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The decline of the West. What of PNG?


ADELAIDE - Throughout history, civilisations have risen and fallen regularly. There are many reasons but the process of decay often starts within.

The first clear indicator that all is not well emerges, somewhat perversely, at the very height of the civilisation’s power and influence.

The ancient Greeks coined a term for this malady: hubris.

As hubris tightens its grip upon the ruling classes, a combination of complacency and over-confidence infects their thinking about the world and their place in it.

The risks posed by hostile external forces are underestimated even as the ability to handle unexpected developments (whether military, economic, social or environmental) is overestimated.

This is a dangerous combination of responses for ruling elites as the likelihood of misjudging a situation rises significantly.

In the case of the Roman Empire, its rulers wrongly assumed that their technological and organisational advantages would persist for far longer than they actually did.

Eventually there was a series of military defeats that culminated in the effective collapse of Rome’s power.

History also shows that the decline of the Roman Empire was greatly accelerated as the social and political cohesion of Rome diminished over time.

This process was further compounded by the increasing reliance upon non-citizens to serve as legionaries in the army.

A second important indicator of emerging problems occurs when other civilisations, previously regarded as subordinate, achieve mastery over the technologies and strategies that underpinned the dominant civilisation’s ability to project its power.

The Hittite Empire (1500-1300 BC) was based upon its mastery of the then new technology of forging iron into weapons, together with the skilful use of chariot mounted cavalry.

This gave the Hittites great battlefield advantage which they exploited to rapidly expand their empire.

However, once the ability to smelt iron ore and produce iron weapons, together with the ability to effectively use cavalry, spread across the region, the Hittite empire crumbled and was absorbed into the emergent Assyrian empire.

In a somewhat similar way, once their enemies adopted similar technologies and tactics, the Romans gradually lost the military advantages they had enjoyed for many centuries.

So it was that in 476 AD, Invicta – Unconquerable Rome – became a slogan not a statement of faith.

Perhaps the most striking example of this process during modern times was the rise of the Japanese Empire (1868-1945).

The Japanese ruling elite made a conscious decision to learn as much as possible about western science and technology which they then adapted to support their military, economic and social needs and aspirations.

In this way an essentially feudal society transformed itself into a power that posed an existential threat to the European imperial powers that had hitherto dominated East and South East Asia.

A third important indicator of decline is when a civilisation’s so-called ‘soft power’, or its cultural influence, begins to wane.

Again, the Roman Empire is a useful guide. For a very long time the people of whatever ethnicity who were absorbed into the empire were quick to adopt Roman ways of living and working.

This made sense partly because the Roman socio-economic system was superior to the traditional way of doing things and partly because it was a way of aligning with the new regime.

However, many aspects of traditional life and thought remained largely unchanged and so the cultural impact of the empire was less pervasive than may have superficially appeared to be the case.

So, although nominally ‘Romanised’, the empire’s subject peoples remained grounded in their traditional social, cultural and philosophical traditions.

This meant that there remained very significant fracture lines within the empire that, at times of extreme military, economic or social stress, could lead to major problems in maintaining unity.

There is clear evidence for each of these three forces operating in our modern world, notably in relation to the American ‘empire’, unassailable since World War II.

I think it reasonable to describe the USA as an imperial power for several reasons.

The first and most obvious is its military, economic and cultural dominance since 1945.

As the world’s self-described ‘indispensable’ nation, the USA has asserted its leadership of the so-called West, with Australia and Papua New Guinea clearly falling within its sphere of influence.

While many Americans would reject outright the notion that it is an imperial power, it is possible to be such without needing to physically seize other territories.

The pervasive American socio-cultural and economic power has replicated that of other empires, most notably the British Empire (upon which the sun never set), which commanded its dominion from the sixteenth until the twentieth century.

The USA has invaded and sometimes seized other territories, dominated much technological innovation and almost all spheres of economic life, reigned over popular culture in virtually all its forms and, in more recent times, exerted effective control over most of the internet.

