I HAVE just finished reading J H Breasted's magisterial work Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, first published in 1916. In this book, Breasted traces the rise and fall of a succession of powerful kingdoms and empires that constitutes the ancient history of what we now describe as the western world.
In the course of Ancient Times, the reader comes to understand that, thus far at least, all civilisations have risen and fallen when certain historic conditions are fulfilled.
For example, the nation which first masters a particular technology may achieve enough military and economic power to expand its borders and dominate its neighbours. Thus, through the mastery of the smelting and working of iron, the Hittites were able to create an empire which, for more than a century, dominated much of what is now the middle-east.
However, once this technology was mastered by others, their advantage was lost and, in due course, the Hittite empire fell to a better organised and more determined foe.
Later, the Romans achieved a level of mastery over both civil and military organisation, engineering and logistics that enabled them to carve out an enormous empire, which covered virtually all of the land mass adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as much of what is now Europe and Britain.
At its zenith (around 200 AD) the Roman Empire had achieved a seemingly unchallengeable level of economic, political and military power.
Yet, despite this, only two centuries later its power was largely spent and it fell before what it had once contemptuously dismissed as the barbarian hordes. Most of its great legacy of knowledge, technology, engineering, governance and culture was forgotten by the Middle Ages and not rediscovered until Europe's intellectual and scientific Renaissance, which commenced around 1500.
It seems that merely being technologically, intellectually and socially sophisticated is no guarantee of enduring success for any civilisation. As the Romans found, the barbarians at the gate should be both respected and feared, for their brute energy, ambition and sheer capacity for violence may well be enough to drag down even a manifestly superior form of social organisation.
At present, we live in an era when the ideas, technologies, practices and knowledge first developed in the western world have been embraced on a global scale. This is especially so in the case of science which is, in many respects, the crowning achievement of western civilisation.
Arguably, science and the technologies that sprang from it have been the single most important source of the west's military, economic and social power, enabling the creation of huge European empires spanning the entire world.
While those empires have long since fallen, their enduring legacy remains a powerful influence in the many new nation states created since the end of World War II. The achievements of western civilisation have materially assisted much of the so-called developing world to undertake probably the most rapid and comprehensive modernisation process in human history.
Superficially at least western civilisation is, in many respects, now the global norm.
It may therefore seem strange that President Donald Trump should devote much of a recent speech in Europe to stressing the need for a concerted collective effort to strengthen and preserve western civilisation and culture in the face of the efforts of groups like ISIL to replace it with an essentially medieval theocracy.
Reluctant as I am to agree with Trump about anything, I think that he has a point.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the end of the Cold War, it has been a common belief that the triumph of the west was due to the inherent virtues of both liberal democracy and neo-liberal economics, especially as these ideas are understood and practiced in the United States of America. Indeed, the collapse of communism was widely believed to signal the end of any further conflict based upon ideological grounds.
The American historian Francis Fukuyama famously wrote:
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."
Events since Fukuyama wrote The End of History and The Last Man have demonstrated that, at a minimum, he may have been a trifle premature in his prediction. It is manifestly apparent that liberal democracy is not necessarily going to be the final form of human government. Indeed, there appears to be a crisis in confidence in the basic institutions that have hitherto underpinned the success of liberal democracies across the globe.
The reasons for this are many and complex but it is fair to say that one of the most important underlying problems is that, far from creating equality of opportunity for every citizen, it is now very apparent that liberal democracies everywhere are struggling to cope with obvious and growing inequality. The gross maldistribution of wealth now in evidence is simply the most obvious symptom of this.
A further problem is that the representative nature of the legislatures in liberal democracies has been seriously eroded by the emergence of a professional political class. These are people who make a conscious decision to pursue politics as a career choice and do so by following a prescribed path through their chosen party's organisational structure. They owe their primary allegiance to those within the party who control, whether directly or indirectly, their ability to follow their career path.
Importantly, once elected, their party obligations almost invariably override any sense of duty to the people they purportedly represent. Thus, to use an Australian example, even though there is overwhelming public support for things like euthanasia, the decriminalisation of prostitution, the introduction of same sex marriage, the progressive introduction of renewable energy sources and so forth, various elements of the political class are either unwilling or unable to introduce the required policy or legislative changes.
