In 1918 and 1922 German historian Oswald Spengler published two books that are collectively known as The Decline of the West. Frankly, it is eye-wateringly dense, written with scholarship from the old school, when professors read classics in their original language and made historical connections to texts from ancient civilizations—and assumed everyone understood them too. Decline was widely read and influential in its time, but both it and Spengler have largely been forgotten.
Spengler’s thesis is that all civilizations have a finite life span. It posits that the constant interplay of power, economics and leadership inevitably devolves into corruption and self-interest. These phenomena weaken the forces behind all civilizations and hasten their respective declines. Spengler takes the reader through a historical tour of collapsed civilizations and points to similarities in Western civilization. He believed the West in the 20th century was on a march towards doom. The unhelpful roles of the modern press are particularly noted by Spangler. He thought newspapers (the only daily media then) were frivolous and unable to focus on what was of real consequence to Western civilization.
What would Spengler make of the current standoff with North Korea? Since this was before the nuclear age, Spengler predicted a gradual decline of the West. It would be like a wormy ship bottom, the rotting would go on for a while before it sank. Of course, when Spengler wrote, conventional armies could only do so much damage and the military standoff that was WWI exposed the limited power of arms. Imagine him witnessing and writing today, when just one small nuclear bomb would instantly end a civilization.
If 9/11 did the world one favor it was to show how traumatizing a large-scale attack can be on a civilian population. The world as we knew it really changed: trade stopped, the normal rhythms of life were disrupted and laws overhauled. Countries were invaded and America spent trillions of dollars on two wars, money that it actually did not have. Immigration, personal freedoms (the Patriot Act) and foreign policy were radically altered. Now imagine 9/11 times infinity. It is impossible to contemplate the destruction a nuclear bomb would create—anywhere. The world would, based on 9/11 reactions, become unrecognizable and collapse. If you thought a little rain and the resultant Thai floods were disruptive to the production of microchips for cars and iPads, think of what a few nuclear bombs on South Korea would do to the supply chain. Remember that Samsung is a South Korean company.
Yet this is exactly the position in which the West has allowed itself to become submerged. Readers of daily news sites, viewers of news programs, and followers of foreign policy specialists must endure endless speculation as to the motives, strategic intentions and mental condition of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. We get to read fantastical pieces in the Financial Times and Foreign Policy by writers who implore us to be rational and treat Pyongyang as a wounded party, one in need of more negotiations and respect. Dennis Rodman’s trip is discussed as if it were the Lindbergh/Hitler visit.
Kim Jong-un has clearly and forcefully threatened America and Seoul with nuclear destruction. That should be a threshold not to be crossed. If it is taken creditably enough for America to move missiles to Guam and speed up warhead interceptors in Alaska it must be serious indeed. This is beyond the Cuban missile crisis; the world is for the first time confronted with nuclear threats from a country that can act on them. This is not the same as Saddam waving a rifle in the air while ranting about his enemies.
If one follows Spengler’s thesis, the West will decline because its elite leadership cannot think beyond self-serving, immediate policy aims. Government, because of its democratic nature, cannot clearly identify priorities that will ensure its future. To be blunt: while we are worrying about gay marriage, immigration reform, legalized pot and abortion, there are countries that may kill us in situ. Spengler argued that the West’s disease was beyond party politics and that this inability to focus is caused by a circus-like atmosphere of national priorities—with survival low on the list.
North Korea should have never been allowed to have a nuclear bomb, and the same rule must be applied to Iran. And that goes for Pakistan and every other unstable state as well. Yet now that North Korea has one, it would be a good time to show the world that Western civilization does not contemplate suicide and will address threats to its continuation. The West should not be interested in debating whether Kim Jong-un is sane or speculating about his intentions. If the West wants to live and prosper then any regime that threatens it must be removed. Foreign policy for survival’s sake must be the elimination of real threats, not phony ones. Not easy ones like Iraq and Afghanistan, but legitimate and imminent ones like North Korea.
In 1977, when the Voyager spacecraft was launched into outer space—carrying with it the archives of civilization—it is doubtful they included Spengler’s Decline. That is too bad because it would have given the extra-terrestrials a roadmap as to what is happening here on Earth.