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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 06-01-2024 07:28

Doomsday prophecies are back in fashion

There are signs that the current vogue for doomsday prophecies is having a more demoralising effect than previous ones.

After the Soviet Union fell apart in December 1991, Western nations, led by the United States, began cutting back on military spending. At the time that seemed to make good sense. For the foreseeable future, they would not have to worry about having to confront huge numbers of tanks and millions of infantrymen intent on invading Europe. This meant they could cash in on the “peace dividend” by concentrating on other things.

Though some understood that on occasion it could be in their country's interest to intervene forcibly in unruly parts of the world, they assumed that high technology plus well-trained professional units would enable them to do this fairly cheaply. As a result, Western armies are far smaller than they were even a few years ago and – as is being made unpleasantly clear by what is happening in Ukraine – their armament industries are finding it hard to match that of Russia which, it is reported, is producing more shells, missiles and artillery pieces than the US and its European allies put together.

Russia may be an economic midget in comparison to her neighbours, but Vladimir Putin evidently believes that military prowess is more important than anything else and is therefore prepared to devote 40 percent or so of his country’s budget on basic but nonetheless effective weaponry and putting young men in uniform.

This has Western politicians worried. Their efforts to keep Ukraine supplied with what she desperately needs are faltering not only because more and more people are objecting to the costs entailed when they personally are going short, but also because their own stocks of high-tech military hardware are limited and they are finding it hard to beef them up. Nonetheless, most European leaders appear to be well aware that, after investing so much of their own prestige on driving Russia out of the sovereign nation her troops are trying to conquer, resigning themselves to a negotiated settlement which leaves large chunks of Ukraine in Putin’s hands would greatly harm their collective reputation. The way things are going, that is something they may have to live with.

For decades, top European politicians told themselves that, in the long run, “soft power” beats the hard variety and, should anyone feel inclined to threaten them in a serious manner, they could always rely on the nuclear deterrent wielded by the United States, so they would be better advised to spend what money they had on things the local electorate wanted. For a time, it seemed they had got their priorities right. The European Union became attractive to neighbouring countries which did their best to meet its many demands and also to tens of millions of men and women from farther afield who would risk their lives in order to reach it and enjoy its amenities.

“Soft power” made for a pleasant dream from which most now seem to be waking up. It is no longer far-fetched to suggest that, if Russia gets away with carving a bit out of Ukraine, she could turn her attention to the Baltic States and even to Poland and Finland. While that still looks most unlikely, there can be little doubt that Europeans have good reason to be worried by the widespread assumption that they are too weak to defend themselves against a determined aggressor, what with the US getting more isolationist and (if the opinion polls are to be believed) Donald Trump’s chances of staging a spectacular comeback increasing by the day. Much as they dislike the idea, if “The Donald” succeeds, they could find themselves on their own. 

Pacifism, whether full-blooded or half-hearted as it is in many political circles in Europe and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the US, does not ensure peace. It is provocative and fires up less enlightened folk who believe in the old-fashioned ways of reaching their objectives. As well as Russians who fantasise about recreating the Tsarist Empire, there are the Chinese who think they have a natural right to incorporate Taiwan into their domains and, of course, Islamists who want the entire planet to submit to their pitiless creed and are more than happy to kill those who oppose them. Were Israel to crumble, they would redouble their attacks on the US and Europe.

Of late, there has been much talk about the rapid decline of the West which, in addition having to deal with a league of “autocracies” convinced that their moment has come, is being undermined from within by influential individuals who insist it is, in large measure, a criminal enterprise which owes its existence to the vile behaviour of slave-traders, white-supremacist racist bigots, imperialists, colonialists and other equally despicable beings. For those who think this way, and there are millions of them entrenched in academia, the media and national bureaucracies, the West and its indigenous inhabitants thoroughly deserve the unhappy fate they see fast approaching.

There is nothing particularly new about this. Well over a century ago, prominent Victorians feared that internal forces were dragging down the United Kingdom and the British Empire, while, in 1918, Oswald Spengler made a big and lasting impact with his work, The Decline of the West, in which he saw decadence as an inevitable cultural phenomenon. However, there are signs that the current vogue for doomsday prophecies involving not only the ingrained wickedness of everything Western but also climate change caused by the runaway success of the Industrial Revolution, a development some include among the crimes committed by the dastardly Europeans, and now the apparent threat posed by Artificial Intelligence, is having a more demoralising effect than previous ones. It surely helps explain why so many European peoples – as well as the Japanese and South Koreans – are reluctant to breed at a rate that would ensure their survival for more than a couple of generations to come.

According to some progressives, only reactionaries are worried by the probability that, when their young children, if they have any, are about to become pensioners, there will be hardly any Italians, Germans or Spaniards around; after all, they can always be replaced by immigrants from Africa or the Middle East. If the available statistics are anything to go by, something like this is certain to happen, but suggesting that it would be rather unfortunate to see admired cultures fade away is considered a symptom of extreme right-wing fear-mongering by those who, if what they say is anything to go by, are doing their best to hasten the demise of the civilisation they themselves belong to.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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