Economic, social, political, and demographic changes are key drivers in what is a transforming global strategic architecture. This will necessitate a revision of existing power projection, trade, and intelligence priorities, structures, and doctrine to meet the emerging realities. But they are not yet set in stone.
Oswald Spengler gave ample warning, in The Decline of the West (which he wrote mainly during World War I), that Western civilization was even then reaching some of its natural limits. He demonstrated that Roman and later Western civilization (which emerged from the classical era of Greek culture) had pursued — as civilizations do as they emerge from cultures — a process of expansionism and materialism. It is a process which has an organic lifespan.
Those who thought that Spengler was defining the “decline of the West” in terms of the coming few years would have missed his historical perspective. However, the process he described took the path he predicted, in which continued expansionism in material and spatial (and therefore population) terms would occur alongside the evolutionary maturing of political structures.
So, then, is “the West” now in that process of “decline” which the title of his book suggested would occur? And if so, then what are the ramifications of that in strategic terms?
Clearly, in the 20th Century, the expansionist nature of “the West” came to embrace — in some senses — nations which were not Western, such as Japan, even the Republic of Korea, and other geographic outliers, such as South America and Australasia. In these areas, as in all civilizations, and as Spengler noted, the driving force is material and geographic/territorial growth and future acquisition. It is about the future. Hence, the failure (or decline, or collapse) of a society or individual is, ipso facto, measured in material and spatial terms.
What is significant is that modern civilization — as opposed to Classical culture — defines its being in quantitative terms. Geographic quantification has some fairly enduring qualities. Most other measurements, excepting measurement of finite numbers of lives extant, are highly subjective, including measures of wealth, happiness, security, and so on.
So to measure “growth” and “decline” in most equations it is necessary to use a civilization’s own standards of measure. “Gross domestic product” (GDP) is one such measure. And this is done in terms of a currency or currencies which are equally psychological reflections of the societies and the civilization which has dominance. Presently, GDP calculations and comparisons are mostly based on the perceived (or psychological) value of the United States dollar, given that the US has had the power to determine the language and terms of debate and engagement.
In geo-spatial and economic terms, however, “the West” — by the West’s own definitions — is facing transformation and, in many respects, “decline” in Spenglerian terms. Can this be reversed? I address this very much in my new book, UnCivilization: Urban Geopolitics in a Time of Chaos, which is due for release shortly.
But, in essence, the answer is: if realistic grand strategic objectives of a society can be articulated, and operational strategies defined and managed, then goals can be achieved. Absent that fundamental framework — which includes the specific defining of where a society wishes to be, and understanding the context in which it wishes to achieve that status — then it will persist in a path of decline determined by the maturing and breakdown of its structures. Of course, the defining word in that process is “realistic”, itself a subjective interpretation.
The West had, by 2012, accepted that it was in an existential crisis of identity, and that its future was to be determined in comparison with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Possibly in collaboration with, or subject to, in some respects to the PRC. But the PRC itself — indeed China, not the modern state iteration of the People’s Republic — began to move from a cultural identity to a “civilizational” identity only with the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. At that point, it was enabled to move into that expansionist (in material terms) and quantitative approach to social organization. In many respects, this new Chinese civilization mirrors that of “the West”, and is therefore measurable against it in the West’s own terms. And the PRC, as the iteration distinct from “classical China”, has proven adept at playing the quantitative process as well as any Western state. This includes the presentation of quantitative “data” in ways which build internal confidence, international respect, and strategic power. By mid-2012, the PRC was doing a clearly more productive job of this than were most Western states, with significant ramifications for levels of social confidence, optimism, and national cohesion.
A continuation of these subjective trends would see, logically, a continuation of an evolving global power structure giving greater place to the PRC and its alliance partners, and less to the West. Nonetheless, even by current standards of measurement, the PRC and, say, the Russian Federation (RF) (at 2011 GDP indicators in US dollars), had an economic base of $9.156-trillion, and a combined population of approximately 1.5-billion; while a core of the West (even if we looked solely at the US, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Australia, and the Republic of Korea) had an economic base of $35.449-trillion, and a combined population of approximately 803-million.
