Ninety years ago, Oswald Spengler's pessimistic bestseller The Decline of the West caught the imagination of a Europe bloodied by the Great War. Ever since Spengler, the habitual response of a guilt-ridden intelligentsia has been to blame the West for the misfortunes of the world; the pessimists have never lacked ammunition. The year 2008 has given them a field day. Horrors have come to light in the Congo, in Zimbabwe and across the Horn of Africa that evoke Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Piracy has re-emerged on the high seas, while the authorities turn a blind eye to new and ancient barbarism even in our midst. A European nation is invaded with impunity, while in the Middle East another is threatened with extinction. An economic crisis of elemental force sweeps all before it; governments seem as unprepared for its scale as they are unequal to its severity. Finally, the commercial capital of India is engulfed in a terrorist onslaught as vicious and dramatic as any we have seen since 9/11. Just as we fondly supposed we could revert to dealing with our daunting but ultimately soluble economic problems, this was a timely reminder of the hideous and intractable threat of global jihad.
Historical inevitability is an illusion that cuts both ways. Spengler saw it as the destiny of the West - having ossified from an organic "culture" into a decadent "civilisation" - to succumb to more vigorous oriental nations. His prophecy still has plenty of adherents, but in fact Japan, China and India, like the rest of the Orient, have adopted a semblance, at least, of Western civilisation. On the other hand, it is not inevitable either that Western values will remain pre-eminent.
Complacent optimism may be as dangerous as morbid self-denigration. Take the case of Russia. Once the West was seduced by Uncle Joe; then we had Gorbymania; now we have Uncle Vlad, who makes up in brute strength what he lacks in charm. Edward Lucas shows that Dr Pangloss is alive and well and living in Germany. As Jonathan Foreman's report from Mumbai demonstrates, Indian elites, like their German counterparts, are blind to their own vulnerability. Elsewhere in this issue, Ibn Warraq chronicles his gradual estrangement from his roots to become an apostate from Islam - a passage from India (and later Pakistan) that serves as a corrective to the sentimental view of the subcontinent that has prevailed since EM Forster.
War, famine and pandemic have been familiar since the horsemen of the Apocalypse. More remarkable is the fact that Western civilisation constantly overcomes these terrors, renews itself and enables all humanity to share in its prosperity. It is true that we take this amazing resilience too much for granted, but the decline of the West is a self-fulfilling prophecy and for that reason alone must be rejected. Our civilisation has withstood dictators and depressions before. Just because the sleep of reason continues to bring forth monsters, we need not fall victim to our own nightmares. The New Year creeps in with trepidation, but there are good reasons to expect 2009 to be a better year than last: the triumph of hope over insouciance.