Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 



Is the West really declining or what we’re actually seeing is a rebalancing, as the East reassumes the kind of economic significance its population size demands? Western countries have only really been in the ascendant for a handful of centuries, whereas countries like China and India have been economic juggernauts for most of their long histories with China being until the 16th century the world’s dominant economy.

A rebalancing of the world economy is happening thanks to the weakness - the internal weakness - of the European and American economies and societies as exemplified by and accelerated by the Great Crash of 2008, the worst financial crisis for eight decades, which has had profound consequences on living standards, on faith in capitalism, on faith in political systems.

The problem is also that there is a “West versus the Rest” mentality, with the West often sabotaging relations with other parts of the world. Russia is a case in point, the best example of this mentality: there is no reason for the antagonism we see today. Why can’t the West accept that other parts of the world often do things differently, and that liberal democracy isn’t the only way of organising a society?

The West and the East

The West is currently buffeted by the tides of isolationism and fragmentation while in the East a new network of relationships takes shape along the ancient trade routes. The decisions being made in today's world that really matter are not being made in Washington, London, and Paris but in Beijing and Moscow.

One reason for the optimism across the heart of Asia is the immense natural resources of the region. British Petroleum estimates that the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia account for almost 70 per cent of total global proven oil reserves and nearly 65 per cent of proven natural gas reserves, without including Turkmenistan. Then there is also plenty of rare elements like silicon, yttrium, dysprosium and terbium.

Rudyard Kipling popularised the idea of a “Great Game” where the British and Russian empires competed politically, diplomatically and militarly for position and dominance in the heart of Asia. Today, there is a series of “Great Games” taking place over competition for influence, for energy and natural resources, for food, water and clean air, for strategic position, even for data. For now, the “Great Games” pit China together with Russia, Turkey and Iran against the United States, Japan and Australia. The two camps compete for influence, if not dominance, in a swath of land that stretches from the China Sea to the Atlantic coast of Europe.

The geopolitical flashpoints are multiple. They range from the China Sea to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and, most recently, far beyond with Russia, China and Turkey supporting embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro.

Wide changes have been taking place in the last 25 years, similarly to what happened in the decades that followed the crossing of the Atlantic by Columbus and those who followed him, and the near-simultaneous rounding of the Southern tip of Africa by Vasco de Gama that opened up new maritime trade routes between Europe, the Indian Ocean, South Asia and beyond. These twin expeditions, just over 500 years ago, laid the ground for a dramatic shift in the world's centre of economic and political gravity, placing Western Europe at the heart of global trade routes for the first time in history.

What is striking are the reactions to change in East and West. In one there is hope and optimism about what tomorrow will bring, while in the other anxiety is acute as countries are more and more divided, revealing the crisis of confidence and the concern about the direction of travel in the West in a time of change.

The East

The rejection of Western universalism by the elites in Russia and China challenges the idea of the nation state as the international norm for political organisation. The Chinese and the Russian ruling classes view themselves as bearers of unique cultural norms, and define themselves as civilisational states rather than nation states also because the latter are associated with Western imperialism – and in the case of China a century of humiliation following the 19th-century Opium Wars.

Today China can rely on Russia, the world’s largest country spanning the Eurasian landmass. The two main Eastern players are in many ways complementary: Russia has natural resources, basic science and weapons; China has capital, commercial technologies and heavy manufacturing. Russia has an under-population problem, China the opposite.

An ancient principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is gluing Beijing and Moscow together. As a matter of fact, China and Russia are publicly heralding a new age of diplomacy between the two countries, at a time when both are being targeted by the United States with punitive measures. The two countries conducted jointly in 2018 the “Vostok 2018 Exercise” signaling to the West that they are working closer together to counterbalance the US “unilateralism”. Vostok 2018, a massive military joint exercise, involved 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships.

Putin and Xi recently discussed the implementation of agreements reached in the areas of energy, aerospace, and nuclear power, as well as the interface between China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

The BRI, also known as the “Land and Maritime Silk Roads” is a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government. The planned integration of the Chinese-led BRI with Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) will develop a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road Routes.

Both countries, already labeled as civilization-states, are led by strong, long-game leaders who are instilling national (and nationalistic) pride into their peoples, having both nations a sense of being waxing, not waning powers. The personal touch in the Putin-Xi relationship is conducive to guarantee a profitable political relationship between the two countries.

