Gibbon, Decadence and Europe’s Current Decline

 Between 1776 and 1788, the peerless eighteenth century Enlightenment historian (and sometime lackluster British Whig MP) Edward Gibbon set about remaking his profession. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fastened upon an analytical conclusion that has not only proven invaluable to historians since but lays down an incredibly challenging gauntlet for political risk analysts in particular.

Gibbon managed to conjure up through his life’s work a novel, cutting-edge answer to one of the most important historical questions of all time: why did the Roman Empire, in many ways the most powerful and durable political construct ever created, finally disintegrate? He persuasively argues that, while on the surface it was the barbarian invasions that brought it to an end, this was only the final symptom of the Roman malaise, not the root cause of the disease. For Gibbon, Rome fell not primarily because of outside pressures but rather owing to an internal and gradual loss of civic virtue amongst its citizens.

In other words, Rome was destroyed from within. Gibbon creatively saw that the political risk that overwhelmed the greatest of empires came about due to a failure to recognize and combat home-grown problems. Political risk analysts have grappled with Gibbon’s incisive analysis ever since, as there is almost nothing harder than for humans to look in the mirror and honestly say, “We are the problem.”

A Heat Wave in France

 In early August 2003, the blood-red sun rose implacably over the city of Paris. It was the hottest summer on record in Europe since at least 1540. Temperatures were regularly hovering at a sweltering 104 degrees Fahrenheit. As the heat rose to wholly unaccustomed levels, many people—particularly the elderly—started dying. According to the French National Institute of Health, in France alone 14,802 people died of heat-related complications that sun-baked August.

As is the case with most catastrophes, there was plenty of blame to go around. Saying this, one basic overriding thread connects all the culprits behind this tragedy: the absolute and ridiculous sanctity of the French summer vacation. In place of religion or ethics, many Europeans have to come to worship their comfortable (if economically unsustainable) way of life as the paramount goal of being, to the exclusion of all else.

At the time of the emergency, President Jacques Chirac was on holiday in Canada. He remained there for the duration of the crisis. Likewise, Prime Minister Raffarin refused to return from his Alpine vacation until August 14, the day before the temperatures at last began to cool. Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei also exhibited highly dubious priorities, failing to come back to a sweltering Paris when he was most needed. Instead, his junior aides blocked emergency measures—including the state recalling doctors from their holidays—to attend to the afflicted.

But even this is too simple. Do French doctors really need to be told by the government that it is their duty to come back and deal with an obvious medical emergency? Do French families really need the state to instruct them that they must cut short their time at the beach to minister to the endangered elderly relatives they have left behind?

This was a society-wide conspiracy, in that no ne was responsible because everyone was responsible. As Gibbon would have appreciated, thousands of individual, personal decisions—on their own merely dots in the national painting—all pointed in the same, indefensible position. Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of les vacances.

Europe’s present state perfectly fits Gibbon’s classic definition of decadence; it is a society that has lost the ability to deal with its problems coupled over time with abdication of responsibility for them. Gibbon would clearly see that it amounts to the psychological, political, and moral process that is destroying the old continent.

Managing, not solving

European leaders, in thrall to decadence, have gotten used to talking of ‘managing’ problems, rather than ‘solving’ them. Yet does anyone think the euro crisis, the refugee crisis, or the political crisis of the EU has been ‘solved’?

Rising above all these unmet challenges is a simple factor of math: EU countries comprise 9 percent of the world’s population, account for 25% of global GDP, but consume a staggering 50% of the planet’s social spending. The bleak truth is that these numbers are simply unsustainable. Europe is not going through some little local difficulty. The way of life it knew and enjoyed from 1950 to the Lehman Brothers crash will never return.

Conclusion: Back to the heat wave

Everyone in France that dreadful August knew that something terribly wrong was happening back in Paris. Few had the will to give up their overly-precious vacations and do anything about it. Gibbon’s old and venerable concept of decadence emerges as the primary roadblock—and the chief source of contemporary political risk—that not only obscures the knowledge necessary to save Europe but saps the will to act itself. Whether we like it or not, we are the risk.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. For three years, Hulsman was the Senior Columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the pre-eminent foreign policy organisation. The author of all or part of 14 books, Hulsman has given over 1520 interviews, written over 650 articles, prepared over 1290 briefings, and delivered more than 510 speeches on foreign policy around the world. His most recent work, To Dare More Boldly; The Audacious Story of Political Risk, will be published by Princeton University Press in April 2017.