[A-List] Niall Ferguson: Empire Falls (Long)
sabri_oncu at yahoo.com
Thu Nov 2 16:27:43 MST 2006
They called it "the American Century," but the past hundred years actually saw
a shift away from Western dominance. Through the long lens of Edward Gibbon's
history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Rome 331 and America and
Europe 2006 appear to have more than a few problems in common.
by Niall Ferguson October 2006, Vanityfair
The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate
greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction
multiplied with the extent of conquest. Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of
the Roman Empire, "General Observations on the Fall of the Roman Empire in the
It was 230 years ago that Edward Gibbon published the first volume of The
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a work conceived, as he put it, "amidst
the ruins of the Capitol" in Rome. It was among the shining and still-intact
buildings of another capital that I began (presumptuously, no doubt) to imagine
a sequel that might be written: the history of the decline of the West, meaning
that distinctive complex of beliefs and institutions which originated with the
Greeks, was planted across Europe by the Romans, embraced Christianity under
the Emperor Constantine, and crossed to the New World with Columbus.
The idea of Western decline is hardly a new one. In the aftermath of the First
World War, a prematurely retired German schoolteacher named Oswald Spengler
published the first volume of one of the most influential books of the 20th
century, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, usually translated as The Decline of
the West. These days, however, few people bother with Spengler; his prose is
too turgid, his debt to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche too large, his
influence on the Nazis (for whom he voted but against whom he later turned) too
obvious. And no one takes seriously his idiosyncratic theory that
civilizations, like the weather, pass through seasons. In any case, events
since 1945 have tended to discredit Spengler's central idea of a Western
downfall. It has seemed much more convincingand perhaps also more
gratifyingto portray the history of the 20th century as part of a protracted
Occidental ascendancy. "Much of the last three centuries," wrote the late
British historian J. M. Roberts in his book Triumph of the West, published in
1985, "is the story of a triumph of the outright power of the West." But not
only a triumph of Western power, he arguedabove all, the triumph of Western
Just four years later, the 20th century appeared to culminate in a
comprehensive Western victory, with the breakup of the Soviet empire in Eastern
Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. Famously, on the very eve
of those events, Francis Fukuyama, professor at Johns Hopkins University, was
moved to proclaim "the end of history" and the victory of the Western model of
liberal and democratic capitalism. Far from suffering its downfall in the 20th
century, as Spengler had anticipated, the West appeared to attain its historic
zenith. Neoconservatives in the United States, intoxicated by their country's
unrivaled status as a "hyperpower" and its achievement of "full-spectrum
dominance" in warfare, wondered only how American primacy could be perpetuated
for another "American century."
Yet in many ways this inversion of Spengler is a fundamental misreading of the
trajectory of the last hundred years. Far from being a time of Western
ascendancy, the past century has in reality witnessed something more like a
re-orientation of the worldalbeit only a partial re-orientationand the
relative decline of the West.
In 1900 the West really did rule the world. From the Bosporus to the Bering
Strait, from Siberia to Ceylon, nearly all of what was then known as the Orient
was under some form of Western imperial rule. The British had long ruled India,
the Dutch the East Indies, and the French Indochina; the Americans had just
seized the Philippines; the Russians aspired to control Manchuria. All the
imperial powers had established parasitical outposts in China. The East, in
short, had been subjugated, even if that process involved far more complex
negotiations and compromises between rulers and ruled than used to be
Western hegemony was one of the great asymmetries of world history. Taken
together, the metropoles of all the Western empiresthe American, Belgian,
British, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanishaccounted for
7 percent of the world's land surface and just 18 percent of its population.
Their possessions, however, amounted to 37 percent of global territory and 28
percent of mankind. And if we regard the Russian empire as effectively another
European empire extending into Asia, the total share of these Western empires
rises to more than half the world's area and population. This was a political
globalization unseen before or since.
What enabled the minority in the West to rule the majority in the East in 1900
was not so much scientific knowledge in its own right as its systematic
application to both production and destruction. By contrast, the empires of the
East, from the Ottoman to the Qing, failed disastrously to modernize
themselves. Their economies remained trapped in subsistence agriculture while
the West forged ahead, colonizing and industrializing, devouring sugar and
burning coal. Their tax systems were inefficient, forcing Oriental rulers to
borrow from Western capital bankers. Eastern armies remained long on pageantry
and short on firepower, while the West could deploy well-drilled troops
equipped with machine guns and heavy artillery. Eastern navies stood no chance
against the Western combination of steam and steel.
