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How Civilizations Die

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David P. Goldman, the author of the new book, How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too), which Regnery brought out this fall. After 9/11, Goldman began writing weekly essays at Asia Times Online under the byline “Spengler.” At the time he directed a research group at Credit Suisse, and afterward ran fixed income research for Bank of America. After joining the masthead of First Things magazine early in 2009, he revealed his identity and devoted himself to writing, mainly on politics and strategy, but also publishing essays on religion, classical music, literature and mathematics. He left First Thingsearly in 2011 to write his book.

FP: David P. Goldman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Let’s begin with what inspired you to write this book.

Goldman: Thanks Jamie.

It was 9/11 and the aftermath. I’m an old Cold Warrior; I consulted for Norman A. Bailey, the head of planning at NSC in the first Reagan administration. We were playing a deadly global chess game with a fairly rational opponent; when the Russians knew they were beaten, they caved.

Radical Islam is a different animal. Never in history have so many people committed suicide in order to kill large numbers of innocent people. And not since classical antiquity have so many cultures willed themselves out of existence by failing to have children. Countries and individuals who habitually destroy themselves to inflict harm on others have no rational self-interest. You cannot negotiate with them. Our world has a different and terrible set of rules, and policy has to change appropriately.

FP: You refer to the failure to have children. For the first time in history, the birthrate in the West has fallen below replacement level. Explain this to us. Why is it happening? Expand on the consequences.

Goldman: That’s one of the few important developments in the world on which liberal and conservative scholars agree. People of faith have many children, and secular people have few or none. Liberal observers are terrified that “the religious will inherit the earth,” as the liberal sociologist Eric Kaufmann put it. America is the last big industrial country with a religious majority, and the only one with a birthrate above replacement. But that’s mainly due to evangelicals and Hispanic Catholics. Mainline Protestants, loosely-affiliated Catholics and secular Jews breed like Europeans. And people of faith in Europe behave like religious Americans. There just aren’t too many of them.

For the Europeans, this means eventual economic collapse. Take Italy, which dominates our financial headlines at the moment. By 2050, three-fifths of Italians will be elderly dependents. We are struggling to reduce future entitlement spending in the US, where the workforce is still growing. Add a zero to our problems to get an idea of the size of Italy’s. It also means that it’s nonsense to talk about American decline. By mid-century Japan’s workforce will fall by a third and Europe’s by a quarter. We’re the only industrial country that will turn up for the rest of history. 

FP: Muslim leaders have perpetually boasted that they would defeat the West by numbers, and we are definitely witnessing the alarming growth of Muslim populations in Europe. Many Muslim males come to the West with four wives and have like 30 kids with them. Yet you are writing about a Muslim demographic winter. What are we missing? Has something changed?

Goldman: It’s true that the Muslim birthrate far exceeds the Western birthrate, but large parts of the Islamic world are catching up to the West’s demographic winter at startling speed. The Muslim world is passing from infancy to senility without going through adulthood. Muslim countries with a high literacy rate — Iran, Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia — have already fallen below replacement fertility. Islam is a religion of traditional society, where subsistence farmers have always had as many children as they could. The moment Muslims leave the traditional world — especially when girls get a high school education — their behavior changes radically. Most Iranians have six siblings, but will have one or two children.

Never has a national fertility rate dropped from 7 to 1.5 in a single generation.  Turks whose cradle-tongue is Turkish also have a fertility rate of only 1.5 — the same as Europe’s — while Kurds are having four to five children. That means the map of Turkey will be redrawn a generation from now. In Judea and Samaria, Arabs had eight children a generation ago. That’s fallen to three, the same as the Jewish fertility rate in Israel. As the modern world forces its way into traditional Muslim societies elsewhere, fertility continues to plunge. It tells us that Islam, as a religion, crashes and burns when it encounters the modern world. That’s not just a Muslim problem, I hasten to add. The same sudden collapse of fertility afflicted ethnocentric branches of Christianity, for example, Catholicism in Quebec.

FP: So how should the U.S. deal with Muslim decline?

Goldman: With a hard hand, in the case of Iran. The foreign policy establishment has always seen Iran as a rational player. That was the view that Robert Gates brought into the Bush administration, and the reason that the Obama administration refused, disgracefully, to support the democracy movement that erupted in Iran in the summer of 2009.

