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Spengler & Imperial America

Robert W. Merry says the great German pessimist Oswald Spengler, in his Decline of the West, got a lot right about how Western civilization would develop — and that should make us think hard about the road we’re on. Merry:

But modern Westerners—and Americans in particular—might want to ponder the implications of Spengler’s prediction that the first nation of the West would lead that civilization into an era of imperialism in corollary with serious erosions in its democratic structures. Is it possible that the mystical German thinker was right about that, just as he was right in so many other predictions regarding Western behavioral and cultural patterns? And isn’t the great foreign-policy debate of our time—whether America should continue its post–Cold War policy of interventionism in the name of American exceptionalism and Western universalism; or whether it should abandon that mission in favor of a more measured exercise of its military and economic power—fundamentally a debate over whether Spengler had it right?

What’s interesting about today’s foreign-policy debates is the disconnection between the country’s national leaders and the populace at large. The Republican Party is dominated by a neoconservative sensibility that favors widespread American involvement in overseas places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran, while the Democratic Party is influenced heavily by a Wilsonian sensibility of moral imperative that often leads to the same interventionist advocacy, though sometimes for different reasons. And yet public-opinion surveys show that the American people harbor strong reservations about such interventionist vigor of either stripe.

Thus, it sometimes seems as if America is on autopilot as it moves haltingly but with seemingly inexorable force toward ever-greater involvement in the world even as discomfort increases within the electorate. But what about Spengler’s corollary prediction that the West’s democratic forms will erode as it fulfills its civilizational push to empire? Certainly, there is no popular sentiment for such a thing. Yet here too we see signs that the country is headed in that direction, reflected in a growing tendency toward arrogation of power on the part of the nation’s executive, at the expense of Congress, and Congress’s supine acquiescence in this trend. It’s seen also in the Federal Reserve’s remarkable power grab of recent years whereby it has circumvented the congressional appropriations process in making funds available to banks to execute its “quantitative easing” policies of loose money. Again, Congress has quietly accepted this incursion into its constitutional domain without so much as a whimper.


And so we come to the truly haunting question that confronts America in these times of growing global instability—whether, as the last nation of the West, America is destined to fulfill Spengler’s vision of hegemonic zeal mixed with a push toward dictatorship. Here’s where the natural aversion to Spengler’s dogmatic determinism will likely come into play. The answer is no, America’s future is in American hands. But Spengler’s audacious work stands as a great warning to Americans bent on protecting the hallowed civic institutions established at the founding of their Republic. The era of Western cultural health is dead, and it died pretty much as Spengler predicted it would. And no doubt his study of previous great civilizations did in fact accurately identify pressures and forces that emerge at particular points in civilizational development and push toward empire and Caesarism. This push can be resisted by a free people dedicated to the protection of their institutions of old. But they won’t be protected if events are placed on autopilot.

A journalist colleague asked me today what I expected out of Obama these next four years. Nothing, I said. Nor do I expect anything meaningful out of the Republicans. We are at a standstill, and I don’t foresee anything changing until and unless there’s a severe crisis, which is inevitable. I find I labor under a strong sauve qui peut fatalism — but isn’t that what Merry warns against? It doesn’t work to tell oneself to have faith in a political party because the alternative is too depressing.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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