The real danger of the myth of Europe's decay
Europeans believe passionately in the value of the open society, but not in its fate. The European self-image has internalised the myth of decay. By accepting its premise we are giving in to our challengers too much, undeservedly. It is high time that the EU embraced the power of narratives.1
Look at the video above or try and picture it: Camels trek over the crest of a sand dune. Merchant ships cut through the sea. A Delft Blue plate or, as it is known in China, Chinese porcelain, shines in the sun. An erhu is strummed, water ripples, a soprano sighs like the wind.
“This all feels so familiar”, says a voice.
And then: Boom. Drumbeat.
We see a mosaic: pictures of a devastated Kabul, a starving African child, the fall of Lehman Brothers, attacks in London, an American cemetery and the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who drowned at sea while trying to escape to Greece.
“Some lands once prosperous and bustling are now synonymous with difficulty, conflict and crisis.”
This is not the opening of a Hollywood film. The countries referred to are not in Middle-earth. These are the words of Xi Jinping, Secretary General of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic and architect of what he calls his Belt and Road Initiative and that we often know as China's New Silk Roads.2
This is how Xi sells his world order. The question is, which are those countries in decay?
I speak fairly regularly about geopolitics in rooms of all kinds. What strikes me, what frightens me, is an apparently increasingly widespread feeling that it is we, the open societies of Europe, that are in decay.
The reasoning goes roughly like this: Europe is too soft, the Netherlands is too small, our culture is too decadent to provide a counterweight to the geopolitical breast-beating of Putin, Xi and Trump. Their rise is our decay; and our decay is inevitable.
In a recent opinion poll two-thirds of Europeans said they viewed the EU positively, the highest score since 1983. At the same time 52% of people in the Netherlands believe the EU will collapse in the foreseeable future. Other European countries have shown similar results.
The European self-image has internalised the myth of decay
What does the European think he or she will miss most if Europe does collapse? Free trade, free travel, protection against the US-China power struggle, but above all the values of the open society, such as democracy and human rights.
In other words, we believe passionately in the value of the open society, but not in its fate. The European self-image has internalised the myth of decay.
Putin’s myth: The moral degradation of open societies
Anyone who sees geopolitics as an amalgam of hacks, bombs and commercial interests may miss the most important weapon in the hands of world leaders: narratives. Trump, Putin and Xi know that. The fact is that the myth of decay is a damned good story.
A crisis such as the current one reinforces our pessimism that open societies are too free, too weak and too decadent to survive. In fact, it is precisely that pessimism that makes us vulnerable, while openness strengthens us.
The myth is chutzpah. By accepting its premise we are giving in to our challengers too much, undeservedly. Indeed, anyone who listens to our challengers’ narratives will see that they are mainly about themselves and not about us.
I give you Vladimir Putin. Talking to the Financial Times, he said soberly: “The so-called liberal idea […] has outlived its purpose”.3
It is striking that the man who roughly twenty years ago was hailed by the international community as the leader who would deliver on the promise of Russian liberal democracy now believes that liberalism is outmoded. Not only does he believe that the openness project for Russia has failed, but he also sees it collapsing all around the world. The epicentre of that implosion is Europe.
Putin believes that the open society is cannibalising its own morality by admitting other cultures, tolerating diversity and welcoming criticism. Openness as the enemy of a pure culture and strong morality; we know the reasoning of Europe’s politicians. Much more telling is Putin's story of how he, as a son of communism, came to embrace this conservative philosophy.
President Putin may have been feted as the heir of glasnost, in reality he remained true to the Soviet Union of old. As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev argue in their book The Light That Failed (2020), Putin had long practised imitation politics: He saw himself compelled to imitate a policy of openness, to give the humiliated empire he inherited time to recover in a world order dominated by the West.
Openness was the stab in the back that robbed Putin of his Soviet god. Now it must also rob Europe of its liberal god
Since then he has largely stopped keeping up appearances. Putin calls the fall of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.4 He explains it not as a strategic, but as a moral failure, in an interview with Russia Today.5
Openness was the stab in the back that robbed Putin of his Soviet god. Now it must also rob Europe of its liberal god.
