Is the West Declining?


Is the West experiencing irreversible decline, with other nations and cultures moving to fill the resulting vacuum? This question was considered by Professor Michael Cox of the London School of Economics on 1 September [2011] at St Michael’s Uniting Church, Melbourne in the 6th Annual Lecture of La Trobe University’s Centre for Dialogue.

Addressing an audience of around 200, Professor Cox began with a challenge. “The consensus is that a significant power shift is taking place,” he said, “but I am somewhat sceptical. Such an approach sees some nations rising while others decline. Isn’t there a better way to think about this?”

Speaking of the 1990s, he said “the view was that the West had triumphed over the Soviet Union.” The power shift theory emerged in connection with President George W. Bush’s War on Terror. “Many argued that Bush had gone for broke and had failed.”

This foreign policy setback was compounded in 2007/08 with the international financial crisis. “Faith in the American model had been questioned,” he said. “Real questions were also asked about the European project, with difficulties in Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and so forth.”

Meanwhile, the world has witnessed the phenomenal rise of China. “Last year China overtook Japan in size of economy,” explained Professor Cox. “It is the largest exporter of goods in the world, with an annual growth rate of 10%. Meanwhile the West goes through deflation and stagnation, with China using its surplus dollars to buy up a significant part of the huge US debt.”

Also relevant are military considerations, with China launching her first aircraft carrier. “Some feel that the power shift is moving towards Asia, especially China,” said Professor Cox. “The future lies in the three ai-s: Mumbai, Dubai, Shanghai.”

Professor Cox levelled various challenges to the power shift theory. “It is often intellectually sexier to talk about change, and intellectually dull to talk about continuity”, he said. “The US economy is still the most productive in the world, and with Europe, you have half the world economy. Around 75% of sources of capital in the world come from the traditional West. The main currencies are the US Dollar, the Euro and the Pound. The overwhelming majority of the world’s 500 leading companies are in the West. So, have we exaggerated the economic shift?” he asked.

Regarding innovation and invention, Professor Cox argued that the US leads. “There are no representatives from the emerging states of Brazil, Russia and India, in the League Tables of the top 100 universities. China only has 5 or 6 universities listed, mostly in Hong Kong”. Furthermore, most international students want to study in the West.

On military power, Professor Cox insisted that the new Chinese aircraft carrier is in fact a “clapped out” former Soviet carrier. “The US spends 43% of world military expenditure on its armed forces,” he said, “and the West has a massive arms industry, so scaremongering about Chinese military power is overstated.” He added that in terms of global alliances, the US has a huge global alliance system, whereas “China’s best friend is North Korea. Throughout Asia there are deep concerns about China’s rise.”

Professor Cox concluded: “America’s current problems are real, but we should not underestimate its staying power. Wrong analysis can lead to wrong policies. This is a genuine concern.”

He explained: “For example, we feel insecure so we build up our defences. The others see that, causing insecurity on their part, so they build up their defences and a cycle is triggered. Rather mutual security should be worked out between the USA and China. Then we may live and walk in a safer world, which is better for everyone.”

Asked whether the ideology of the West is failing, Professor Cox said “the West is really a set of values: toleration, human rights placing the individual at the centre, free press, the state must be neutral in its relationship with religion, free and fair elections.” He added that “the Arab Spring shows that such values are universal values. In these terms, the West has never been more successful, with Arab countries that have been under the boot of long serving despots at last being overthrown.”

Originally posted on on 6 September 2011.

Professor Peter G Riddell serves as Professorial Research Associate in the Department of History at SOAS, University of London and as Vice Principal (Academic) at the Melbourne School of Theology (an affiliated college of the Australian College of Theology). He previously taught at the Australian National University, the Institut Pertanian Bogor (Indonesia), and the London School of Theology. He has published widely on the study of Southeast Asia, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations.