be true so long as democracy pertains, and so long as post-democratic means are not deemed essential to maintain ways of life, living standards, and ultimately order.

It used to be a habit of leading powers that they became aggressive simply to protect their pre-eminence. The pervasiveness of American influence around the globe after 1945, and especially after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s, caused it to be disliked around the world for what was perceived to be neo-imperialism. The attacks on America in September 2001 may be interpreted as a feature of the backlash against this; its leadership of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was certainly taken as further evidence of that trait. As soon as Russia felt rich enough to aggress against Georgia in 2008 it did so, partly to reassure its citizenry that the old swaggering image of the Cold War era had not entirely been given up. The world waits to see whether China will now put its economic might to martial use, in a useful exhibition of its potential muscle.

America remains, for the moment, the world's leading power as defined by the strength of its economy. Its crisis of confidence as it enters the second decade of this century is unlikely to be easily rectified. It is deeply divided politically. It is united by a fear, largely unspoken, of being overtaken by China, a country that thanks to its populousness is already more than America's equal militarily. China seems to have no martial intentions against its rivals, not least because it well understands how wars deplete economies; the power China seeks now is the power money can buy (notably acquiring assets around the globe), and the supply of money will be compromised if it chooses to engage in a conventional war. It uses other means of destabilising its rivals in order to steal economic advantage, such as cyberwar. Russia has tried to use this weapon against its perceived enemies too, notably in the Baltic states.

Economic power is shifting from the West, because of the decadent principles upon which so many of its economies are run. There has been an addiction to debt; a commitment to excessive welfarism; over-regulation, especially of working practices; cartelisation; and the result of all this is a high cost base that reduces competitiveness. There are exceptions, such as Germany, which has combined fiscal rectitude with a manufacturing economy specialising in high-value, high-performance goods whose reputation defies a high exchange rate. But attempts to rein in spending and to remove the state from people's lives are not inevitably welcomed, as has been shown by the failure in France of President Sarkozy to implement, in the face of violent protests and strikes, the reform agenda he promised when elected in 2007. Only the imminence of bankruptcy seems to have the required salutary effect, as both Ireland and Greece demonstrated in 2010, the latter with great reluctance.

For the moment, Huntington's analysis holds largely true. For all the rivalries within, say, the European Union, there is much evidence that European nations will come together if faced with a considerable threat from a rival civilisation. France, for example, was deeply opposed to the Iraq war in 2003. It has, however, been a consistent supporter of the attempt to root out nurseries of terrorism in Afghanistan, and its leaders have for the last decade voiced powerful opposition to the prospect of Iranian nuclear developments. There is solidarity in sub-Saharan Africa on behalf of nations criticised by the West - such as Zimbabwe has been - however justified that criticism might have been. The survival of Robert Mugabe, after three decades of systematic human rights abuse and the impoverishment of his mineral-rich nation, is not least down to the unwavering support of Jacob Zuma, the present President of South Africa, and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Even if other African leaders do not share Mugabe's paranoia towards the white man, they do seem to regard it as culturally appropriate, in the terms of their civilisation, to give him moral support.

There are many similar examples in the Islamic world of a failure to condemn, or even of support for, extremist activity in other Muslim countries. America is a power whose vulnerability is revealed with increasinged frequency not just because of economic difficulties, but because of the attention paid to it by terrorists. Perhaps the next tectonic shift in history will come if America, sensing its own depletion even more keenly than at present, determines to withdraw from the world and look in again upon itself, as it did in the 1920s and 1930s. A problem with multi-trillion-dollar debt may in time limit what America feels it can practically achieve outside its own borders. On the southern of those borders it has the potential of a failed state in Mexico, whose troubles caused by a narco-war there are already spilling over into the United States. But in an age when the mass media purvey images more effectively than they purvey fact or reality, the most substantial pressure on America is the sense of its own unpopularity in the world. Sensitivity by Americans to accusations of cultural and physical imperialism is now acute, and could prove a driving force in reducing the nation's engagement with the world. This may be augmented by a chronic economic problem in America, burdened as it is by debt of incomprehensible size, and the need to retrench and reduce its role in the world while an economic reconstruction takes place.

In the last century or so, the course of world history has been altered by assertions of all of the four main motivations behind the pursuit of power: considerations of territory, the desire for wealth, the fervours of religion and of ideology have all provoked conflict and change. If history has not ended, its course has speeded up. No longer does one theme dominate whole centuries or epochs; the widespread existence of autonomous and ambitious polities means that conflicts are more likely, more frequent, and liable to be caused by any of the main influences.

The course of history will continue to move in the unstable and unpredictable way it has since 1914. The competition is still on, even if the development of civilisation dictates that some of the natural competitors must find more subtle methods of playing. The triumph of liberal democracy remains an unfinished victory. The Western, democratic civilisation is on the defensive. The ideas of Hobbes, Machiavelli and Nietzsche all compete to undermine it. Idealism is threatened by the realities of human nature. The worst form of complacency in the West would be to continue to believe that our own values are so superior that they cannot in the long term be challenged by those of others - especially if the machines of repression prove to function successfully in the factories of prosperity.

The first step in the defence of democracy must be to recognise that the desire of others to assert their power, for their reasons, is as pervasive as our own. If we use our liberties to allow our own value system to be undermined, then we shall lose them.

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