That is the only way to explain Russia’s humiliation without Putin having to search his own heart; without his having to admit that the USSR was a broken system, without his conceding that he is not protecting his Mother Russia but robbing it of its openness. In Putin’s case, the myth of the moral degradation of the open society is a thinly veiled confession of a prodigal son.
Xi Jinping and the Century of Humiliation
Back to the video of Xi, in which he uses the myth of decay to sell his new world order. But new, really? Xi’s story is one of nostalgia. Xi could introduce his pitch for a new world order with images of the bustling high-tech sector in the Pearl River Delta around Shenzhen, but instead he gives pride of place to camels and Delft Blue. Why?
China’s narrative of the West’s decay reflects its own history. Xi sells nostalgia for an imaginary world predating Western hegemony, when China was still the nerve centre of a world connected by silk roads. Like Putin, Xi is the son of an aggrieved empire – albeit a somewhat older one. His history of China goes roughly like this:
Imperial China was for centuries an untouchable superpower in the known world. It was culturally elevated, well administered, had no lust for power, but cultivated a strong image way beyond its boundaries; it was an example, not a conqueror.
Then the West knocked at the door, first in a friendly way but soon with bombs and grenades. China had to open its markets and borders. The Opium Wars humiliated ancient China within a few decades, turning it into a semi-colony. How can something like that happen?
Answer: pride. In its long-standing perfection China was blind to the new forces arising in the West. The period since the Opium Wars is still known as the Century of Humiliation, when the once so vibrant China was synonymous with difficulties, crisis and conflict.
Back to today. In the video Xi asks the question: “What has become of the world? What should we do?”
The rise and fall of the West serve as a reverse image of the humiliation and resurgence of China
You can guess the answer: It is time for China to recover its natural position as a superpower. Now it is not China that is the arrogant autocrat, blind to the chaos brewing under the blankets of its hegemony, but the West. The rise and fall of the West serve as a reverse image of the humiliation and resurgence of China.
There are grounds for assuming that the Chinese party leadership looks down on the European Union as a world power and on its open society as a model. Researchers from Leiden University argue that in the first decade of this century, Chinese policymakers predominantly saw the European Union as an enviable force in the geopolitical playing field.6
The eurozone crisis, the migration crisis and the Brexit referendum have drastically changed that image, according to surveys. Now, in the eyes of the CCP, Europe is a mess and lacks any form of leadership.
The Covid-19 crisis has clearly shown that it is in China’s interest for Europe to believe in its own decay. Xi’s large-scale global disinformation campaign is rooted in a desire to divert attention from the fact that the pandemic arose in China and that the CCP showed no leadership whatsoever at the beginning of the crisis in Wuhan. It also seeks to show that the open society lacks the unity and discipline to demonstrate leadership at times of crisis.
Italy in particular was bombarded with a social media offensive from China. Recent surveys show that 88% of Italians now believe Europe is failing to provide sufficient aid to Italy,7 whereas in fact Italy receives a lot more aid from its European comrades than from China. China is thus turning its distorted self-image into ours.
A self-fulfilling myth?
The real danger for the open society is not Putin or Xi. The real danger is that the myth will be self-fulfilling; that the armed pessimism will gnaw away at our self-image to such an extent that we act accordingly.
I give you Donald J. Trump. Whether he is talking about the openness of European borders or of its economy, the president of our principal ally always sums up his view of Europe with the same three words: “A Total Mess!”8
He even seizes on the coronavirus crisis to depict the societies of Europe as weak, chaotic and in decay.9 Trump symbolises elected self-hatred and enthroned pessimism.
The Flemish sociologist Mark Elchardus interviewed 2.000 young adults for his book Voorbij het narratief van de neergang (‘Beyond the narrative of decline’, 2014). What did the interviews reveal? My generation is particularly positive when it comes to personal dreams for the future. At the same time, we believe that society is getting worse all the time; that the decline of our prosperity, freedom and identity is unavoidable.