Nothing symbolized better the humiliation of the East than the Western military
intervention to suppress the Boxer Rebellion, in China, in 1900. The rebels,
who had menaced Western diplomats and missionaries, relied on martial arts and
magic. Having wiped them out, the Western expeditionary force staged a "grand
march" through Beijing's Forbidden City and then undertook punitive raids deep
into Shanxi Province, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria.
Just a few years later, however, the East began to re-assert itself. Japan's
defeat of Russia on land and at sea in 19045 marked a turning point in world
history. From that point on, the balance of geopolitical power began to turn,
slowly and painfully, back toward the more populous part of the world. It is
only when the extent of Western dominance in 1900 is appreciated that the true
narrative arc of the 20th century reveals itself. This was not "the triumph of
the West," but rather the crisis of the European empires, the ultimate result
of which was the revival of the Eastbeginning in Japanand the relative
decline of the West.
This has not been a decline in the sense that Spengler envisaged: a kind of
corrosive metropolitan ennui. Rather, it has been an unexpected but inexorable
military decline. It has been a scarcely perceptible economic decline. It has
been a subtle but unmistakable cultural decline. Above all, it has been a
creeping demographic decline. In short, it has been a decline in precisely the
sense that Gibbon understood the decline of Rome's empire.
According to Gibbon, Rome fell through a combination of external overreach,
internal corruption, religious transformation, and barbarian invasion. That the
United Statesand, perhaps even more, the European Unionmight have something
to learn from his account is too seldom acknowledged, perhaps because Americans
and Europeans like to pretend that their polities today are something more
exalted than empires. But suppose for a moment (as the Georgetown University
historian Charles Kupchan has suggested in The End of the American Era) that
Washington really is the Rome of our time, while Brussels, the headquarters of
the European Union, is Byzantium, the city transformed in the fourth century
into the second imperial capital, Constantinople. Like the later Roman Empire,
the West today has its Western and Eastern halves, though they are separated by
the Atlantic rather than the Adriatic. And that is not the only thing we have
in common with our Roman predecessors of a millennium and a half ago.
had acquired the virtues of war and government; by the vigorous
exertion of those virtues
they had obtained, in the course of the three
succeeding centuries, an absolute empire over many countries.
The limits of
the Roman empire still extended from the Western Ocean to the Tigris
animating health and vigour were fled.
soon discovered the
decline of the Roman empire. Gibbon, Chapter VII.
There is a well-established American tradition, perhaps best expressed by Gore
Vidal in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, of worrying that the
United States might go the way of Rome. But the perennial liberal fear is of
the early Roman predicament more than the late one. It is the fear that the
republican institutions of the United Statesabove all, its hallowed
Constitution, based on the careful separation of powerscould be corrupted by
the ambitions of an imperial presidency. Every time a commander in chief
attempts to increase the power of the executive branch, pleading wartime
exigency, there is a predictable chorus of "The Republic is in danger." We have
heard that chorus most recently with respect to the status of prisoners
detained without trial at Guantánamo Bay and the use of torture in the
interrogation of suspected insurgents in Iraq.
Gibbon could scarcely ignore the question of the Roman republic's decay.
Indeed, there is an important passage in The Decline and Fall that specifically
deals with the revival of torture as a tool of tyranny. Few generations of
Englishmen were more sensitive than Gibbon's to the charge that their own
ideals of liberty were being subverted by the temptations of empire. The year
when his first volume appeared was also the year the American colonies used
precisely that charge to justify their own bid for independence.
Yet Gibbon's real interest lay elsewhere, with the period of Roman decline long
after republican virtue had yielded to imperial vice. The Decline and Fall is
not concerned with the fall of the republic. It is a story that properly begins
with the first signs of imperial overstretch. Until the time of the Emperor
Julian (A.D. 33163), Rome could still confidently send its legions as far as
the river Tigris. Yet Julian's invasion of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq, but
then under Persian rule) proved to be his undoing. According to Gibbon, he had
resolved, "by the final conquest of Persia, to chastise the haughty nation
which had so long resisted and insulted the majesty of Rome." Although
initially victorious at Ctesiphon (approximately 20 miles southeast of modern
Baghdad), Julian was forced by his enemy's scorched-earth policy to retreat
back to Roman territory. "As soon as the flames had subsided which interrupted
[his] march," Gibbon relates, "he beheld the melancholy face of a smoking and
naked desert." The Persians harried his famished legions as they withdrew. In
one skirmish, Julian himself was fatally wounded.
