WESTERN civilisation is in the midst of a profound crisis. Let me tell you how I get to that conclusion.
The most difficult task in any serious strategic analysis is to integrate factors from wholly different spheres of activity and to see how they play on each other. A failure to recognise the depth of the old Soviet Union's economic crisis, for example, led many traditional Western strategic analysts, accustomed to measuring Soviet arsenals against US arsenals, to miss altogether the impending collapse of the entire Soviet system.
Today, the West, of which Australia is manifestly part, is beset by intractable, diverse challenges, each one of which could provide existential threat. It is solving none of them at the moment. Each threat multiplies the force of the others. Taken together, they constitute a long, systemic crisis. The West might solve these problems. But it might not, too.
First, Islamist terrorism. There are three ways this can be an existential threat. Terrorists could get material for a mass destruction attack, either a nuclear weapon or, much likelier, a radiation weapon, a dirty bomb. So far this hasn't happened. But a strategic threat is not the common law. It's not governed by precedent. A lot of determined and intelligent terrorists want to do this. Their chances increase radically when terrorists control the mechanisms of a state, as they do now in parts of Iraq and Syria, and as they did once in Afghanistan. This is one reason ungoverned space is so dangerous.
Second, terrorism could cripple social cohesion in Western societies. It's impossible to know what social effects a few mass atrocity attacks would have.
Three, terrorists could produce disorder in the Middle East so chronic and widespread that it leads to state-on-state war, possibly involving nuclear weapons.
The West is not winning the war on Islamist terror. Since 9/11 al-Qa'ida has flourished in the Middle East and North Africa. It is now in danger of being supplanted by the even more murderous franchise of Islamic State. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of young men, including thousands from the West, have rallied to these banners.
The second big external threat to the West is the rise of new powers, or old powers newly emboldened, taking advantage of the weak and feckless leadership provided by Barack Obama. The US President is the de facto head of Western civilisation. Not since Jimmy Carter has there been a leader of such little strategic consequence. He is a President of fine words and strategic failure.
Russia is conquering slices of territory from its neighbours. There is no knowing what is the end of Vladimir Putin's ambition. Reducing his "near abroad" to strategic subservience to Moscow is part of it. China is constructing military installations in disputed territories in the South China Sea hundreds of kilometres from the Chinese mainland.
Both Moscow and Beijing, and others, are testing not only American resolve but the whole efficacy of the US alliance system. China and Russia, and most nations in Asia, are ramping up military spending. In so far as there has been any principle of international security order since World War II, it has been the US alliance system.
Although the US is the leader of this system and does most of the heavy lifting, the power of its allies feeds into and magnifies US strategic power. If the US loses credibility the system becomes hollow.
The third big external threat is nuclear proliferation. There is no plausible economic justification for Iran's big nuclear industry. Its true purpose is to acquire nuclear weapons, or the ability rapidly to produce nuclear weapons. It is about to secure relief from sanctions, already greatly watered down, in a deal with the US that will allow it to keep its nuclear establishment. Iran will get nuclear weapons in due course. Almost nothing is surer. Saudi Arabia has arrangements with Pakistan to follow suit when that happens. The governments of Egypt and some of the Gulf states will then face their own existential questions, especially if they feel they can no longer rely on the US.
Almost all the nuclear powers except the US are increasing the number of their nuclear warheads. The more these weapons proliferate, the greater the chance of their eventual use.
The fourth big external threat is the democratisation of destructive technology (beyond nuclear technology). The digital economy and all its associated inventions are a wonderful boon for humanity, not least in their applications to human health. But the power to use this technology destructively is also rising. The computing power of every smartphone in everybody's pocket is greater than all the computing effort deployed to put a man on the moon in 1969. The most destructive people in our society so far have not been techno geniuses. But you wouldn't need very many before terrorism and other antisocial movements switch to massive infrastructure disruption.
At the military level, asymmetry is the new reality, the power of numerically small and financially weak players to wreak enormous strategic damage. Size and money, which have traditionally helped the West, will be less decisive than they used to be, and are in any event moving against the West.
Then there are a series of internal factors that are hurting the West and its prospects. Western economies have recovered from the global financial crisis to some extent but they are not the primary sources of global economic growth. More than that, throughout the West there is an interlinked crisis of governance, budgets and social and economic sustainability.
In governance, the West is a terrible mess. Look at Europe, now a byword for chronic misgovernance and an inability to come to grips with the limitations of budgets and the excess of entitlements. Europe is one of the wealthiest regions of the planet, but its system cannot provide work for huge portions of its young people and cannot meaningfully integrate a large minority of immigrants. And it cannot match expenditure to income.
The US has a milder version of the same syndrome. Australia is running through prime ministers at a rate that would make postwar Italy proud.
Finally, there is this question: how long can the West live off the moral capital of religious conviction that it is now abandoning? The West is the only part of humanity abandoning religious belief. Can societies in which there is no overarching idea beyond the individual compete successfully in the long run?
Temperamentally, I'm an optimist. But no one should doubt a civilisational crisis exists.
Original piece is http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/western-civilisation-at-stake-amid-growing-threats/story-e6frg76f-1227258983681?from=google%20current_rss%0A?from=public_rss&utm_source=The%20Australian&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=editorial