It seized the Philippines in 1902 after defeating the forces of the embryonic Philippine Republic. Earlier, in 1898, it took possession of Puerto Rico just 12 months after Spain granted the island independence.

The Philippines is now independent but Puerto Rico remains an ‘autonomous US commonwealth’.

Its population are American citizens but its efforts to become a US state have been consistently opposed by the Republican dominated Senate.

Despite this history, the US persists with its self-conception that it is anti-imperialist.

But just 76 years after World War II could it be that the USA’s imperial era is coming to an end?

I contend that the signs of its decline and, by extension, that of the West, are now very evident.

The West’s political leadership has demonstrated complacency and hubris, especially since the end of the Cold War in 1991, and its missteps and misjudgements have been many.

There has been a series of comparatively small but mostly disastrous wars to damage the West’s credibility and prestige, to some extent militarily but mostly politically and morally.

Efforts to implant liberal democratic values and institutions in other nations have almost invariably failed.

Meanwhile, the number, power and influence of authoritarian regimes have grown significantly.

There have also been several serious economic crises since the end of the Cold War and, while all have been managed with varying degrees of success, the underlying solidity and stability of the west’s financial and economic system remains precarious.

Recent political developments in the USA, especially in relation to race, ethnicity, gender and democratic values, have revealed serious fracture lines within American society that show no evidence of being easily or quickly resolved.

Meanwhile, Britain has exited the European Union, Europe is struggling to deal with many serious social and economic issues, especially immigration, and some of the EU’s member states (principally Hungary and Poland) have fallen under the control of right wing ultranationalist and anti-liberal governments.

All of these problems have encouraged authoritarian regimes, who are quick to emphasise how the turmoil in the West’s liberal democracies justifies their own decisions to impose strong limitations on the community to preserve stability, order and those traditional social values they deem critical for the survival of the nation.

And since last year, superimposed upon these developments, has been the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

While it could be argued the pandemic should not be considered a ‘black swan’ event because it was both foreseen and predictable, I would contend that the nature and reach of its consequences already extends well beyond what was reasonably foreseeable.

The pandemic is a world changing event, the full extent of which remains unknown.

What is clear is that it has both revealed and exacerbated significant social divisions and so further damaged the broad socio-political consensus in the West, a consensus that was assumed to be rational, liberal and democratic.

Bearing in mind all these factors, I think it is now unequivocal that the West is in decline, at least relative to the rising power of China.

This is not to say that the West’s situation is terminal or that, in absolute terms, it does not remain a powerful force in the world, but it seems to have lost the ability to dictate ‘the rules of the game’.

For Papua New Guinea, this tectonic shift in world affairs is full of risk.

PNG is a small, badly governed and resource rich country adjacent to countries, like China, Indonesia and India, whose national ambitions fuel an expansionist and sometimes belligerent outlook.

The greatest emerging power, China, already has demonstrated its contempt for the rule of law, calculating that ‘might is right’ is now the only rule that matters in international relations.

In 1975, PNG emerged as a nation into an utterly different world, where the West and its values predominated, especially the notion of the rule of law.

It was not a perfect world but at least the international rules mattered.

PNG is seemingly ill equipped to cope with such an environment and must necessarily decide to whom it will turn for support and guidance.

Its greatest friend and protector in the region remains Australia, which has for far too long regarded PNG not as an equal partner but as a supplicant to be favoured with funds and steered politically.

This has been a grievous error that has harmed both PNG and Australia.

In an increasingly dangerous and unstable world, it makes a lot of sense for Australia and PNG to restore and nurture the close relations and many intimate connections that once existed, but with a difference.

The relationship must be recast to ensure it is equal not just in rhetoric but in political, economic and cultural practice.

Before this century is over we are going to need one another in ways that are both foreseeable and unknown.

At present, neither Australia nor Papua New Guinea has worked out what this means.


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Chips Mackellar

Superb historical summary of the current world situation. Thank you Chris.

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