America searches for its identity; Europe has lost its way; China is rediscovering itself. And so the melancholy ‘violins of autumn’ reprise their refrain in the lands of the setting sun. Strange times: the hardy-perennial notion of ‘the West’ is ubiquitously used to ennoble the usual suspects, the us, the uk and France; opinion-makers celebrate ‘occidentalism’ and call for further rounds of Western military intervention—yet Spengler’s infamous coinage, The Decline of the West, features once again in the comment pages. Enough of Rambo; back to Hamlet. The causes of the malaise are clear: demographic submersion, deindustrialization, public debts and deficits, environmental pollution, falling competitiveness, exchange rate of the yuan, loss of faith in the growth model; etc. The catalogue is all too well known.

The sense of depression is due in no small part to the sway of the accountants, upshot of a merchant–manufacturing society that has wished away its own cultural and historical foundations. Given the discreet silence of the anthropologists, the ultra-specialization of the historians, the self-effacement of the geographers, the academicism of the sociologists of religion, it is hardly surprising that, when the economists set the key, what follows is an adagio. As if a sound balance of payments were sufficient to ensure power and influence, rather than merely a precondition; as if the West had never seen deficits, stagnation, recession and bankruptcies before. A hegemonic position does not depend just on the exchange rate or the price of labour. If gdp determined rank, then the sermonizing ectoplasm of the eu would be on equal terms with the us and China. In fact the prc, already the world’s largest trading power—and, by 2030, probably the biggest economy, as it was 200 years ago—could simply step up to Number One. But none of this is predetermined. Apart from anything else, political economy lacks the instruments to grasp the fine distinctions between the weight of a nation and its role, between influence and preponderance, the economic and the political; these things aren’t taught at business school. Lying behind or beneath the statistical data, they need to be borne in mind by all who would sound the knell—impatiently in the East, mournfully in Europe—of Western pre-eminence. A stocktaking, however brief, may serve to set out these invisible factors, taking a clinical view rather than that of a quack or mortician. First we’ll list the West’s trump cards, then its handicaps.

Largely a mythical invention—but myths are not unimportant—‘the West’ has had many avatars over the past millennium: Christianity, circa 1250; Enlightenment Europe, circa 1750; the Berlin club, circa 1900, to carve up the planet; ‘Free World’, circa 1950, head-to-head with Stalin. Every human community constitutes itself against an opponent, and the West’s crystallizations have always functioned through an antagonism with a meddling and malevolent East: Saracen or Ottoman, inferior races, slave-owners, obscurantism, the Gulag. A drama in a hundred different acts between good and evil, civilization and barbarism, light and darkness. But none of these historical manifestations of ‘the West’ had anything like the level of organization and coherence of today’s. The natural world suggests an image of misty, aestheticized contours for the land where the sun goes down. The geo-political profile of the Euro-Atlantic zone, by contrast, is starkly defined: nato, in a word, with ‘the West’ as its pen-name. The politico-military system is currently undergoing an expansion: its vanguard is situated in the West’s west, the United States, but it now includes old Eastern Europe, up to the Baltic states. This ‘security architecture’ has solid buttresses in the Asia-Pacific region with Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. And if the United States intervenes here on its own account, outside nato, it still tends to do so in the name of the West, speaking for its security and values.

The West is unipolar: none of its members contests America’s lead. The aberrations of George W. Bush left European rulers either unruffled or enthralled: no protesting voice was raised against the invasion of Iraq except, briefly, that of France, to the horror of most of its peers. The West has become the only multinational bloc capable of a rapid and coordinated use of force, as in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Libya. The Organization of American States is divided, Mercosur stammers, alba declaims, North Africa is fragmented internally, the African Union is up for grabs. The Arab League, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and asean are forums, not fully equipped decision-making bodies. The G20 has become a media event. Only nato can speak with a single voice, an undisputed line of command and a doctrinal consensus. The ‘European pole of defence’ depends on artificial organizations like the former weu, or on wishful thinking. What other regional power can implement—let alone overturn—a un resolution?

It is symptomatic that no member of nato—a defence alliance—broke ranks in 1989: hurray, we won, let’s celebrate; goodbye. But symptomatic of what? Not just of the exhaustion of Europe, resigned to its vassal status, dreaming its federalist dream of a vast Helvetic Confederation—a Switzerland minus mountains and compulsory military service—while offloading its security onto the Americans. Value judgements aside, this strategic incoherence is itself a sign of cohesion: the ‘community of values’ and of fears is strong enough to override divergent interests on each side of the Atlantic.

The supposedly lofty terrain of ideals and values—more important in constituting a balance of power than idealists may think—displays the same capacity for integration. The notion of ‘the rights of man and of the citizen’—albeit revised by hyper-individualism into ‘human rights’, from which the citizen has disappeared—establishes the basis for legitimate civic norms. And while these are far from being respected everywhere, the dictator’s abuse of authority is the object of general censure, not least in the countries concerned. ‘Asian values’—primacy of the group over the individual, discipline, hierarchy, harmony, frugality—briefly brandished by recalcitrants (Malaysia and Singapore), did not withstand the shocks of the 1997 economic crisis. Islamic values have fired the toughest civil-disobedience movements of late; but, tested in power, over the long term they don’t seem guaranteed a better fate. Anchored in revelation rather than sagacity, the words of the Prophet are more restrictive than those of Confucius: the imposition of the sharia is contested inside the Muslim world by the educated young and sections of the urban middle class, whereas the cement of human-rightsism in the West shows little sign of cracking.footnote1 Even if the belated conversion of the colonizers—long-term adepts of napalm, torture and forced labour—to the religion of rights brings a smile to the lips of the ex-colonized, the stance has fairly unanimous approval, for the same reason that the young Muslim in Tunisia or Iran wears jeans beneath her veil. Clothing is also a commitment.

All states pursue their vital interests abroad. China, short on raw materials for its development, keeps jealous guard over its commodity sources and supply lines across both hemispheres, without excessive tact; let’s call it holy egotism, something we’re all familiar with. But only the West has the ability to represent its particular interests as the expression of those of humanity in general—as freedom, emancipation, progress. The geographic emblem of this coincidence: domiciling the un headquarters in New York. The institution accredited as the universal conscience, located in the heart of the solo superpower; the metropolis of the highest law is that of greatest military force. The ten countries that voted for Security Council Resolution 1973, establishing a no-fly-zone over Libya, represent 10 per cent of the world’s population, as do the ten Southeast Asian members of asean. But the latter would never describe themselves as ‘the international community’, except as a joke. This presentational deceit is not a spin-doctor’s invention. It is a sincere belief, half-paternalist, half-evolutionist; packaging the classic double standard—right to secede for Kosovo, pro-West, but not for Abkhazia or South Ossetia—in the most ferocious idealism.