The reasons for choosing to ignore Australian public opinion may be many and varied but, in the absence of a compelling rational argument against the changes being sought, the overall effect is to persuade many citizens that, in reality, their views are of no great consequence when it comes to policy making. There is a widely held view that what really matters is what those who control and fund the various parties think, not what the public thinks is either necessary or desirable.
Australians are not unique in thinking this way. This view has now taken such a serious hold in the public consciousness across many western democracies that, in countries where voting is not compulsory, many choose to effectively opt out of the political process. After all, if their views are of no consequence, so why bother to vote for one of the political apparatchiks offering themselves for election?
Political parties are increasingly struggling to "get out the vote", meaning that only "rusted on" supporters are likely to vote. Perversely, this actually reinforces the pressure on politicians to appease their "base", thereby entrenching the sense of obligation to party supporters as distinct from the wider electorate. In turn, this simply further alienates uncommitted voters and so exacerbates the underlying problem.
In countries like Australia, where turning up to vote is compulsory, we see another result. In elections for the Federal House of Representatives, people are increasingly giving their vote to independents and minor party candidates. Partly, this is a form of protest against the major parties and partly a form of "tactical voting" aimed at creating more marginal electorates within which the elected MP feels more vulnerable and, hopefully, therefore much more acutely attuned to the wishes of his or her electorate.
In the Australian Senate, the proportional representation system means that it is easier for independents and minor parties to achieve success. The result has been that the party which forms the government in the House of Representatives it has little or no hope of controlling the Senate. The government is obliged to either rely upon the opposition to pass legislation or negotiate with the minor parties and each and every independent Senator.
This is not an accident. It reflects the clear intention of a significant number of Australian voters (around 30% in the Federal election held in 2016) to compel the government to pay more attention to what the major parties frequently and contemptuously describe as "populist" ideas.
In the USA, the election of Donald Trump as president has demonstrated very graphically how a populist "outsider", by appealing over the heads of the traditional parties to an angry and previously disenfranchised and disempowered group of voters, can secure a seemingly improbable electoral victory.
In a similar way, in the wake of the 2016 attempted coup d'état by elements of the army, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has recently persuaded a bare majority of voters to abandon past political loyalties and invest the presidency (as distinct from the legislature) with a great deal more power.
This has been presented as an effort to achieve a strong, stable "government of the people". It is a very disturbing development because, if history is any guide, it eventually will lead to the emergence of an entrenched, authoritarian political oligarchy, as has occurred in Venezuela.
In France, newly elected President Emmanuel Macron convinced enough of a cynical, disillusioned and hostile electorate that he could chart a "middle way" between the much loathed Socialists and the equally despised Conservatives, and his new and untested party now entirely dominates the legislature.
In the developing world there are too many examples of countries where the democratic process has been systematically corrupted and debased to the point where it is a mere fiction. Zimbabwe is one obvious example of this.
In the Pacific, we have witnessed a coup d'état in Fiji, with the leader of that coup eventually being legitimised as prime minister in what appear to have been largely free and fair elections.
Just as Fiji seems to be restoring its democratic processes, we see Papua New Guinea, the largest Pacific nation, falling victim to all sorts of electoral mismanagement, fraud and corruption which is seemingly intended to maintain the current prime minister's iron grip on the levers of power.
Little wonder then that many commentators believe that the world's liberal democracies are in the throes of some sort of existential crisis. In the case of the USA, the well known American conservative author, P J O'Rourke, concluded that America was suffering from "a collective nervous breakdown".
The situation has become so serious that some people are looking towards the authoritarian regimes in Russia and China as potential models for a more stable, certain and orderly society. This type of thinking is only possible if you ignore the more sinister aspects of these societies including the suppression of minorities, restrictions upon civil liberties, manipulation of the electoral system and, in China's case at least, the absence of an independent judiciary.
So, there is a good deal of evidence that all is not well within the western world's liberal democracies as they grapple with a number of serious underlying socio-economic, environmental and political problems. The clash of ideas about how best to manage controversial issues such as immigration, trade relations, climate change and energy, as well as the best way to deliver effective and efficient public services like health and education, has been unusually heated and partisan.