The West

China and Russia confront the West with an enormous problem: the West does not understand them while insisting on seeing the world through the Western prism. No other tradition or history or culture can compare the Western ones deemed superior to all and others are diminished as a consequence. This speaks not of wisdom but ignorance, an expression not of Western cosmopolitanism but its insularity and provincialism. Eurocentrism or better western-centrism has become the Western universal yardstick against which, in varying degrees, all others fail.

But the fall of the West has been endlessly forecast, and its decline is readily apparent. It would be difficult to point to an era when such a fall in faith in the West’s governance and systems has coincided with such a surge of power and confidence in the East.

West core members inhabit the Western Hemisphere, notably Western Europe and North America. But it is not simply a geographic description, it is also a dense soup of institutions and values. “Western” countries, labeled as nation-states, are broadly characterised by democratic governance, market capitalism and rule of law with prosperous lifestyles, civic society and liberal values.

The Western decline began when the Iraqi and Afghan resistance proved more resilient than anticipated. Fighting spirit trumped the excellence of the West’s arms and professional, high-tech militaries. Chaos generated new enemies, such as ISIS. Western public's’ inability to tolerate casualties together with a reluctance to implement long-term strategies, such as post-combat nation-building, indicates that the West’s war-winning days are over. And confidence has plummeted in sectors that extend well beyond strategy and security.

China, Russia, US and Europe


China and Russia are currently in a difficult relationship with the United States following the imposition of duties on China and sanctions on Russia. For the first time the two great powers are considered "revisionists, strategic competitors and rivals" in the 2017 and 2018 US Strategy Papers Series.

America’s decline is impossible to disentangle from China’s rise, so it is natural that the rapid climb of the Middle Kingdom back to its historic global primacy dominates discussion of the civilisation-state. Under Xi’s rule China has really penetrated the Western consciousness as Xi believes that a civilization carries on its back the soul of a country or nation.

China is now the only country in the world which has amalgamated the world’s longest continuous civilization with a huge modern state. That has allowed China’s traditions to evolve, develop and adapt in virtually all branches of human knowledge and practices, such as political governance, economics, education, art, music, literature, architecture, military, sports, food and medicine. Unlike the ever-changing West, constantly searching after progress and reordering its societies to suit the intellectual fashions of the moment, China draws on its ancient traditions and wisdom, and its return to pre-eminence is the natural result.


The appeal of the civilisation-state model is not limited to China. Under Putin, the other great Eurasian empire, Russia, has publicly abandoned the Europe-focused liberalising projects of the 1990s for its own cultural special path of a uniquely Russian civilisation centred on an all-powerful state.

For Putin it is Russia’s heritage as a polyglot empire that makes the state he helms a civilisation state rather than a mere nation, explicitly stressing that “the self-definition of the Russian people is that of a multi-ethnic civilisation.”

With this hybridity, part-European and part-Asian, Russia’s destiny as a civilisation-state, like that of the Byzantium it succeeded, is one as a civilisation that has absorbed the East and the West.

In 2016 Valery Gergiev, a renowned Russian conductor close to Putin, led a concert in Palmyra’s Roman Theatre, a UNESCO heritage site recaptured from Islamic State militants who had carried out summary executions in the ruins. In his address to the audience by video link, Putin called for a worldwide battle against the barbaric forces of Islamist terrorism. The message was that the West had lost its moral monopoly and Russia was a force for good. This is the Kremlin’s version of a civilising mission.

The United States

Russia and China are maintaining that the US is trying to reorganize the world according to its own interests. Washington has countered China’s efforts to establish itself as the premier power in the western Pacific by challenging Chinese artificial island building in the China Sea and by conducting freedom of navigation operations in support of Taiwan.

As or Russia, the US quite too often forgets that the reunification of Germany was achieved thanks to the “gentlemen agreement” between Bush and Gorbachev with the assurance that NATO and the EU would never be bordering Russia's territory. But NATO and the EU incorporated all of Eastern Europe and the three Baltic states, former republics of the USSR. And Russia has witnessed further attempts to bring three more former Soviet republics – Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine – into NATO and, consequently, into the EU.

According to Russia, the US neocon plans is for Russian economy to be weakened by sanctions, which they hope will lead to reduce support to Putin, destabilize the country and bring about a regime change in Moscow.


Europeans celebrated a concept called soft power, which involves the resort to dialogue, mediation and other strategies that avoid military action. But their embracing soft power was simply a way to evade reality. And soon the Europeans discovered that soft power was… soft and that they needed hard power to shape events.