What had gone wrong? The answer sheds revealing light on some of the problems
the United States currently faces in the same troubled region. A recurrent
theme of Gibbon's work is that the Romans gradually lost "the animating health
and vigour" which had made them militarily invincible in the glory days of
Julian's predecessor Trajan. They had lost their discipline. They started
complaining about the weight of their armor. In a word, they had gone soft. At
the same time, like most armies, their fighting effectiveness diminished the
farther they were from home.
Most of us take it for granted that the United States Army is the best in the
world. It might be more accurate to say that it is the best equipped and the
best fed. More doubtful is how well it is configured to win a protracted
low-intensity conflict in a country such as Iraq. One sign of the times that
might have amused Gibbon has been the recent relaxation of conditions for
recruits undergoing basic training. (A friend of mine who was in the army
snorted with derision on hearing that trainees are now allowed eight and a half
hours of sleep a night.) Another symptom of military malaise has been the heavy
reliance of the Defense Department on National Guard and reserve troops, who
have at times accounted for about half of the U.S. contingent deployed in Iraq.
The real problem, however, is a simple matter of numbers. To put it bluntly,
the United States has a chronic manpower deficit, which means it cannot put
enough boots on the ground to maintain law and order in conquered territory.
This is not because it lacks young men; it has at least seven times as many as
Iraq. It is that it chooses, for a variety of reasons, to employ only a tiny
proportion of its population (half of 1 percent) in its armed forces, and to
deploy only a fraction of these in overseas conflict zones.
In 1920, to illustrate the difficulty, when British forces quelled a major
insurgency in Iraq, they numbered around 135,000. Coincidentally, that is very
close to the number of American military personnel currently in that country.
The trouble is that the population of Iraq was just over 3 million in 1920,
whereas today it is around 26 million. Thus the ratio of Iraqis to foreign
forces in 1920 was, at most, 23 to 1. Today it is around 210 to 1. To arrive at
a ratio of 23 to 1, roughly one million American troops would be needed.
Reinforcements on that scale are, needless to say, inconceivable.
This is the reality of what Michael Ignatieff, the Canadian Liberal politician
and scholar, has called "empire lite" in his book of that name. In theory, the
American military is a lean and mean fighting machine. In practice, however,
downsizing has left it with too few combat soldiers to make a success of
imperial policinga labor-intensive task that renders redundant much of its
The tranquil and prosperous state of the empire was warmly felt, and honestly
confessed, by the provincials as well as Romans.
It was scarcely possible that
the eyes of contemporaries should discover in the public felicity the latent
causes of decay and corruption. Gibbon, Chapter II.
You are still not convinced. So, you say, the war in Iraq is not going well.
But what about the bigger picture? How can the West possibly be regarded as
being in decline when it is so economically dominant in the world? Today the
combined output of the six biggest Western economiesCanada, France, Germany,
Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Statesexceeds half of total global
output. Gross domestic product (G.D.P.) per capita in the United States is more
than 30 times higher than it is in the economies of East Asia and the Pacific.
Yet the difference between the West and the Rest is much narrower than it once
was. As recently as 1968, American G.D.P. per capita was 127 times higher than
that of East Asia. By this measure alone, the gap between West and East has
narrowed dramatically in our time. And it will continue to narrow. The
International Monetary Fund estimates that the Chinese economy is growing at a
rate roughly three times that of the United States. According to Goldman Sachs,
China's G.D.P. will overtake Britain's this year. By 2041 it is likely to be
the biggest economy in the world.
At the same time, the Western economies have vulnerabilities that have been
largely obscured by the debt-financed boom of the past five years. America's
gross federal debt now exceeds $8.5 trillion, and if the Congressional Budget
Office's outlook turns out to be correct, we are just a decade away from a
$12.8 trillion debtmore than double what President Bush inherited from his
predecessor. Moreover, the officially stated borrowings of the federal
government are only a small part of the U.S. debt problem. Ordinary American
households, too, have gone on a borrowing spree of unprecedented magnitude.