It is an open question as to whether this simply reflects the complexities associated with these issues or is symptomatic of a critical systemic failure. What is undeniably true is that the ability of the western world, and especially the USA, to effectively influence world opinion and behaviour in these and other areas has diminished quite noticeably over the last two decades.
It is also very evident that the USA and the broader western alliance are now being openly challenged by countries like Russia and China which, each for its own reasons, wishes to assert themselves on the world stage.
China, historically the foremost Asian power, is striving to resume what it perceives to be its natural place in the international order. The humiliations it suffered at the hands of European countries during the colonial era still loom large in the thinking of its leaders. It will not settle for anything less than the respect and deference it feels that it warrants, both as a country with a rich history of civilisation and now as a genuine great power.
In a somewhat similar way Russia is seeking to reassert what it perceives to be its natural place as a great power, dominating northern Europe. Its people suffered considerable humiliation and genuine economic distress after the fall of the USSR. In the ensuing socio-political chaos, many Russians clearly believe that they were treated unfairly and even contemptuously by the west, especially the USA.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has proved very adept at tapping into the intense patriotism and paranoia that is a feature of Russian history over many centuries, as well as the preference of many Russians for a strong and stable autocracy in lieu of an apparently unstable and uncertain democracy.
Viewed within this very broad context, it is apparent that the power, prestige and influence of the western world is in decline relative to that of the most powerful authoritarian nations. However, this does not mean that, in absolute terms, the west is in decline.
In his book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, historian Paul Kennedy writes:
“The relative strengths of the leading nations in world affairs never remain constant, principally because of the uneven rate of growth among different societies and of the technological and organizational breakthroughs which bring a greater advantage to one society than to another.”
Kennedy and many other historians contend that great powers rely upon three critical factors to maintain their status: military power and the ability to project that power beyond their borders; economic power greater than that of competitor nations; and the ability to maintain internal social cohesion. This is, if you like, the three legged stool upon which any great power must stand.
By these criteria, the USA and, by extension, the western world remains powerful yet no longer able to exert the degree of collective global dominance that it once did.
Firstly, the military power of both the USA and its western allies is still formidable and greatly exceeds that of any potential enemy. The recent Gulf Wars revealed the ability of the USA and its allies to project their power to win a conventional, set piece war against a nominally quite powerful opponent. However, this is no longer the type of warfare that is being pursued by the enemies of liberal democracy.
The limitations of the western military technology and fighting doctrine have been revealed during the protracted so-called asymmetric warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, where overwhelming technological superiority has enabled little more than the maintenance of a stalemate. These days, the enemies of freedom adhere to Mao Zedong's famous dictum that in order to win it is merely necessary not to lose. The patient pursuit of guerrilla warfare, combined with terror attacks on civilians, is the strategy of choice.
Also, in an era when cyber warfare is a reality and has the capacity to do serious harm to any actual or potential enemy, it is no longer necessary for a militarily weak country to physically confront a stronger opponent.
A relatively modest investment in computer technology can allow the development and deployment of cyber weapons that can be launched surreptiously against an opponent's assets such as critical military infrastructure, the electricity grid, the stock exchange and even the electoral process. In short, information and computer technology has, to some degree at least, "levelled the playing field" in military affairs and this form of warfare is now in active use against the western powers.
Secondly, as a consequence of globalisation the west's collective economic power has clearly been diminished while that of its competitors, especially China, has increased markedly.
The simply stupendous economic growth of China over the last 30 years is unparalleled in history. Whatever its faults, the Chinese communist government has presided over the lifting of hundreds of millions of its citizens out of abject poverty. This is an achievement that can hardly be overstated.
At the same time, the western world has seen a significant portion of its economic power dissipated to other nations across the globe as the highly mobile pool of international capital, which the west itself originally created, has moved overseas in the endless search for a cheaper and more profitable way to deliver services or manufacture goods. China has, of course, been a huge beneficiary of this process, as have many other previously impoverished nations across south-east Asia and eastern Europe.
