We live in deeply serious times with deeply unserious leaders.
Historian Niall Ferguson has written that the “extreme violence of the 20th century” was precipitated by three preconditions: “ethnic strife, economic volatility, and declining empires”. It is hard not to see such preconditions being repeated in this century. The West is currently being torn apart by concerns about birth rates, immigration and multiculturalism. Economic volatility rages on: After a decades-long relocation of manufacturing away from the West and a reorientation towards finance and services, the hollowing out of the Western energy sector in pursuit of utopian environmentalism – all punctuated by the Great Recession, COVID-19 mini-depression and now sky-high inflation rates — the global economy is on a knife edge.
And then there is the problem of declining empires.
We tend to think of our world as empireless, a world of nation states. But that’s not really correct. The United States, hesitant as it is, is a de facto empire, even if it is not in the colonialist mold of the British Empire; the European Union would, in any other context, be considered a continental empire; Russia has always considered itself an imperial power, and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine represents only the latest iteration of that claim; China has its own empire, not just a nation-state – as author Ai Weiwei recently wrote, “people who live in or come from China are a mix of more than 50 ethnic and linguistic groups”.
The Russian Empire is far from declining; it is an economic backwater armed with obsolete military systems, in serious demographic difficulty. But China is now the area most at risk. The Chinese economy has experienced phenomenal economic growth over the past two decades, but that growth now appears to be running out of steam: state profiteering is not self-sufficient and, as China scholar Michael Pettis recently wrote, “China’s overreliance on soaring debt in recent years has made the country’s growth model unsustainable…(it is likely) that the country will face a very long period of low Japanese-style growth . Chinese demography is completely upset; its population is expected to decline by almost 50% by 2100. And President Xi Jinping is about to declare himself dictator for life.
In all of this, China bears a strong resemblance to Nazi Germany on the brink of territorial aggression against its neighbors. Nazi Germany experienced enormous GDP growth, largely rooted in debt, state-sponsored profiteering, and military spending; Germany’s fertility rate fell from over 4 children per woman in 1910 to well below 2 in 1935. The foundations of Nazi Germany were shaky; Hitler saw his window close. The military aggression was therefore not unpredictable.
So what would be China’s next logical step? His eyes are fixed on Taiwan. Given China’s historical covetousness of Taiwan and Taiwan’s dominance over the all-important production of sophisticated semiconductors, a Chinese invasion of the island would not be at all unpredictable.
Which brings us back to the profoundly unserious leadership of the West.
Faced with the prospect of ethnic tensions, economic volatility and internal instability in China, the West is opting for weakness. Economic growth is the prerequisite for military might; moral strength is the prerequisite for internal cohesion. The West has decided, over the years, to abandon its commitment to economic strength, instead waging a losing war on the climate and promising endless handouts from the unfunded welfare state; simultaneously, the West fell into the doubt of dying civilizations, pitting its citizens against each other, labeling them as “semi-fascists” and “threats to democracy”. We stand somewhere between the moral collapse of Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional” (1897) and Philip Larkin’s “Homage to a Government” (1969). This does not mean that the West is about to collapse; China is much more vulnerable than us. But it portends a future of chaos and hardship – the kind of chaos and hardship that only force, economic, military and moral, can successfully keep at bay.