U.S. household credit-market debt has risen from just above 45 percent of
G.D.P. in the early 1980s to more than 70 percent in recent years. The
remarkable resilience of American consumer spending in the past 15 years has
been based partly on a collapse in the personal savings rate from around 7.5
percent of income to below zero.
For demographic reasons, Americans need to be saving much more than this.
According to the United Nations' intermediate projections, male life expectancy
in the United States will rise from 75 to 80 between now and 2050. The share of
the American population that is aged 65 or over will rise from 12 percent to
nearly 21 percent. By 2050 the elderly-dependency ratio (the ratio of the
population aged 65 years or over to the population aged 1564) could double.
Only a minority of Americans have made adequate private provision for their
retirement. That implies that most new retirees in the years ahead will depend
to some extent on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Today, the average
retiree receives benefits totaling $21,000 a year from these programs. Multiply
that by 37 million (the current number of elderly Americans) and you can see
why these programs already consume 42 percent of federal outlays.
All this implies that the federal government has much larger unfunded
liabilities than official data imply. If you compare the current value of all
projected future government expendituresincluding debt-service paymentswith
the current value of all projected future government receipts, the gap is about
$66 trillion, according to calculations by economists Jagadeesh Gokhale, of the
Cato Institute, and Kent Smetters, professor at the Wharton School.
Americans, however, are not just borrowing from one another and, in effect,
from the next generation. They are also, to a vast extent, borrowing from
foreigners. In all but two years since 1992, the gap between the amount of
goods and services the United States exports and the amount it imports has
grown wider. This year, the current account deficitwhich is largely a trade
deficitcould rise as high as 7 percent of G.D.P., or nearly double its peak in
the mid-1980s. The result is a remarkable accumulation of foreign debt.
Estimates of the net international investment position of the United Statesthe
difference between the overseas assets owned by Americans and the American
assets owned by foreignershave declined from a modest positive balance of 8
percent of G.D.P. in the mid-1980s to a huge net liability of minus 22 percent
today. In other words, foreigners are accumulating large claims on the future
output of the United States. Around 20 percent of corporate bonds are now in
foreign hands, and nearly 10 percent of the U.S. stock market.
These are largely hidden weaknesses at present. Yet it cannot be a sign of
Western strength that the annual bill for Social Security in the United States
($554 billion) is now larger than the bill for national security ($512
billion). And it cannot be a sign of imperial vigor that the United States
needs to rely so heavily on foreign investorsincluding Asian central banks and
Middle Eastern treasuriesto help finance a foreign policy that currently has
minimal international support.
The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius
The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was
usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators,
darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by
the corruption of taste.
This diminutive stature of mankind ? was daily
sinking below the old standard. Gibbon, Chapter II.
Perhaps our most perplexing vulnerability, however, is cultural. Gibbon was
acute in identifying literary decline as one symptom of a more profound Roman
malaise. And if his barbed allusion to the "darkened ? face of learning" does
not immediately strike a chord, then some of the other symptoms may. While "the
corrupt and opulent nobles of Rome gratified every vice that could be collected
from the mighty conflux of nations and manners," Gibbon wrote, "the most lively
and splendid amusement of the idle multitude depended on the frequent
exhibition of public games and spectacles." Orgies and circuses are not
precisely the favorite pastimes of Western society today. But if you substitute
pornography and NASCAR, the parallel is not so far-fetched.
Outwardly, it is true, the institutions that exist to preserve and propagate
our culture are in good shape. Never has the percentage of young people
attending college been higher. Never have American universities dominated
higher education and academic research as they do today. Our museums and
concert halls offer more exhibitions and recitals than the enthusiast can
possibly hope to attend. And to enter any branch of Barnes & Noble is to be
overwhelmed by the sheer number of books being published.
Yet beneath this upper crust of high culture there simmers a less appetizing
stew. Few children read for pleasure. Most boys would rather fritter away their
time on brutalizing video games such as Grand Theft Auto. Girls no longer play
with dolls; they are themselves the dolls, dressed according to the dictates of
the fashion industry. Endlessly gaming, chatting, and chilling with their
iPods, the next generation already has a more tenuous connection to "Western
civilization" than most parents appreciate.
