by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese, 2005, 304 pp., $26.00
Once they could no longer believe in the immortality of the soul, many Westerners substituted the project of improving human life on Earth for that of getting to Heaven. Hoping for the achievement of Enlightenment ideals took the place of yearning to see the face of God. Spiritual life came to center around movements for social change, rather than around prayer or ritual.
Most of those who made that switch took for granted that the West would retain its hegemony long enough to bring liberty, equality, and fraternity to the rest of the planet. But that hegemony is over. The West has reached its acme; it is as rich and powerful as it is going to get. Even the United States of America can deploy military power only by risking bankruptcy. The American Century has ended, and the Chinese Century has begun. America, while in the saddle, did more good than harm. Nobody knows what China will do—least of all the Chinese.
Yet economic and military decline is not the only problem for the West. It may be frightened into renouncing its ideals even before it loses its influence. Suppose a dirty nuclear bomb, hidden in the bowels of a container ship, were exploded in San Francisco Bay. Could a free press and an independent judiciary survive martial law? Would Germany remain a constitutional democracy if such a bomb went off at the Hamburg docks? The first terrorists to containerize a stolen nuclear warhead may be able to preen themselves on having demolished institutions that took two centuries to build.
Richard Rorty is a professor of comparative literature at Stanford University. His most recent book is Philosophy and Social Hope.
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