BookReviews

Goodbye to all that?

Leading historian Niall Ferguson seriously overstates his case that the West has lost its nerve under deadly assault.

Reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn

The belief in the decline of the West is once more on the ascent. The United States, so the argument goes, is on the skids. Profligacy abroad and at home has transformed it into an international mendicant. When it comes to Europe, the picture is similarly gloomy. A once prosperous continent has become a vast museum that is filled with pensioners and unemployed youth; the United Kingdom, mired in a vast and sordid media scandal that threatens to capsize much of its political establishment. At the very same time, China, which holds trillions in American treasury bills, can look complacently upon the folly of its international counterparts as it sets about surpassing them.

So is it really closing time, as Cyril Connolly once mused, in the gardens of the West? Did the West have a good run, but must now say goodbye to all that? Do all its efforts to solve the current financial crisis amount to a lot of shifting of deck chairs on a sinking Titanic?

Niall Ferguson, who once argued in The Pity of War that it would have been a good thing if Kaiser Wilhelm had won World War I and established hegemony over central Europe, might seem like a good bet to argue that nothing could be further from the truth. But perhaps it is a telling sign of how far the despair has spread that even Ferguson adopts a distinctly fin-de-siecle tone in his new book, Civilisation: The West and the Rest. Like Francis Fukuyama, who has recently published the first volume of his superb survey, The Origins of Political Order, Ferguson seeks to analyse why the West achieved predominance. He offers a pugnacious and sweeping conspectus that ranges widely across the centuries and continents. He maintains that the West developed six new concepts—competition, science, rule of law, consumerism, modern medicine, and the work ethic—that allowed it to triumph over its adversaries. But he now suggests that the West has lost its edge. His account thus has a valedictory rather than a celebratory air.

If Ferguson takes a rather mournful view of the West's prospects, he does seem to singlehandedly defy his own prognostications. His phenomenal industry has marked him out as the leading historian of his generation. Not since A.J.P. Taylor has a historian enjoyed such a run of controversial and popular books. But unlike Taylor, who was a man of the left (his father was buried with a Soviet flag draped over the coffin), Ferguson has nothing but contempt for Marx, whom he peremptorily dismisses as an "unkempt scrounger".

His latest effort also reveals a more personal side. It is dedicated to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a refugee from Somalia who suffered genital mutilation and was a member of the Dutch parliament before she fled the country after having aroused the wrath of Islamic militants. She now makes her home at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Ferguson makes it plain that he sees a pusillanimous West that has lost its nerve as under deadly assault, from within and without.

There is always a tension in Ferguson between his admiration for the West's achievements and its darker side. Some of Ferguson's most chilling passages centre on German imperialism in Africa, where the lineaments of genocidal warfare were first developed. Ferguson reminds us that after World War I "Civil war raged not only in the big German cities but also along Germany's eastern frontier, were so-called Freikorps led by veterans such as Frank Xavier Ritter von Epp and Hermann Ehrhardt waged war on the Bolsheviks and Slav nationalists as if they were African tribes in all but the colour of their skins. For Epp and Erhardt this came naturally; both had been officers in the wars against the Herero and Nama." Ferguson notes that Hitler's signature brown shirts originally came out of Africa.

As destructive as World War II may have been, Ferguson notes that it resulted in the obverse of war. The consumer society arrived. Here perhaps another unresolved contradiction can be detected in Ferguson's account. He rightly points to the importance of the right of property as the foundation of the West's rise. Ferguson draws telling contrasts between the debility of the Soviet economic model, which he notes was unable to even produce a pair of proper blue jeans, and the western one, which resulted in what he calls a "generalised levelling up that followed the war." What Ferguson does not discuss is the economic stagnation that has taken hold in the US in the past several decades, where the trend has been towards rags to rags rather than to riches. The discrepancy in incomes between the wealthy and poor is at its highest point in eight decades.

Ferguson's true worry is about the effects that luxury and opulence have had upon Western societies. He is particularly censorious about Europeans and links a decline in religiosity with a diminution of the work ethic. Ferguson avers, "Europeans today are the idlers of the world. On average, they work less than Americans and a lot less than Asians." Ferguson fears what he sees as the corrosive moral effects that a lack of faith is producing. In his view, a spiritual "vacuum leaves West European societies vulnerable to the sinister ambitions of a minority of people who do have religious faith ... the core values of Western civilisation are directly threatened by the brand of Islam espoused by terrorists like Muktar Said Ibrahim ..." But are they? As with cold warriors who sometimes confused Soviet aspirations with capabilities, he may be giving the motley crew of Islamists spouting their farrago of nonsense about an impending new Caliphate far too much credit.

While terrorism will never go away, it does not pose an existential threat to the continued survival of the Western democracies.

Ferguson begins by proclaiming that "it is only by identifying the true causes of Western ascendancy that we can hope to estimate with any degree of accuracy the imminence of our decline and fall." But as with an impending fatal disease, why would anyone want to have precise advance knowledge of when they were about to perish? There is another problem. If the very fertility of Western intellectual thought has allowed it to prevail over Islam or other competitors, then looking to the past might be an artificially rigid approach. It is precisely the lack of rigidity and unexpected nature of advances that have allowed the West to prosper. The past may not have all that much to tell about the present, or, as A.J.P. Taylor once put it, the lesson of history is that there is no lesson of history. Perhaps at the heart of the Western experience, if that term can even be employed, is the capacity for self-criticism and reflection.

Yet Ferguson's conclusion is somewhat contradictory on this point. He argues that "no civilisation has done a better job finding and educating the geniuses that lurk in the far right-hand tail of the distribution of talent in any human society. The big question is whether or not we are still able to recognise the superiority of that package." He asserts that "maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilisation we inherited from our ancestors."

But it is hard to see that a massive loss of faith in democracy has taken place. If anything, Western democracies appear to remain intent on exporting their credo to the rest of the world. The Arab Spring and allied intervention in Libya hardly suggests that the idea of democracy is on the ropes. The state of the world today hardly bears comparison with the interwar period, when communism seemed like a viable alternative to democracy to substantial elements of the American left and the right flirted with fascism.

Looming large over Ferguson's account are the shadows of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Retreat from the mountains of the Hindu Kush or the plains of Mesopotamia," he warns, "has long been a harbinger of decline and fall. It is significant that the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in the annus mirabilis of 1989 and ceased to exist in 1991." Actually, it isn't. This sounds like bin Ladenism, the half-baked prophecy that America, once lured into Afghanistan, would suffer more than a stubbed toe, that it would succumb to its own fissiparous tendencies, crack up. Rather, the US run could actually be seen as rather successful. Al Qaeda has been mostly dismantled. A residual American force will remain in Afghanistan itself to ensure that it does not fall apart completely. Whether this is good for Afghanistan is another matter. But withdrawing troops from Afghanistan need not presage the collapse of the US. Unlike Vietnam, which truly was a conflict that sundered America, the conflict in Afghanistan is unpopular but not one that has led to civil disobedience and homebrewed terrorism.

Ferguson, who supported the Iraq War, concludes by denouncing Western "pusillanimity." But this is dangerously loose talk. What has got the US into such a pickle isn't a case of a loss of confidence. It is the very opposite. It was George W. Bush who proselytised that the American creed could, overnight, be exported to recalcitrant areas of the globe. The costs of the Iraq War and the financial collapse can be largely laid at Bush's doorstep. As the US and Europe try to clamber out of the wreckage, circumspection, not a new round of chest-thumping, is in order. Ferguson's history is written with brio, but to act upon its precepts would indeed be to speed the very decline it seeks to avert.