The next century will be the first time in at least half a millennium that Europe will not play the driving role in world affairs. For the entirety of modern history, European leaders were the ones that made the decisions that mattered. Great events hinged on the decisions and non-decisions of European kings, statesmen, premiers, generals, admirals, and revolutionaries. Even the Cold War, which saw America’s rise as a true superpower, hinged in great part on the actions of Europeans, and, moreover, its primary focus was central Europe, where Soviets and Americans alike stationed vast numbers of troops and war material.
The 21st century, however, will not be a European century. It will likely—unless America’s ineptness in confronting many pressing systemic economic and political problems suddenly changes—be an Asian century. Regardless of how things precisely develop, this much is clear: Europe’s role over the next 100 years will be of secondary and rapidly diminishing importance.
Why? How is it that the continent that bred the majority of consequential leaders in history now suddenly finds itself in history’s right lane, rapidly passed by countries it considered barbaric and infantile not even a 100 years ago? How has Europe come to a situation where it is virtually powerless to change the behavior of Iran, a country that was a third-rate backwater barely 60 years ago and a second-rate despotism not even 30 years past?
The answer has two main components: one, demographic, is extremely simple, and the other, spiritual, is more complex. These two factors have left Europe increasingly feeble in both thought and deed and have made the continent—once history’s great driving force—into a mere spectator, alternately cheering and booing from the sidelines but powerless to affect the outcome.
Europeans are what environmentalists would describe as an endangered species: their number will decline by almost 50 percent over the next century. Europe’s fertility numbers are harrowing; not a single country’s birthrate is at the rate of replacement and several, including Spain, Italy, and Russia, are at less than half the rate needed to keep a population stable. Although several commentators, including Harvard’s own Tisch Professor of History Niall Ferguson, have bemoaned Europe’s accelerating descent into senescence, they are, by and large, voices in the dark.
Precisely because the problem of declining demographics offers no easy solution, effective sound bites, or easy scapegoats, it has been almost entirely ignored by those in power. After all, don’t most European states provide virtually cradle to grave welfare benefits? Isn’t high-quality education available to anyone who cares to receive it? Isn’t healthcare free and effective? The answer to all of these questions, of course, is yes. Why then, with vastly improved material, economic, and social conditions, and three generations of peace, are Europeans almost entirely unwilling to engage in procreation, the most basic of human activities?
Because, as a rule, Europeans have ceased to believe in themselves and their civilization. This might sound like a hokey line from a Disney movie, but it is generally true. A hundred years ago, Europeans were a deeply religious people, deeply committed to Christian beliefs and to spreading the Good News throughout the world. This belief was not, however, necessarily religious; there is also an important tradition of secular belief in the superiority of European culture, in the mission civilatrice, and in a duty to make the world a better place. Even the Soviets, for all of their manifest flaws and unspeakable crimes, saw themselves as people with a purpose, as a vanguard, and as revolutionaries leading humanity towards a brighter future.
Such notions are now, of course, laughable. Outside of a vague process of “integration,” Europeans lack any sort of coherent goal or vision for the world. The self-confidence that was once the hallmark of Western civilization is gone, replaced by fears of “cultural imperialism” and other such nonsense. Nationalism has been discredited, communism has failed, and religious faith has been publicly ridiculed down to the level of superstition or mental illness, leaving virtually nothing except self-indulgence as a philosophy or a worldview. This purposelessness is the primary cause of Europe’s malaise, and, given the way things have developed, it will be very hard, if not impossible, to combat.
Barring a dramatic reversal of current trends, our generation will witness the departure of Europe from a consequential role in world affairs. This is an event of vast historical importance that should not be understated. Europe, although it has given the world its fair share of evil, has given the world the principles of democracy, human rights, and international law, the building blocks of any political system that does not denigrate man’s dignity. While many in America are content to smirk at Europe’s failures, or take some measure of pleasure in its impending collapse, we should all pray and hope that the continent that gave us not only Hitler and Stalin but also Beethoven, Bach, Locke, and Kant can save itself from its accelerating descent into inconsequence.
Mark A. Adomanis ’07, a Crimson editorial editor, is a government concentrator in Eliot House.