As 2022 draws to a close, most people will be glad to see the back of it. The post-Cold War era has resolutely ended with the Russian attack on Ukraine and China shaking its fist at Taiwan. Much of the Western world has been additionally destabilised by higher energy prices and an acceleration of inflation.
The US remains a polarised and divided society. So is the EU, with individual polities — from Italy to Hungary — railing against the Brussels orthodoxy.
In the Anglosphere, the death of Queen Elizabeth II signalled the closure of an epoch and promoted deep introspection. This was not helped by the fact in Britain itself the country had three prime ministers in a little over six weeks, crippling its international credibility and ability to exert leadership.
But the West has hardly helped itself in recent years. It faces severe challenges on four fronts, all of them caused by an unhealthy mindset of self-doubt and poor judgment.
First, many economies now seem to think the old joke about money growing on trees is actually true, and are encouraged to do so by a growing belief that it is the state’s place to sort out every problem a society faces. The result has been serious inflation and what has become known internationally as a cost-of-living crisis, which an energy crisis unquestionably has worsened.
The OECD governments, including on both sides of Australian politics, have failed to curtail runaway government spending programs – in Canberra’s case, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Gonski schools, public hospitals, aged care and childcare. The more entrenched the state becomes, the more expensive it becomes.
At the same time, in the past 15 years governments comprehensively have failed to legislate the kind of productivity-enhancing reforms that produced Australia’s prosperity from the dollar shock in the mid-1980s to the global financial crisis of 2008-09. Taken together with higher interest payments on debt, increased defence spending, an ageing society and the energy transition costs, and it is clear, as Peter Costello warns, our debt and deficit-ridden economy is left vulnerable to the next economic contagion.
Second, this notion that people are helpless without the state is indicative of a collapse of self-confidence that increasingly calls into question the fundamentals of Western society. Christianity, the conventional family unit, the canon of Western literature, its architecture and, above all, conventional interpretations of its history and its tradition of freedom of expression are coming under continued attack from a minority of left-wing activists.
The ‘woke’ movement — from social media to corporate environmental, social and governance activists — seems to demand the re-education of entire populations to the point where they accept as norms ideas they previously saw as nonsensical, and vice-versa.
Hence, the trappings of Western civilisation are unworthy of study in their own right. People require safe spaces so they can be spared the trauma of hearing opinions different from their own.
A woman who accuses a man of sexual harassment is presumed a victim before any trial takes place. A man identifying as a woman is the same as being born biologically female. A prominent classical liberal journalist who challenges the idea of changing the Constitution to create a race-based advisory body to parliament arouses shock or hostility. Anyone who questions the new orthodoxies could be ‘cancelled’.
A recent example of the absurdity of this illiberal mindset was when some British academics declared that cricket had been one of the exploitative features of the British Empire. Never mind that one of the most valuable businesses in modern India is the Indian Premier League cricket franchise, worth more than $5.5bn to the mostly Indian people who own it.
Not least because of the self-appointed thought police of social media, too many people are afraid to make a stand against such bullying assertions of nonsense.
Third, because of the zealotry of environmental protesters, political and business elites have been terrified to question the feasibility of moving to net-zero emissions in a relatively short time, often by 2050. That has not stopped the climate enthusiasts in Canberra from exporting vast reserves of coal and gas, which helps boost budget coffers. Still, the process of decarbonising the economy brings huge costs to individuals, households and businesses.
It might be possible painlessly if the world were on a universal trajectory of increasing prosperity. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Along with attempts to reduce emissions, there will be reductions in employment, real incomes and wealth. This will not only undermine Western economies. It also will undermine the concept of capitalism — which is, of course, what many eco-zealots desire.
But the fourth challenge, or threat, to the Western way of life is the fact the world is becoming an intensely dangerous place just as the most powerful upholder of Western values, the US, is divided and introspective.
In an increasingly multipolar world, Russia’s conduct all too often upsets Western sensitivities. But it is communist China — as prominent social democrats from Kevin Rudd to Emmanuel Macron recognise — that poses a much greater threat. Its resources, both human and material, outstrip Russia’s. Its idea of itself directly challenges the West. It also has the means, if it chooses, to seek to enforce that power and influence — such as by attacking and seeking to occupy Taiwan, which it considers its by right.
But strong resistance to China’s aggressiveness requires a lead from a united and determined America. The sheer polarisation of US politics is so extreme that unifying the country seems beyond any of the nation’s leading politicians.
It could be dismissed as catastrophist to argue that these four threats could combine to undermine the West. But the fact remains that they are dangerously close to doing so. An economic, moral, ethical and security disaster could be on the horizon.
To challenge it requires the determination of elected governments to face down unconstitutional forces that provide internal threats. They also need to resolve to defend the core values of Western capitalism and democracy against external ones.
It should be a wake-up call for the governments of nations whose way of life is under the greatest threat. But thus far they choose only to keep their eyes firmly shut and pretend the worst won’t happen. There are few more certain ways to ensure it will.
Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter at the ABC’s Radio National.
Photo by Mikhail Nilov