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The sense of an ending


Published in

El Confidencial

Javier Gil Guerrero

researcher from Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra

The succession of major geopolitical crises in recent years has left us perplexed. Europe, accustomed since 1945 to being an island of peace, freedom and prosperity in the world, is astonished by a massive transfer of wealth from the West to the East. Meanwhile, its borders are becoming increasingly insecure. The West is paralyzed by the aggressiveness of a revisionist China and Russia increasingly confident of their own power.

All this is nothing more than a world that is running out of steam to give way to another that we can barely glimpse yet. Success is never definitive: empires and hegemonies are born with an expiration date. The Roman Empire lasted for almost a millennium (at least as far as Byzantium was concerned) and the great European empires of the modern age (Spanish, French and English) lasted more than a century each. However, the more recent 'empires', such as the Soviet or American empires, barely achieved a hegemony of a few decades.

The British was the last European empire and with the United States, a 500-year Western hegemony is coming to an end. For the first time in history, the possibility arises that global supremacy will not be in the West but in Asia. This implies a world with new rules and interests, not rooted in Judeo-Christian values or in the Greco-Roman philosophical-legal bequest . We do not yet have an idea of the changes this will entail. Accustomed to taking for granted that our way of seeing the world and our concerns about the individual, women, the family and freedom will be the prevailing ones, we are slow to react and adjust to the new status.

The Westerner, and especially the European, requires a new education. We are shocked by Russian and Chinese territorial expansionism based on military force. We are disoriented by the labyrinthine civil wars and insurgencies in the Middle East. Yet we forget that, in the words of Élie Barnavi, our modern state was created "by and for war". For Europeans born after World War II, the warlike character of the state is no more than a 'historical abstraction' or something out of a fantasy TV series. We have unlearned the art of war that made our society possible, despising it as irrational. Yet, as Clausewitz pointed out, war can be a very rational thing: an instrument of state reason to adjust balances of power on a regional or global scale. Putin or Xi Jinping are not merely driven by unbridled passions or ideological or religious fundamentalisms: their troop movements are, first and foremost, driven by a cold will to power. Brutal and immoral, but rational.

Europe is oblivious to all this. The only wars we have faced in recent decades have been asymmetrical, where the disparity in technology and resources was such that we could conduct them with minimal casualties that would hardly attract the attention of public opinion. Yet our expectations were so unrealistic that the death of one soldier in a conflict made it a military catastrophe and a national event. These neo-colonial wars in which the United States has always had the upper hand have not familiarized citizens with military culture at all. Following Barnavi, in democracies, the culture of war lasts only as long as the war lasts, and then only if it is a total war. In authoritarian regimes, on the contrary, war and culture are usually one and the same. By definition, every army is authoritarian and hierarchical: a democratic army would cease to be an army. That is why the postmodern Westerner always feels a strangeness in the face of the martial.

During the serious crises we have experienced in recent years, we have reacted inadequately. As Mitterrand cynically observed, "while in the West we deploy pacifist demonstrations, in the East they deploy missiles". We cannot conceive of International Office remaining in a state of nature, nor of assuming war or violence as endemic. Accustomed to an artificial welfare state, so regulated that it has far surpassed that stage, we are incapable of understanding what is natural. Within our borders there is a deeply refined artificial order, but outside them is the world described by Hobbes. In the West, we have assumed so well the elimination of the state of nature that we mistake the artificial order created by the State as something natural. Thus, we think that the International Office should follow the patron saint of relations between citizens in Switzerland and we are shocked when this does not happen.

The American hegemony of the last decades has prevented us from having to confront reality. If the natural order of the International Office, as Robert Kagan wrote, is similar to that of a jungle, Washington, with its military, economic and technological hegemony, took it upon itself to make it resemble a garden. But if the gardener is unable or unwilling to continue performing his duties and stops pruning and watering, the pleasant garden to which we were accustomed will soon turn into a jungle. We are already seeing it. Weeds start to grow and, with no one to help them, choke out neighboring plants.

The sudden omnipresent anguish in our societies is the result of the sense of an end. The degree scroll of Julian Barnes' book made reference letter to the death of each individual. In this case, it is the agony of an entire world order.