Perhaps what will confound future historians the most is how dramatically the alarm bells have been ringing these past three decades. After five centuries of growing self-confidence and rising prosperity across the West, built upon a steady accretion of norms and values suffused by liberty and law, and then the great leap forward of the Industrial Revolution, we became lost in our own dream world.
This has happened before, of course. In Rome, in Egypt, and the other great empires of the past, success led to complacency, then decadence, then an inability to notice the danger until it was too late. “It was scarcely possible that the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public happiness the latent causes of decay and corruption,” Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His point is simple: insiders are typically the worst at spotting the rot.
This is perhaps why so many failed to notice the indicators blinking red in recent years. Democracy – the system of government that supposedly represented the end of history – has been in retreat. At the time of the French Revolution, only 4% of the world’s nations were engaged in the experiment of representative government, a number that rose through various waves, not least after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then there was a turning point with a steady decline in the percentage of the world’s population living in what we like to call the free world.
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At the same time, and intimately related, was a profound cultural retreat. The political scientist Robert Putnam has documented a dizzying array of data that reveals growing polarization, individualism and narcissism across western societies. Perhaps the most intuitive finding is a survey question asked to students. Do you agree with the following statement: I am a very important person. In 1950, 12% agreed. By 1990, this had exploded to 80% and continues to rise.
Putnam’s point is that we have become more vain and self-obsessed, more focused on rights than responsibilities, more likely to seek fame as an end in itself rather than achieving something worthy of fame. We are also more likely to heatedly disagree on trivial matters such as whether the word curry amounts to cultural appropriation – a classic case of what the British anthropologist Ernest Crawley called “the narcissism of small differences.”
While Xi Jinping was resetting the world order through his Belt and Road initiative and Vladimir Putin was recreating the Russian empire by annexing Georgia and Crimea, we were arguing over gender-neutral toilets.
This is not a cheap rhetorical point, by the way. The index of political polarization – which measures the intensity of our internal squabbles – is at its highest for a century. In the United States, partisan disputes became so feverish that Congress became incapable of passing legislation that everyone knew was in the national interest. Research by Yale found that only 15% of Americans would punish a politician for engaging in electoral malpractice such as gerrymandering as long as it benefited their own side. In other words, a majority are so eager to shaft political opponents that they are willing to fatally weaken the constitutional struts of the citadel in which they collectively live.
It perhaps goes without saying that the policy advisers surrounding Xi and Putin noticed all this and more (as can be seen from leaked policy documents), sending their bots in their hundreds of thousands to inflame these pseudo-disputes and coax us ever deeper into the self-indulgent echo chambers that dominate the online world. I guess I am not alone in fearing that the metaverse, with its virtual ecospheres and fictional identities, will accelerate these trends, pushing us deeper into the metaphysical wormhole of digital escapism – and away from empirical and moral reality.
Some have wondered why China has prevaricated when it comes to an amphibious assault on the island of Taiwan, but the answer has been in front of our noses. They delayed not because they feared short-term military defeat but because they believed they had time on their side. They were resetting the world through stealth and increment and with western complicity. Why send a warning shot that might wake up a sleeping adversary? Better to put Taiwan on the back burner until it could be presented to an even more enfeebled West as a fait accompli.
Everything changed on Feb. 24 when Putin sent his tanks into Ukraine, a gambit that (I am convinced) horrified the Chinese Communist Party. It will benefit in the short term from a client state dependent on its purchases of gas but this is of relatively minor significance in the great power competition that will determine the next 100 years. They know that the West has finally noticed what Gibbon called “the poison introduced into the vitals of the system”: the torrent of dirty money in our financial centers, the infiltration of universities and think tanks, and the broader corrosion of our values. Some pundits described last week as a “reset” for western policy, but what we are seeing is, I think, infinitely more consequential. This is a reawakening of the West. It has been stunning over recent days to see politicians talking about problems that many of us have been warned about for a decade: inadequate defense spending, the imperative of traditional alliances, the dangers of strategic dependence on autocracies, whether for gas or anything else. A Tory spokesman even conceded that Russian cash in party coffers might have compromised the integrity of policy. Well, yes.
But as I watch the courage of Ukrainians, my dominant emotion is guilt. Guilt that we didn’t stand up to the autocrats earlier. Guilt that our self-indulgence blinded us to the dangers. Guilt that Ukrainians are, even now, dying for the freedoms we forgot how to defend. At the very least, we must extend sanctions to all Russian banks, freeze the assets of oligarchs and stop reloading the Kremlin cash machine by purchasing Russian hydrocarbons. We will suffer a drop in living standards but this is a fight for our way of life.
There is a famous phenomenon in optics called “perceptual reversal”. You know the kind of thing: you look at an image of a young woman, long eyelashes projecting across the left contour of her face, before it suddenly flips. You are now confronted by an older, hooded woman with a large nose, your senses startled. In Berlin, Paris, London, Washington and beyond over the past week, we have witnessed the political equivalent of perceptual reversal. We owe it to ourselves and all Ukrainians never to allow our senses to become so distorted again.
From The Times of London.