Gibbon's argument against Roman "luxury" was in part that it sapped the
empire's martial strength. Here, too, there is a striking analogy. For our
culture's sedentary characterour strong preference for watching over doing,
for virtual over real actionseems closely correlated to our changing physical
shape. Gibbon's Romans became metaphorical pygmies. We, by contrast, are being
transformed into actual giants. We are certainly taller on average than past
generations, a consequence of improvements in nutrition. But we are also wider,
since we now consume significantly more fats and carbohydrates than we actually
need. According to the standard measure of obesity, the body-mass index, the
percentage of Americans classified as obese nearly doubled, from 12 percent to
21 percent, between 1991 and 2001. Nearly two-thirds of all American men are
officially considered overweight, and nearly three-quarters of those between 45
and 64. Only Western Samoans and Kuwaitis are fatter.
The natives of Europe ? no longer possessed that public courage which is
nourished by the love of independence, the sense of national honor, the
presence of danger, and the habit of command.
They ? trusted for their defence
to a mercenary army. The posterity of their boldest leaders was contented with
the rank of citizens. Gibbon, Chapter II.
Often fat and sometimes fatheaded, the new Romans of the United States are
nevertheless less decadent than their counterparts in that part of the new West
across the Atlantic, governed from the new Constantinople, Brussels. The United
States remains a vigorously Christian country, thanks in part to the
invigorating competition there has always been among its multiple denominations
and sects. Americans also remain capable of a robust patriotism (though this
seems to require regular foreign attacks on U.S. soil to be sustained).
Andunlike the Romansthey still have a resilient work ethic.
Things are different in Europe. The Europeans have all but renounced warfare as
a tool of policy. Their armies are puny, their weapons inferior. In some areas,
standards of physical fitness are even lower than in Middle America. Take
Scotland, the land of my birth. Male life expectancy in some parts of Glasgow
is now as low as 54. There has been a 350 percent rise in alcohol-related
deaths in the last two decades. About 13,000 people die from smoking-related
diseases every year. More than a third of Scotland's 12-year-olds are
overweight or clinically obese.
While Americans work, young Europeans are to a remarkable extent idle. In
Britain as a whole, more than 5 million adults of working agenearly 15 percent
of the workforceare now dependent on benefits. Nearly half of those have been
living on welfare for more than five years. The reason these people do not show
up in the official unemployment statistics is that many of them are counted as
unfit for work rather than jobless. Every day, 23 more teenagers in Britain
sign up for "incapacity benefit." This reflects a crisis of public education as
much as of public health. As the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development recently pointed out, an exceptionally large share of British
pupils leave school without any qualifications at all. One in six British
adults lacks the literacy skills of an 11-year-old. It may be technically
correct that the incapacitated are not unemployed. The reality is that they are
Most striking of all, Europe has become the world's first post-Christian
society. There was a time when Europe could justly refer to itself as
"Christendom"; indeed, this was the most enduring legacy of both Rome and
Byzantium. Europeans built the continent's great cathedrals to accommodate
their acts of worship. As pilgrims, missionaries, and conquistadores, they
sailed to the four corners of the earth, intent on converting the heathens to
the true faith. Now, however, it is they who are the heathens. According to the
Gallup International Millennium Survey of religious attitudes, barely 20
percent of Western Europeans attend church services at least once a week, while
47 percent of North Americans and 82 percent of West Africans do. And fully 15
percent of Western Europeans deny that there is any kind of "spirit, God, or
life force"more than 7 times the American figure and 15 times the West
The exceptionally low level of British religiousness was perhaps the most
striking revelation of a recent ICM Research poll. One in five Britons claims
to "attend an organized religious service regularly," less than half the
American figure. And only 19 percent would be willing to die for his or her
beliefs, while 71 percent of Americans say they would.
The de-Christianization of Britain is a relatively recent phenomenon, as
British religious and cultural historian Callum Brown has shown. For most of
the first half of the 20th century, Anglican Easter Day communicants accounted
for between 5 and 6 percent of the population of England; it was only after
1960 that the proportion slumped to 2 percent. Figures for the Church of
Scotland show a similar trend: steady until 1960, then falling by roughly half.