The question about the future is not whether it will be defined by competition – because it will be – but whether competition will be managed. EU members must realize that in our complex and conflictual world, size matters, and that on their own even the largest EU countries are just small fish in a big pond inhabited by whales like the United States, China and Russia. Only together can the EU members protect and promote their interests and values on the world stage.

The EU must help the US to avoid schizophrenic, contradictory initiatives by considering pros and cons and warning about collateral effects or damages. The EU, thanks to its millennium-old historical and cultural legacy, is surely in the position to act as a tutor, as a mentor to a younger and less experienced America.

East versus West

A new narrative has taken hold among the ruling classes in the West: that the aggressive axis of Russia and China is the main threat to the Western-dominated international system. But the liberal world order is also under unprecedented strain from within. The Iraq invasion of 2003, the 2008 global financial crash, austerity and the refugee crisis in Europe, which began in earnest in 2015 and was partly the result of Western destabilisation in Libya and Syria, have all eroded public confidence in the liberal establishment and the institutions it controls.

The ascent of authoritarian “strongmen” such as Putin, Xi Jinping, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkey’s President Erdogan and Brazil’s leader Jair Bolsonaro are a major menace to liberal dominance over international affairs. But the principal danger to the West is internal : namely the erosion of Western civilisation by ultra-liberalism. Thus, the main challenge facing the West is the increasingly assertive Sino-Russian partnership.

This is particularly true as China invests massive capital into the developing world, asserts its presence in the South China Sea, and builds an expeditionary military. Moscow, meanwhile, lacks Beijing’s financial power, but is developing and integrating the Eurasian landmass on not just an east-west axis, but also in northern (Arctic Sea) and southern (Middle East/South Asian) directions.

The game is on to lure countries into one of the two camps, and a handful of states are clearly already in the Russian-Chinese orbit: Iran, North Korea and Syria with Turkey likely to follow suit.

Taking a wider geographic gaze, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia are all in play. China is deploying massive capital resources in Africa, significant economic resources in South Asia, while deploying both capital and economic resources in Southeast Asia. Russia, meanwhile, maintains its customarily strong relations in Central Asia.

Sharp power

Prosperous Chinese and Russians inevitably head West, Westerners are far less keen to head East. But the East is resorting to a new power format: “sharp power,” or information/disinformation warfare to win influence through electoral meddling, fake news, and the retention of Western academics, journalists and pundits to argue the Sino-Russian case.

Sharp power is particularly effective as it targets the West’s Achilles heel: its dangerous confidence in its governance and institutions , including its free media. And the West cannot return fire in kind: China has effectively erected an information firewall around its people, while Moscow toys with the idea of fencing off its own Internet.

Amid these multiple dynamics, does the West have the grit, patience, confidence, determination and foresight to maintain its influence and economic status in what is increasingly shaping into a power struggle between it, and China and Russia? 

Can the West cope with the East?

The answer cannot come from a science and a technique that are not guided, as has always been in the past, by the philosophy and wealth of knowledge that Europe has inherited from the Classics which, even before Christianity and together with it, are at the basis of the European and Western culture.

Philosophy, also understood as a lifestyle, can accompany the lifestyle changes necessary to respond to the various changes through the golden principle of Greek morality which is that of the right measure between defect and excess.

Arnold Toynbee, British historian and philosopher of history, spoke of an action and reaction mechanism: when a universal state such as the Roman Empire is created, as Europe today, there is a tendency for this civilization to widen, to expand, which is the phenomenon of imperialism or colonialism . But when the driving force of the Empire fails, the opposite phenomenon occurs, that is, the entire colonized mass by ebb comes back and pours into the center of the Empire to devour its rich pulp.

What we are experiencing today in Europe with the crisis of the West, as Oswald Spengler, German historian and philosopher of history, said a century ago, is analogous to the crisis of the Roman Empire. A great civilization that had dominated the world is challenged by the peoples that had been dominated. Spengler did maintain that Europe, characterized by the domination of money and the press, was intellectually arid and politically fragile, and was resisting its end only by means of the continuous change of reference models. 

Toynbee's solution

Faced with the rising East, Europe cannot avoid the sunset but it can compact itself into a political union to resist, postponing an inevitable end for more decades. The sovereignists, therefore, who believe they can save themselves by themselves from the common destiny are seriously wrong and in reality with their isolationism and anti-Europeanism they obtain the opposite effect: they break up Europe which is the only possibility of resistance and survival. The only hope is a political and compact Europe that knows how to move together, with coherence, courage, creativity and imagination.

