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Visions of a waning west

CONFLICT / Emmanuel Todd predicts the West's decline, analysing the Russo-Ukrainian war and its implications in his thought-provoking book.

La Défaite de l’Occident
Author: Emmanuel Todd
Publisher: Gallimard, 2024

Every famous person has a claim to fame, the occasion that made them famous. For Emmanuel Todd, the French historian and anthropologist, his claim to fame came when he predicted the fall of the Soviet Union back in 1976, at a time when the USSR did not yet give the impression of being a giant with feet of clay. The success of his prediction has not left the French historian since.

Emmanuel Todd
Oestani, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Proxy war

In his latest book La Défaite de l’Occident, published by Gallimard earlier this year, Emmanuel Todd dares to utter another prophecy: the war in Ukraine, which the French scholar sees first and foremost as a proxy war between the West and Russia on Ukrainian soil, risks becoming for the West the preamble to an inevitable decline. A decline that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable. Indeed, many of us remained mentally stuck in 1989, trapped in the self-aggrandising discourse of a self-referential West, convinced that the West could easily impose its model on the rest of the world. Yet the West, despite having a vastly superior GDP compared to that of Russia, has proven unable to inflict Russia a decisive defeat, and it cannot produce enough ammunition to continue supplying Ukraine. In light of the failed Ukrainian counteroffensive in the summer of 2023, this issue should be very salient. But this has seemingly not led to a possible change of strategy in Europe or America. The Ukrainian crisis must be solved by military means.

Todd draws on the historiographic school of the Annales, which became seminal for introducing the concept in the longue durée, of the study of the objective and structural factors over a long period, as opposed to an approach to evenemental history, focused on the study of names, dates and events without necessarily putting them in a larger context. Todd thus frames the Russo-Ukrainian war, the catalytic event of the West’s (possible?) defeat, in the context of a West that has seen its economic and industrial leadership thinning, with its industrial base largely relocated. Indeed, war is waged with industry and armaments, not with money. Today, Russian universities produce more engineers than those in the USA, Todd points out.

the war in Ukraine… risks becoming for the West the preamble to an inevitable decline

Declinist literature

The first chapters of the book are devoted to Ukraine and Russia. In these, Todd focuses on family and societal structure, his area of specialisation, in an attempt to explain the reality of two countries from an anthropological point of view. People interested in Ukraine will surely have read or heard of a Ukrainian-speaking Ukraine and a Russian-speaking Ukraine. Now, in recent years, it has become conventional to say, first in Ukraine and then in the West, that the «myth of the two Ukraines» is actually just one of the countless lies of the ever-mendacious Russian propaganda. But Todd demonstrates, on the basis of a faithful historical reconstruction and of election results in Ukraine between 1991 and 2014, that the presence of a Russian-speaking and pro-Russian Ukraine was something concrete and real, not just an invention of the Kremlin. This Russian-speaking and pro-Russian Ukraine, however, lost all political representation after the 2014 Maidan revolution. The Russian-speaking Ukrainian middle class was thus largely forced to emigrate. On the other hand, the chapter on Russia aims to show how and why the Russian economy has proven more resilient to Western sanctions than many expected.

The bulk of the book, on the other hand, as the title suggests, is centred on the analysis of the relative decline of the West. The so-called declinist literature, authored by a number of Cassandras predicting the fall of the West, is certainly not a new phenomenon; indeed, in a certain sense, it is a well-established literary genre, especially in France. Many, however, have often regarded this kind of literature with much scepticism, the scepticism of those who have heard one prophecy after another over the years and did not see them become reality.

But contrary to much declinist literature that focuses on decline as a mere phenomenon of the spirit, this book offers a quantitative demonstration of the decline of the West and of the growing distrust of institutions by a large section of the population in Western societies, with symptoms such as the rise of the populism and income inequality. There are chapters devoted to Britain and America, and a (short) chapter is also devoted to Scandinavia, guilty, according to Todd, of having become overwhelmed by an acute form of anti-Russian paranoia. This is certainly an interesting phenomenon to which little attention has been paid: the Nordic countries, traditionally peaceful countries with a reputation for avoiding unnecessary conflicts, are now among the largest suppliers of armaments to Ukraine — not only in relative GDP terms but also in absolute terms; if the military aid of Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland is added up, it comes to 10 billion and equals that of Germany, which has now become one of the most ardent supporters of the Ukrainian war effort. In one of the final chapters, Todd also aims to show all the limitations of an indicator, such as the GDP, to quantify the strength and, thus, the health of a nation and a society.

a dilapidated shack with graffiti in middle america

Liberal oligarchy

Todd’s book is destined to be controversial and uncomfortable. But it turns out to be an important one, and it is no coincidence that it quickly became a bestseller in France in the political book section. For Todd, the American-led West has entered phase zero of religion, the stage of the dissolution of Christian morality, for which the French scholar has a specific date — without any intention of judging this — the introduction of «marriage for all.» According to Todd, the West can no longer aspire to moral leadership in the world. Western democracy, regarded as the foundation of its superiority, has now turned into a «liberal oligarchy.» Faced with the nihilism of Western values, the rest of the world has chosen not to follow the West in its confrontation with Russia. A development that could prove fatal for the West argues the French historian.

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