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The Optical Illusion of Western Decline (Part II)

Why is the false narrative of Western decline so persistent?

November 8, 2011

Why is the false narrative of Western decline so persistent?

There are two main Asia-Pacifics in international affairs, roughly the Chinese one — and the one oriented to the West. There is one Atlantic-Pacific grouping, and it is far stronger — unchallengeably stronger — than the Chinese Asia.

However, since “Asia-Pacific” sounds like a coherent term, a seemingly compact geographical region, there is an optical illusion of its unity, whereas “Atlantic-Pacific” sounds like two separate places. A single “Asia-Pacific” would indeed be larger than a truncated Atlantic-only West. From this accident of terminology, the illusion of Western decline flows like a natural precipitate.

In the contemporary narrative on Chinese-Asian rise and Western decline, a unity is imputed to Asia and an amputation performed on it at the same time: While treating the diverse Asian-Pacific region as if it were a single entity, the discussion ignores the more close-knit Atlantic community structures that have major members in the Pacific.

In ignoring the Atlanticized character of a large part of Asia, it implicitly “Sinifies” this part instead. It is a move that is based on the assumption of distant Westerners about an East Asia-wide civilizational identity. That assumption has a grain of truth, but ignores a mound of entrenched divergences among East Asian countries — divergences in sociological conditions, in modernization, in historically evolved cultures, in regime and in historically solidified strategic interests.

In contrast, OECD, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is a coherent grouping and a space of its own, notwithstanding the fact that it has both important Pacific members and important non-Pacific members. Neglect of this fact has led, in logic and in some writings on decline, to the OECD part of Asia-Pacific getting lumped into an Asian bloc, to be measured against the rest of the OECD-West.

The very fact of OECD’s existence, and its unusual degree of success as a harmonious international organization, tells us that the opposite arithmetic operation would be the accurate one: OECD-Asia has to be added on to the West and counted with it against any potential competitors, not subtracted from it.

Moreover: In between the two Asias most relevant to the decline question — OECD Asia and Chinese Asia — there are many other Asian countries, and almost all of them prefer Western to Chinese leadership. Several of them could in the next decades become a full part of OECD Asia. They too have to be added to the OECD side of the ledger. One must make a discount, probably 30-50%, for their lack in commitment to the West. But after all discounts, they still augment further the weight on the Western side of the scale.

Once this simple point is noticed about how so much of Asia must be counted on the Western side, the declinist conclusion collapses. The statistics cited in its favor actually refute it, as soon as the different parts of Asia are classified correctly.

Still more: The concretely organized modern West continues to grow from generation to generation in its share of global GDP, despite some interim runs of years of slippage. It grows in its share even while non-Western countries also grow in their share.

This is possible because the West keeps growing in membership, not just in its domestic economies. At the same time, “the Rest” shrinks in membership while growing domestically. When a “Rest” member grows far and consistently enough, it ends up a “West” member.

The West currently has, as measured by the OECD, 68% of global GDP. This is several times more than China or any non-OECD Asian combination. It is also more than OECD itself had during the Cold War years. It shows ongoing growth, not decline.

Why, then, one must wonder, does the narrative of “The Decline of the West” continue apace, as it has ever since the days of Spengler? It has proved wrong time after time. The will to believe in Western decline seems immune to learning from experience.

In the latest version, declinism has become overanxious: After projecting — with its misguided geographical categories — a Western decline some decades down the road, its rhetoric has proceeded to import this result into the present. The repetitive assertion of “Western decline, Chinese rise” has done much to encourage the recent bouts of overconfidence and adventuristic aggressiveness on the part of China.

The question is whether people will learn this time — or instead simply go on cultivating the faith, until China is in a position to miscalculate more radically, like a former Germany, and do major harm.

Editor’s Note: Read Part I here.

More on this topic


Why does the narrative of "The Decline of the West" continue apace? It has proved wrong time after time.

The repetitive assertion of "Western decline, Chinese rise" has done much to encourage China's recent bouts of aggressiveness.

The West currently has, as measured by the OECD, 68% of global GDP.