As those figures suggest, British Protestants were not especially observant
(compared, for example, with Irish Catholics), but until the late 1950s
established-church membership, if not attendance, was relatively high and
Prior to 1960, most marriages in England and Wales were solemnized in a church;
then the slide began, down to around 40 percent in the late 1990s. Especially
striking is the decline in confirmations of baptized children. Fewer than a
fifth of those baptized are now confirmed, roughly half the figure for the
period from 1900 to 1960.
Contrary to popular belief, it was not the British Catholic writer G. K.
Chesterton who said, "When men stop believing in God, they don't believe in
nothing. They believe in anything." But he could have said it. Chesterton
viewed atheism with the utmost suspicion. Those who disbelieve in God on
supposedly rational grounds, he argued, merely become prey to pseudo-religions
and superstitions. His neatest formulation was in The Miracle of Moon Crescent,
where he wrote, "You all swore you were hard-shelled materialists; and as a
matter of fact you were all balanced on the very edge of beliefof belief in
almost anything." Evidence to support his point is now abundantly available in
post-Christian Europe, where all kinds of New Age cults and irrational beliefs
flourish. Otherwise intelligent people choose apartments on the basis of feng
shui. They delude themselves into thinking that attendance at a concert will
reduce poverty in Africa. They are simultaneously against poverty and against
global warming, when it is precisely the reduction of poverty in Asia that is
increasing emissions of carbon dioxide. Drawn to conspiracy theories as the
ancients were to superstitions, some Europeans blame the U.S. government for
rising sea levels (not to mention the 9/11 terrorist attacks).
With the decline of Christianity, Europe is also experiencing a rise in what
politicians euphemistically call "antisocial behavior." The restrained civility
that was once a hallmark of English life has all but vanished, to be replaced
by a startling rudeness. Profanity in the street and on television has become
the norm. Once, a lifetime ago, an English writer warned of a future in which
the state would keep the population under permanent surveillance. Today, George
Orwell's imaginary Big Brother is the name of a television series in which
individuals volunteer for surveillance by the rest of the population. Far from
being inhibited by their loss of privacy, they glory in mutual degradation.
Shame has gone; so has civility. On Friday and Saturday nights, most English
city centers become no-go zones where drunken, knife-wielding youths brawl with
one another and the police. Another striking symptom of this new primitivism is
the extraordinary surge in the popularity of tattoos, once associated with the
unruly Picts of the Far North. In this modern decline and fall, it seems, at
least some of the barbarians come from within the empire.
A perpetual stream of strangers and provincials flowed into the capacious bosom
of Rome. Whatever was strange or odious, whoever was guilty or suspected, might
hope, in the obscurity of that immense capital, to elude the vigilance of the
It was the just complaint of the ingenuous natives that the capital had
attracted the vices of the universe and the manners of the most opposite
nations. Gibbon, Chapters XV and XXXI.
Nothing changed Rome more than immigration. The same is true of the West today.
But whereas a large proportion of immigrants to the United States come from
countries that were colonized by Roman Catholics and quickly find jobs in
America's dynamic labor market, the situation in Europe is altogether
The demographic transformation of the West has its roots in feminism.
Legislation against sex discrimination opened all kinds of careers to women
that had previously been dominated by men. At the same time, the ready
availability of contraception and abortion gave women an unprecedented control
over their own fertility. Beginning in the late 1970s, the average Western
European couple had fewer than two children. Today the figure is around 1.4,
whereas it needs to be slightly higher than 2 for a population to remain
constant. Europeans, quite simply, have ceased to reproduce themselves. The
United Nations Population Division forecasts that, if Spanish fertility
persists at such low levels, within 50 years the country's population will
decline by more than 4 million. The population of Italy will fall by a fifth.
The overall reduction in native-born European numbers could be as much as 14
million. Not even two World Wars inflicted such an absolute decline in
Meanwhile, however, the combination of relative poverty and religious revival
had a very different effect on Europe's southern and eastern neighbors. Since
the 1950s, according to U.N. figures, the crude birthrate in seven of the
Muslim countries to the south and east of the MediterraneanMorocco, Algeria,
Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, and Syriahas been two or three times the
European average. The gap between Pakistan and Britain has been even wider. The
total number of children per woman in Britain today is around 1.7. The latest
figure for Pakistan, one of the principal sources of immigrants to Britain, is
The first wave of immigration to Europe after World War II was a post-imperial
phenomenon; people from former colonies migrated in response to apparent labor
shortages. Many family members later followed. Now, as European societies age,
they are attracting immigrants from rather closer to homefrom Eastern Europe
especiallybut the flow from the Muslim periphery continues, much of it
illegal. The trouble is that many of the newcomers are moving to residential
ghettos with miserable economic prospects. In France, the Western European
country with the largest Muslim population, the unemployment rate among
foreign-born residents is more than twice the national average, which, at 9
percent, is already high enough.
