Robert Cox on ‘The Decline of the West’ Revisited: Event Report

On March 28, eminent York University professor Robert Cox delivered a CIPS talk on “‘The Decline of the West’ Revisited: Future World Order and a Dialogue of Civilizations”. He began by noting that the current economic crisis in Europe and North America is giving rise to uncertainty about the future in those parts of the world. The fact that China, India and Brazil have fared much better economically during this crisis raises questions about the future of U.S. leadership and the dominance of the West in the coming world order.

Western dominance, Cox said, has not produced the comprehensive system of global governance conceived of after World War II. Instead, major political and economic issues have been dealt with through ad hoc arrangements. The world economy was long managed by the G7’s ‘Washington consensus’ based on neo-liberal principles; but in the 1990s, with the rise of the BRIC developing economies, that consensus ceased to be an automatic governing mechanism. Now that the U.S. is a still dominant but weakening centre of the global economy, global economic management is a matter of political negotiation among all interested parties.

Overshadowing all of these developments is the impact of global political issues on the global biosphere—a challenge that never becomes acute enough to induce parties to focus on it in international negotiations. In short, Cox declared, the world of the last half century is passing away, and the shape of the emerging political order is far from clear.

Cox then turned to the history of ideas for a 500-year sweep of perspectives on the question of how civilizations and history can be understood. Drawing on the views of Vico, de Chardin, Shirokogorff and Spengler, he suggested that the human social world is knowable by human minds; that distinct civilizations exist with distinct ways of understanding and dealing with their particular worlds; that people are able to understand other civilizations without inhabiting them; and that civilizations are organic phenomena that grow and decline in creative intensity. These perspectives cast a new light on the phenomenon of the East on the rise, and a shifting global balance of power. How, he asked, can adjustments to this new balance of power be made peacefully?

Monotheism, Cox argued, led the West to a radical break between humanity and nature, and to a linear, progressive view of history. By contrast, the East (i.e. China) sees continuity rather than dualism between humans and nature, and has a cyclical and dialectical view of history in which opposites continually struggle in search of balanced reconciliation. Citing Vico’s view that understanding civilizations from within requires gaining a historical perspective on the choices facing peoples and governments today, Cox posed the question of whether future world peace will depend on a continued dominance of the U.S. outlook—or whether it can become a modus vivendi of different world powers and civilizations.

Future global economic arrangements, Cox concluded, could derive from different forms of civilizational self-consciousness. Ongoing dialogue among these civilizations is possible in virtue of ongoing conflict and change within each civilization itself. Achieving such dialogue will require rejecting a Ptolemaic view of the West as the centre of world order, instead seeing the West not as the end of history but as one civilization among others. At stake in achieving this shift in thought are not just economic and political stability, but the preservation of the global biosphere as well.

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