The empire breaks down

Aug 14, 2023
Concept for Peace, map from earthobservatory/nasa.

The West’s decline is no triumph, but nor is it a tragedy. It’s just the latest reminder that all organising systems, even empires, are transient, that success always brings complacency, but that the best of human civilisation is renewed and transformed even as the old order fades away.

In the grand theatre of global politics, the West, once a triumphant actor, now stumbles, its script outdated and its performance lacklustre. The liberal order, once hailed as the epitome of progress, finds itself caught in a Thucydides trap.

The expansion of NATO, once a political necessity, now serves as a monument to the West’s complacency and overreach.

The necessities of the Cold War and Empire drove the construction of a vast national security apparatus, one operating outside democratic constraints that propagandised against Russia and for the status quo, reflexively.

From the attempt to murder the Bolshevik revolution in its cradle, the Red Scare, atomic spies, McCarthyism, the Cold War—any and all defeats turned into a victory on 10,000 silver screens.

Exposed to decades of popular culture and the endlessly recycling official misinformation portraying the end of the Cold War as a Western victory and Russians as the “baddies who always lose in the end,” the children and especially the grandchildren of the Cold War victors began to see themselves as exceptional when they had merely forgotten two existentially important maxims of war: one ancient and one modern.

“Know thyself, know thine enemy.”

“Don’t invade Russia.”

The United States of Amnesia (to use Vidal’s phrase) chose to forget that the agreement that ended the Cold War was made not with a Union of the Soviets, but with the men and women of Russia, who have perfectly understandable reasons to be fearful of invasion from the West.

The West’s aggressive posture, combined with systemic weakness, is the underlying cause of its current predicament.

The proximate cause can be traced to Biden. Recalling a visit to Russia in ’97, Biden says that Russian diplomats outraged at plans for the expansion of NATO, two of which griped that it would force them into some sort of alliance with China, were… as he tells the story, firmly put in their place. As told by Biden himself during a speech at the Atlantic Council in 1997, his reply was: “Good luck in your senior year”… “If that doesn’t work, try Iran.”

Rather than accept the rise of Russia and China, and attempting to cultivate a sympathetic understanding of the geopolitical other, which might lead to a well-organised process of hybridisation and renewal, the empire doubled down on its exceptionalism.

The West’s failure in Ukraine is a warning, a sign of a deeper malaise. It’s a failure of a strategy driven by events, not an understanding of interests and goals. The inability to end the war in Ukraine is only a sign of weakness that proves the post-Cold War era of Western dominance is coming to an end.

The problem at the heart of it is Western exceptionalism and, frankly, Western feelings of white superiority.

As Australians and New Zealanders, as the children of the Enlightenment, we have always known that the American conception of nationhood is narcissistic, exceptionalist, and infantile, with no appetite for anything but celebration or reassurance.

Like Dr. Morbius on the Forbidden Planet or a fatally narcissistic older brother in denial and unable to accept responsibility for his endless interference, hypocrisy, and for letting his monsters loose while he dreams. Our sad task as enablers is offering excuses to the outraged neighbours.

The Democrats’ challenge to Putin, driven by their hatred for Russians and the need to blame someone for their failure to defeat Trump, is just another symptom of this mindset.

The West’s inability to adapt, to evolve while staying true to its original insight, is sad and disappointing.

We Australians were once blessed by a tyranny of distance that gave us our tiny slice of psychological independence. That is why, as in the case of Vietnam, it is up to Australians to call an end to this madness.

In the end, the West’s story is one of empires that come and go, passing with failure, excess, and overreach. It’s a bit sad to witness the dying of old paradigms.

But to play Cassandra to the Pax Americana and face ridicule and disbelief bravely is the task of the hero today. We must carry the cross—not in the bright moments of our tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of our personal despair.

The West’s decline is no triumph, but nor is it a tragedy. It’s just the latest reminder that all organising systems, even empires, are transient, that success always brings complacency, but that the best of human civilisation is renewed and transformed even as the old order fades away—hybrid vigour.

For truly we actually have little to worry about. The best of our civilisation is the subject of envy and very disciplined copying.

The Scottish Enlightenment promoted universal education, basic hygiene, and the virtues of thrift, hard work, honesty, and enterprise, and it delivered a scientific and political revolution.

China is the “other,” as clever and as determined as the West has ever been. Like the West, first and foremost in the business of preserving itself, let us see how they do with the tools available to them.

The rise of China is not a crisis but an opportunity. To save China, the Chinese will have to save the planet, which luckily for us will also mean saving the other members of the human family.

Thank God for the Chinese!

The yin and yang of the world system are intact.

Our strong ties with Asian economies should guide us in understanding the shifting global power dynamics.

The idea of Western exceptionalism and the sense of racial superiority must be dismantled. It is an outdated concept that has fuelled conflicts and misunderstandings. We need to recognise that every nation has its own unique history, culture, and values, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to governance or global leadership.

Best we rest on the bench for a bit and let our cousins take the lead, as they have done so many times in the past, and “make love not war.”

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