Today, around 20 million Muslims make their home in the European Union, and
that number is certain to rise, even if Middle East expert Bernard Lewis's
recent prophecythat Muslims would be a majority in Europe by the end of the
21st centurysurely goes too far. Fouad Ajami, director of the Middle East
Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University, is more realistic when he
anticipates that Muslim "colonization" will continue to be concentrated in
certain regions of Europe, just as it was when the Moors ruled southern Spain
(which they did from the 8th to the 15th century), or when the Ottomans ruled
the Balkans (from the 14th to the 19th).
Those historic parallels are a reminder that Islam played a crucial role in
Gibbon's explanation of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. For it was
Islam that struck a heavy blow to what remained of the Roman Empire in the West
when the Moors advanced into France as far as Poitiers, where they were finally
halted, in 732. And it was again Islam which finally decapitated what remained
of the empire in the East when the Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453.
Gibbon's account of monotheism is certainly the most controversial part of his
great work. It was the spread of Christianity within the Roman world, he argues
in the notorious 15th chapter of The Decline and Fall, that tended to dilute
the martial values of the Romans. Venerating the Virgin Mary was very different
from venerating Mars, the god of war. Yet the monotheism of Muhammad had a very
different character from that of Christianity. Islam, in Gibbon's account, was
always a belligerent religion. "The intrepid souls of the Arabs were fired with
enthusiasm" by it, he notes. "The death which they had always despised became
an object of hope and desire."
That passage resonates in our own time, when suicide bombers stalk our
transport systems, dreaming of heavenly trysts with multiple virgins. The
problem, as Europeans have come to understand, is that it takes only a few
would-be martyrs within a single Muslim community to produce a calamity.
Gibbon called the decline and fall of the Roman Empire "the greatest, perhaps,
and most awful scene in the history of mankind." Could a still more awful scene
be unfolding in the form of the West's decline and fall? For Gibbon, Rome's
decline was the result of military overstretch, inner decadence, religious
conversion, and barbarian invasion. To my mind, all of these are operating
today to undermine what remains of Western dominance in the world. If the
United States suffers mainly from the first and second, the European Union
seems even more afflicted by the third and fourth.
A hundred years ago, as we have seen, the West could justly claim to rule the
world. After a century during which one Western empire after another has
declined and fallen, that can no longer credibly be claimed. Empires, of
course, take time to decline and fall. Gibbon begins his narrative in A.D. 96;
he ends it in 1430, more than a millennium later. Yet there can be no question
that the pace of imperial descent has quickened in modern times. The
longest-lived empire after the Romans was the Ottoman Empire, which endured for
469 years. The East European empires of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs each
existed for more than three centuries. The Moguls ruled a substantial part of
what is now India for 235 years. Of an almost identical duration was the realm
of the Safavids in Persia. The Spanish, Dutch, French, and British empires can
all be said to have endured about 300 years. The lifespan of the Portuguese
empire was closer to 500.
The empires created in the 20th century, on the other hand, were all of
comparatively short duration. The Bolsheviks' Soviet Union (192291) lasted
less than 70 years, a meager record indeed, though one not yet equaled by the
People's Republic of China, established in 1949. Japan's colonial empire, which
can be dated from the conquest of Taiwan in 1895, lasted barely 50. Most
ephemeral of all modern empires was the so-called Third Reich of Adolf Hitler,
which did not extend beyond its predecessor's borders before 1938 and had
retreated within them by the end of 1944. The remaining empires of the West are
young by Roman standards. But by the standards of modern times, the United
Statesat 230 yearsis quite long in the tooth. The day when the Capitol in
Washington, D.C., will be reduced to a picturesque ruin may seem to us
infinitely remote. Historyincluding the greatest historian of them all, Edward
Gibbonsuggests that it may come sooner than we think.
Niall Ferguson is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History at Harvard University
and a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. His latest book, The
War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, comes
out this month from Penguin Press.
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