An individual, or a country, that knows it has no future has no rational self-interest. You can’t invert the population pyramid in a poor country within a single generation without economic collapse. Iran knows its time is running out. Ahmadinejad is giving speeches calling the low birth rate a “genocide against the Iranian nation,” and Iran’s press is warning of a “tidal wave of elderly.” That feeds the apocalyptic impulse of Iran’s leaders. There weren’t a lot of Communists in Russia outside the Politbureau, we discovered in 1989, and there may not be a lot of Muslims in Iran. But the Russian danger peaked in the early 1980s when the Politbureau realized that time was running out to make their move.

Demographic decline tells the ayatollahs that their window of opportunity is closing. But there’s a big difference. Deterrence worked with a nuclear-armed Russia. It won’t work with the apocalyptic Shi’ite leadership of Iran. As a practical matter, we must stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, no matter how great the cost.

FP: How do you see the “Arab Spring”?

Goldman: The outcome, I predict, will be Somalia on the Nile. It’s an understatement to say that the so-called Arab Spring has disappointed its enthusiasts. We face the prospect of radical Islamic governments led by the Muslim Brotherhood or similar entities in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Syria.

I argued in February 2009 that the global rise in food prices triggered the demonstrations; it wasn’t simply that people were hungry, but that the old autocracies showed themselves unable to offer their people food security. Three generations of Egyptian dictators kept their people in backwardness. The result is catastrophic. Three-fifths of Egyptians are farmers, but the country still imports half its food. Nearly half of Egyptians are illiterate, a third of them marry cousins, and nine-tenths of Egyptian women undergo genital mutilation. It has a huge university system, but its graduates are unemployable. Egypt’s economy is in a death spiral. With the collapse of tourism and other sources of foreign exchange, cash reserves are down from six months’ import coverage to just to two months. The military government is a kleptocracy of African dimensions. We are less likely to see a stable but hostile Islamic government than starvation and social breakdown. Syria seems condemned to a long-term civil war with Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia supporting proxies.

FP: Your perspective on American efforts at nation-building in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world? If these efforts are quicksand, then what are the alternatives?

Goldman: I supported the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but I shared Daniel Pipes’ view that we should have installed an amenable strongman and gotten our soldiers out of harm’s way. It is not within our power to stabilize societies that crash and burn on entry into the modern world. Americans often forget just how exceptional we are. Our founding premise is that God gave inalienable rights to every individual. The notion of a covenant in which every individual derives rights from God such that no earthly power can take them away begins at Mount Sinai. In Islam, it is absurd to suggest that God might limit his own power by a permanent grant of rights to every individual. The arbitrary, capricious and absolutely transcendent god of Islam would not condescend to a covenant with humankind. The institutions of representative democracy are a hollow shell without its covenantal premise.

Fostering stability is a failed policy. The alternative is to manage instability. By that I mean forcing the burden of uncertainty upon our opponents. We should deal with Muslim countries as a matter of national self-interest, rewarding friends and frightening or harming enemies. The Saudi regime is monstrous, but we have no reason to change it, although we need to discourage the Saudis in the harshest way from paying protection to terrorists.

In order to stop Iran’s nuclear program, we may have to decapitate the civilian and military leadership and disrupt communications. That can be accomplished through aerial assault and subversion rather than invasion, but will occasion great hardship and extensive civilian casualties. We must do so nonetheless.

Pakistan has shown itself incapable of containing the Islamic radicals in its military and intelligence services. We should not allow this failed state to humiliate us further and instead seek to encircle and contain it, with India’s help.

Turkey has become a prospective enemy, and there are a number of things we might do, for example with the Kurds, to impose a high penalty for misbehavior. Covert action to support dissident movements, human rights initiatives, religious reforms, and so forth is an important component of managing instability, As a model, I would examine Dutch military and diplomatic efforts during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648.

FP: A section of your book is entitled “Theopolitics.” What do you mean by this term?

Goldman: Actually, that was my original working title for the book, but my publishers wisely observed that it would be relegated to the “Religion” section. Our political science is rooted in Thomas Hobbes’ materialism, and assumes that actors on the political stage follow their rational self-interest, defined as self-preservation. We can gussy up Hobbes with game theory, but it makes no difference. We live in a world in which most of the industrial nations find themselves in a demographic death spiral, a Great Extinction of the nations unlike anything we have seen since the 7th century. Most of the nations of the world would rather die out than adapt to modernity; they are not much different from the neolithic Amazon tribes who succumb to alcoholism. Why do some nations find the spiritual resources to embrace life, while others chant, “We love death”? What is the rational self-interest of a nation that has chosen to become extinct? And how will nations on the way to extinction respond to their predicament? These are the great questions of our time, and materialist political science does not have the tools to answer them. Franz Rosenzweig’s sociology of religion, for example, provides a better framework for understanding these problems than the political rationalism of Leo Strauss.