The disparities, then, in per capita asset value (which can, to some degree, be interpreted as wealth), are overwhelmingly, overpoweringly, in the West’s favor. Granted, these headline statistics do not comprise the entire framework of either the Russo-Chinese bloc or the West. And neither bloc is cohesive or coordinated. Granted, too, the momentum of strategic dynamics is with the PRC-Russian Federation bloc, and with the concept of relatively viable Eurasian internal communications and distribution networks. This latter consideration, in fact, may be the most significant element in the “balance” which is emerging between East and West (if the old terms can be applied to the new situation). The Eurasian heartland is transforming the focus of much of Continental Europe, as well as Central Asia; they see the Pacific to the Atlantic infrastructure and resource/market linkages as vital, stable, and the basis of a new geopolitical framework. This is perhaps the most significant factor, along the lines of the old song “wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine”. The new wedding bells are, for example, between Germany and Russia (for Russian-controlled energy supplies) and Germany and the PRC (for the PRC markets). And, for the time being, as Germany goes, so goes Continental Europe.
So painting a picture of “East” and “West” is no longer simple. I refrained from adding India’s economy and population into the equation of the balance between the West and the PRC-RF because — as during the Cold War — India is politically undecided in this regard. From a geo-strategic standpoint, however, India must opt to travel with the maritime powers (US, UK, Canada, Australia, India, etc.) if it is to escape subordination to the PRC.
But even with regard to the traditional maritime power network, which is built to a large extent around the old British and Iberian global trading and colonial structures, the US itself has failed to make a decision as to where it should stand. There is the residual expectation in Washington that “the West” will or would align behind the US, but there is also an emerging perspective that the US should retire to a relatively isolationist stance which would gradually cease to interfere in, or give orders to, the rest of the world in the name of proselytizing democracy.
And the US could, indeed, succeed in remaining aloof and alone. It is on the verge of resuming strategic energy independence. However, the very political attitudes which stop Washington from energizing its strategic partnerships with its traditional allies of the Anglosphere are the very political attitudes which stand in the way of allowing policies to change to allow the domestic US exploitation of its oil, gas, shale (oil and gas), coal, and bio-fuel potential.
There is evidence that if the Administration of Pres. Barack Obama was re-elected it would, not having to play to its electoral base for a further term in office, allow some relaxation of domestic energy resources, and allow for new domestic fossil fuel refining. This would ensure that the US need not place such high priority on the security of its energy-supplying partner states.
It is this new fossil fuel framework which is, as much as anything, determining the new geopolitical shape of the world, and which would determine future economic frameworks and the needs of future military forces. If, as is developing, the US does not need the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula oil and gas (and if Europe also needs it less), then the US need to project power into the Middle East subsides. Similarly, its need to project power into Africa, or the South China Sea, reduces. This has a major bearing on the cost, shape, and doctrine of US military policy.
If, too, Maghreb and Eastern Mediterranean energy resources can supply much of Western Europe, then the European Union zone equally becomes less dependent on the Russian-dominated supply chain. This eventuality would be resisted by Russia in new strategic initiatives, including the manipulation of Russian-controlled energy supplies — by price — to ensure that an ongoing Euro-Russian dependency relationship is sustained.
What we are close to seeing is, however, a Continental Europe which looks Eastward and Southward (toward Central and East Asia and the Mediterranean); a US which looks Westward (toward Asia and the Pacific); and an Asia which remains preoccupied with itself to a large degree, and which is open to opportunity.
For Japan, significantly, there is a strong opportunity to re-think its strategic dependencies. Its concern over growing PRC ability to dominate and interdict inbound energy supply lines can now, foreseeably, be countered by developing fossil fuel imports from Canada and the US Alaskan territory.
All this could re-align how new global alliances would be shaped. Japan would be relieved of enormous pressure. Australia would be slightly more isolated unless the maritime powers resume their historical alliance. Africa would be primarily left to the PRC, India, and Europe. The Middle East and its sea lanes would be less significant as a fulcrum of concern. But all states would still need to consider what they want from the new world, and how they would get it.
Analysis by Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.