The net effect of this process of globalisation has been a redistribution of wealth from the west to the east and the raising of hundreds of millions out of poverty. This latter effect is, of course, a very good thing. However, the impact of this wealth transfer is being disproportionately borne by the working and middle classes in the USA, Britain and Europe.
Therein lies one of the key sources of the anger and discontent that now bedevils liberal democracies across the western world and for which the political elites seem to have no effective solution.
Thirdly, many western democracies are struggling with the socio-political impacts of their increasingly fragmented and diverse societies. The increasing diversity found in western countries is due to a combination of declining birth rates amongst the resident population and a related increase in both legal and illegal immigration.
Countries with a long experience of comparatively large inflows of immigrants such as the USA, Britain, Canada and Australia have generally managed this process pretty well, although there are clear signs that the necessary social consensus about immigration levels is fraying at the edges in the USA. Some European countries which, historically speaking, have not experienced high levels of immigration and the associated ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, are finding the process difficult.
The impact of large immigrant flows is not insignificant. For example, the second largest city in Britain, Birmingham, will shortly have more than 50% of the population being of non-Caucasian origin. Other large British cities, such as Leicester, may well already have reached this milestone. This reflects a truly profound social change which, although generally to the great benefit of Britain, is a source of rising anxiety and tension amongst some of the white population.
The dreadful atrocities committed by Islamo-fascists, in Britain, France, Belgium, Germany and elsewhere, have compounded these problems. Indeed, this is a major objective of these terrorists, who are striving to create racial and religious hatred and dissent within the western democracies.
In Europe especially, the political class seems to have only very belatedly realised that their collective decision to allow huge numbers of illegal immigrants to enter the European Union carries with it potentially very profound implications for the future of their societies.
While their humane instincts may be admirable, they have committed their countries to accept huge numbers of mainly African immigrants without any real plan to deal with the socio-economic and political consequences. Whether this influx of immigrants is allowed to continue and what its ultimate impact will be remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, in the USA, the current President was elected on a platform where he promised, among other things, to deport all illegal immigrants (numbering around 11 million, most of whom are of Hispanic origin) from the country and build an impenetrable wall along the border between the USA and Mexico.
These ideas, while proving to be impractical to effectively implement, plainly resonated with a large minority of mostly white, poorly educated and economically deprived Americans. Given this situation, and a host of other race related problems, it is reasonable to infer that social cohesion within the USA is in a quite febrile state.
Thus it seems that the three legged stool upon which the USA and its western allies are precariously balanced is not in as good a condition as it was only a comparatively few years ago while, superficially at least, those upon which China and Russia stand appear to be in much better condition.
On balance, it seems that President Donald Trump's call to arms in the defence of liberal democracy is justified. The western world appears to be in decline relative to its ideological and economic competitors. Its military power can be successful contested if not overcome, its economic circumstances deteriorating and intemperate and unwise policy making has helped heighten social divisions at the very time that unified action on very major socio-political issues is needed.
It is ironic indeed that it is Donald Trump, whose sense of entitlement, personal vanity, ignorance and hubris epitomises much that is wrong in western civilisation, who should be making this call.
While the current outlook is not encouraging, it would be unwise to under estimate both the willingness and ability of western democracies to find a way through the various problems that now beset them. Western civilisation is not yet in an irretrievable death spiral. There are solutions available if the population and their political leaders can find the wisdom and courage to embrace them.
History shows that nothing is certain where human behaviour is concerned and there is no iron rule that says that all civilisations must ultimately fail. The collapse of previous civilisations has almost always been the product of poor choices about the socio-economic and political problems that inevitably arise in human societies. These choices, in turn, have frequently been the product of ignorance, hubris, greed and sheer wishful thinking.
The challenge for the west is to once again rise above its worst self, to not fall victim to its basest and most irrational impulses. It is a time for clear thinking and, very probably, accepting the need for painful changes now to avoid catastrophic outcomes later.
In this way, it may be possible for western civilisation to make a successful transition from its current state to one more nearly approximating a genuinely global civilisation, in which its science, technology and ideas can be progressively transferred across the world to the great advantage of everyone.
For all our sakes, let us hope that we can collectively rise to the challenge and so not squander the legacy of our ancestors, whose struggle and suffering created the civilisation that we enjoy today.