FP: What is the role of Turkey in all of this?

Goldman: There were great hopes in the last Bush administration that Turkey would provide a model for moderate Islamist democracy, and the Obama administration has tried to make Turkey a partner in Middle East diplomacy. This was a profound error. Turkey is one of the tragedies of our time. Kemal Ataturk brought Turkey into the modern world, but his reforms only took root with the Europeanized elite in metropolitan Turkey. His brand of modernizing, secular nationalism was spiritually hollow, and the European side of Turkish society suffered from the same infertility that plagued Europe itself. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the standard-bearer for Muslim Anatolia against the secular metropole, and his ambitions to recreate Turkey’s dominant role in the Muslim world have been discussed exhaustively. But insufficient attention has been given to Turkey’s inherent weakness and instability. Kurdish-speakers, now a fifth of the population, have three times as many children as native Turkish-speakers, which means that half of Turkey’s military-age population will be Kurdish a generation from now. Erdogan is in a panic over this. In a recent speech he warned that on its present trajectory the Turkish nation would come to an end in 2038. Why that year, I do not know, but it’s as good a guess as any. As with Iran, Turkey’s grandiose pronouncements and reckless behavior reflect an apocalyptic sense that time is running out. In the long term, Turkey is not a viable ally, because it is not a viable country. In the short term, Turkey has become another problem to be contained.

FP: How do you see Israel’s strategic position in the context of the Arab Spring and Obama’s abandoning — and bullying — of Israel?

Goldman: The Obama administration’s attempt to force Israel into a peace settlement is deluded, obviously so in recent months. Any possible deal with the Palestinians would build on Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt, which now is in doubt, and the whole idea of a comprehensive peace in the region is ruled out by the chaos in Syria. For reasons Obama himself has emphasized, he identifies with Islam in a way no previous president could have imagined, and tried to force Israel into an agreement on Palestinian terms. This is all sewage under the bridge. It is true that Israel is more isolated than before, but that is a mixed curse. Civil war in Syria and economic chaos in Egypt will degrade the capacity of both countries to make war. Syria’s troubles make Hezbollah’s position more difficult, but Hamas will acquire arms more easily in Gaza. Israel has greater risk of rocket attacks, but less risk from conventional opponents. It is also important to note that the “demographic time bomb” argument has quietly disappeared, now that the data clearly show that the Jewish birth rate in Israel is equal to the Arab birth rate.  The great risk to Israel’s security has little to do with the Arab Spring. It comes from Iran, which set out to acquire nuclear weapons years ago.


FP: Overall, how do you think the United States can best survive the threats and upheavals it faces on the horizon?

Goldman: The United States must act like a superpower, rather than an NGO with a humanitarian agenda. That means standing by friends like Israel, preempting real threats like Iran, and punishing wayward allies like Turkey.  We’ve been talking about a lot of unpleasant things, but it’s important to remember that two-thirds of the world population lives in countries where things are getting better–China, East Asia, India, South America. Tens of millions of people each year move from rural poverty to urban prosperity. In the great scheme of things the Muslim world is of minor importance to America, and its disintegration will make that plain over time. Far more important are our relationships with India and China. And these depend on the perception that America is the undisputed world hyperpower, such that it is pointless to test our patience. That means more military spending, not less, but also less dissipation of our resources on well-meaning but futile exercises in nation-building.  China will be more willing to accommodate American security requirements, for example in Pakistan, if it perceives that American strength is past all possible challenge for the foreseeable future.

Americans have not begun to absorb how much the world has changed. We are likely to have humanitarian disasters on a gigantic scale in Egypt and elsewhere, about which we can do no more than we could in Somalia during the Clinton administration. We like to think of ourselves like the Lone Ranger, fixing everybody’s troubles. There will be occasions when our national security interests require us to stir up troubles rather than mitigate them. I wrote “How Civilizations Die” to harden American hearts, to horrify readers in order to inoculate them against the horrors to come.

FP: David P. Goldman, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.