Elchardus calls us the Prometheus generation. Prometheus, who gave people fire, and hence the ability to advance, incurred the wrath of the jealous god Zeus and was punished. Zeus chained him to a rock and sent an eagle to eat his liver. Every night the liver grew back; every day it was eaten again. Elchardus writes: “There was no longer any forethought, the future became helpless fear of what was to come, anticipated pain.”
Trump, Putin and Xi are no fools; the myth of decay is a damned powerful story because it arouses pessimism and rancour. It is a smart geopolitical weapon.
The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Joseph Borrell, appears to recognise that. In a recent speech on the geopolitics of coronavirus he said: “There is a global battle of narratives going on. … Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors.”10
Acknowledging the problem is not enough, however; nor is becoming fixated on stereotypes of the enemy. If we want to beat our challengers, we must resist, debunk and deny the myth. But most importantly, we must present an alternative. The recent incident concerning Borrell’s disinformation report on China and Russia, shows Europe’s weakness.
As long as Europe is not playing offense, it is playing defence; and as long as it is playing defence, it is losing
Even though the indictments against China and Russia were strong, even in the alleged toned-down report, the news cycles focused on the fact that “Europe bowed down to Chinese pressure. In the current geopolitical climate, as long as Europe is not playing offense, it is playing defence; and as long as it is playing defence, it is losing.
It is high time that the EU embraced the power of narratives. It must use the power of narratives to cultivate the open society as a strong ideal in a world in which Western power is being undermined from within and without. How?
Video clip proposal:
We see a country in lockdown, an empty city centre, an abandoned university campus, a museum in darkness. Then a door is unlocked. A person enters the Dutch Boerhaave Museum. The light goes on. Rummaging through the collection he finds a dusty breathing apparatus from the 1960s.
We see a mosaic. Students and researchers get the old device working again, completely dismantle it, draw on a whiteboard, mess around with pressure cookers and bicycle gears. “What is leadership?” Asks a voice.
“Students and researchers from Delft University of Technology decided to fight Covid-19 through science. They made a brilliant discovery. On the basis of a museum piece they produced a breathing apparatus that was easy for everyone to build, based on components that can be found in most countries around the world. That is leadership; that is progress; that is what the open society can do.”
The best thing is that the Delft invention is not a myth, but hard fact.11
- 1This essay was originally published in Dutch by the Groene Amsterdammer. It was commissioned by De Balie and Stichting Amsterdams Comité 4 en 5 Mei as the winner of the OPEN Call-essay competition for artists and authors.
- 2CGTN, ‘President Xi Jinping: Why I proposed the Belt and Road’, YouTube, 12 May 2017.
- 3Financial Times, ‘Vladimir Putin interviewed by Financial Times’, YouTube, 5 July 2019.
- 4 ‘Putin: If he could, he’d try to prevent 1991 USSR collapse’, AP News, 2 March 2018.
- 5Where Putin argued: “The USSR was governed by an ideology. No matter your opinion of that ideology – it had within it what are essentially quasi-religious values. If you’ve ever read the “Moral Code for the Builder of Communism” you would see that it’s just a mimicking of the bible… New generations of the citizens of Russia, our young people, they have never even heard of it. The only thing that can naturally come to replace it are our traditional values. … With the absence of values, society begins to decay”
- 6Vincent K. L. Chang and Frank N. Pieke, ‘Europe’s engagement with China: shifting Chinese views of the EU and the EU-China relationship’, Asia Europe Journal 16, 9 January 2018, blz. 317-331.
- 7Jennifer Rankin, ‘Coronavirus could be final straw for EU, European experts warn’, The Guardian, 1 April 2020.
- 8See for example: Donald J. Trump on Twitter.
- 9Cameron Peters, ‘Watch: Trump’s Oval Office address on the coronavirus’, Vox, 11 March 2020.
- 10Josep Borrell, ‘The coronavirus pandemic and the new world it is creating’, EEAS, 23 March 2020.
- 11TU Delft TV, ‘Project inspiration’, YouTube, 17 April 2020.