Toynbee's solution is that an imaginative team must be created within the ruling class that knows how to respond to the challenges and capable of reacting to the waning of the West and proposing solutions for the future. It is a dream, a great challenge but it is the only option. A common world, an oikumene should be envisaged in which the common space is also an economic space for mercantile exchanges and religious harmony. Such imaginative and creative team should be made of the best philosophers, intellectuals, and men of thought and science.

Toynbee did maintain “The works of artists and writers have a longer life than the feats of soldiers, statesmen and merchants. Poets and philosophers go further beyond the historians. But the saints and the prophets are worth more of all the others put together ". Where are today the saints and the prophets? It would take a Saint Francis who, in course of the Fifth Crusade, embittered from the attitude of the Crusaders, crossed the frontline, was arrested and brought before the sultan. Too bad there was no CNN, it was 1219; after a chat that lasted all night, Francis returned unharmed to the camp of the crusaders.


The West built a liberal international order. The hope was that it would act as a handmaiden for a peaceful and prosperous world. But starting around 2005, the order began to encounter serious problems, which have multiplied with time, to the point where it has begun to collapse. This outcome should have been foreseen, as the Western order had within it the seeds of its own destruction and thus was destined to fail sooner rather than later.

The US should therefore resist any temptation to continue trying to forcefully spread democracy across the planet via regime change. Because the United States will be compelled to engage in balance of power politics with China and Russia, its ability to engage in social engineering abroad will be sharply limited.

In sum, the time has come for the U.S. foreign policy establishment to recognize that the liberal international order was a failed enterprise with no future. The orders that will matter for the foreseeable future are realistic orders that must be fashioned in cooperation with the emergent nations that will become major actors and China will replace the United States as the dominant power.

In other words, those countries and cultures that we now look down upon will increasingly become the arbiters of the future. How will we ever make sense of them if we refuse to understand them in anything other than our own Western terms? How will they view us if we continue to look down upon their culture and polities as inferior to our own?

China dates back to 221BC, in some respects much earlier. That date marked the end of the Warring States period, the victory of the Qin, and the birth of the Qin Empire whose borders embraced a considerable slice of what is today the eastern half of China and by far its most populous part.


The rise of Russia and China is weakening Western attempts to impose a unified set of standards and rules in international relations. The days of spreading universal values of Western enlightenment have long since passed.

The promotion of Western democracy has been replaced by an accommodation with autocrats: geopolitics is no longer simply about the economy or security but it is also sociocultural and civilisational. The non-Western world, led by Beijing and Moscow, is pushing back against the Western claim to embody universal values.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping champions a model of “a mix of socialism and capitalism with Chinese characteristics” fusing a Leninist state and a capitalist opportunistic state (a market economy built on particularistic relationships) both dipped in the Neo-Confucian culture. Vladimir Putin defines Russia as a “civilisational state”, which is neither Western nor Asian but uniquely Eurasian.

However, neither the Western cult of private freedom without social solidarity nor the totalitarian tendencies among China’s and Russia’s elites can nurture resilient societies against the disruptive forces of technology and implacable economic globalisation. They both privilege the “will to power” of some over others: the strong, powerful and wealthy over the weak, powerless and poor. In both democratic and authoritarian systems, oligarchic power, demagogic politics and social fragmentation are increasing.

In this context the challenge for the Western world to survive and have its say in the future is its capability to manage the global power transition, to stimulate its citizens with fresh motivations, to cope with the volatile international situation and create a zone of common interests and shared responsibilities: a zone not directed against anyone, but open to all who share the true Western values expressed by justice, freedom, rule of law, good governance, peace and stability.

Besides Toynbee and Spengler the West should also take into account Federico Caffè, notable Italian economist, particularly interested in economic policy and welfare, especially in their social dimensions. At the center of his economic reflections there was always the need to ensure high levels of employment and social protection, especially for the weaker classes: the state must protect and promote the economic and social well-being of its less fortunate citizens. Perhaps Europe should refound itself on its true ideals and values (by remedying its current social fragmentation and lack of social solidarity) which would give it greater moral and spiritual strength.

Europe, America, Russia and China should therefore cooperate by design or by default, by choice or by necessity, and agree on how to proceed in identifying a future world order where they have to play a key role so as to increase global governance and security.