The worried West – Chronic decline or hypochondria?

| April 4, 2018

Being Russian, North Korean or Chinese at this moment in history and watching liberal democracies must be odd but satisfying.

Commentators, analysts and former politicians in Western Europe, America and among American allies in the Asia Pacific are engaged in a tortured and self-obsessed analysis of the decline of the West. They seem so busy analysing their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities that they only have time to notice Russian, Chinese and North Korean strengths.

This introspection could be mostly harmless at other times. Now isn’t one of those. Now is a time for clear thinking and positive, calm action—based on an accurate appreciation of our strategic environment and the relative balances of capabilities and resources between ourselves and others.

It’s worth a quick reminder of how strong Western liberal democracies are. America, Western Europe and America’s allies in the Asia Pacific are a collection of the most highly developed, prosperous societies and economies in human history.

They’re sources of continuing intellectual, technological and organisational innovations dating from the Renaissance through the Industrial Revolution to the modern era and the start of the information age. They remain the key drivers of technological advance and innovation across the span of human endeavour, complemented by contributions from other nations, including India and China.

These nations and their peoples possess the most capable militaries, with a history of successful collective action through NATO and throughout the Cold War. Their habits of cooperation—strategically and economically—are deep and longstanding, complemented over recent decades by deep shared operational experience in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Gulf.

Western liberal democracies are messy decision-makers that at times have chaotic internal debates—because they are open societies. That messiness and chaos can be mistaken for weakness, but has actually been a source of strength through time. Diversity of debate produces, tests and develops ideas. Ideas adopted after such internal debate tend to stick better than ideas that are imposed from the top by an autocratic government whose first priority is to prevent social unrest and so stay in power.

Measures of economic, technological and military strength show that Western liberal democracies are prospering and growing—from a very high base. IISS’s The Military Balance 2018 data shows that the US, other NATO members, Japan, South Korea and Australia made up over 60% of planned global defence expenditure in 2017, with Russia and China combined making up less than 14% (leaving aside whether real or PPP measures are most representative).

Western countries continue to innovate and adapt at a tempo as fast as at any time in the last 150 years. If this is decline, I want more.

On the flip side, it’s true that China’s rapid development over recent decades has enabled the Chinese government to lift millions of its people out of poverty. Good. Growth has also allowed China to invest in a range of military systems that give it an ability to project power in its own territory, its neighbours’ territories and into disputed areas between them—like the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Along with this, China and Russia (and even more obviously Iran and North Korea) have more than their share of weaknesses and vulnerabilities that undermine their strengths.

You wouldn’t know this by listening to commentators and former politicians, whose historical determinism seems more Marxist than Karl’s own. They outline the inevitability of China’s rise, along with the equally inevitable decline of the decadent, distracted West. ‘Resistance is useless’ seems to be the T-shirt they think we need. Luckily that’s not true.

China now, as throughout its history, has multiple internal tensions and pressures. Like the Qin, Han or Manchu emperors of the past, Chinese leaders fear that internal tensions could lead to social and political unrest that will end their rule. They continue to feel insecure about their borders. An abbreviated list of some of the major pressures the Communist Party leadership confronts includes:

Unrest driven by ethnic differences between Han Chinese populations and local populations like Uyghurs and Tibetans.

Corruption and fraud that takes people’s savings and brings the party into disrepute.

Air, water and land pollution and contamination affecting human and environmental health.

Bad debts in a financial system distorted by government requirements to take on bad loans and prop up state-owned businesses.

Excess capacity in construction and manufacturing that creates the conditions for unrest as people lose jobs.

Growing social media connectivity that absorbs growing amounts of state resources and people to control and censor so that debates don’t threaten Communist Party rule.

A rapidly ageing population that doesn’t have the means to support itself in retirement owing to the lack of a social safety net.

The potential collapse of North Korea, whether through its own contradictions or miscalculated military action, causing millions of hungry, desperate North Koreans to move into China, combined with environmental damage from North Korean use of nuclear weapons.

Russia is even more troubled and a weaker state by most measures. Space prevents a longer list, so let’s simply note the following: corruption; political repression; economic weakness; a declining, ageing population; chronic health problems including alcoholism and depression; and tensions with most of its neighbours—which include China, the Balkans, Central Asia and Western Europe.

None of this is to deny that we live in a world of changing power balances. But let’s not delude ourselves about our own weakness or be unquestioning of the strength of others who are acting confidently in the world. ‘Defending’ our interests, ‘protecting’ our values and simply reacting to the plans of others lets others set our agenda.

It’s great to see Malcolm Turnbull, state premiers and business people working with the US administration, governors and business leaders to invest in each other’s infrastructure and broader economies. Western democracies are at their best when implementing their own plans, acting positively to promote their values and to advance their interests—with confidence drawn from understanding their strengths.

Let’s have more of it.

This article was published by the Strategist.