The date on the calendar may almost be 2013, but on history’s clock what time is it? Long ago and far away apparently. Robert Kaplan, writing in the Wall Street Journal says that the ‘universal values’ proclaimed by Western elites at the fall of the Berlin Wall are everywhere in retreat. Nationalist and ethnic rivalries are back.
In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces—such as nationalism and sectarianism—that are mightily reshaping the future.
It is the Moustache Petes who are winning. The metropolitan, hip crowd are on the defensive anyplace one looks. Whether in Tahrir Square, the battered towns of Syria, the disputed seas of Northeast Asia or the sensitive borders of Indian subcontinent, sectarianism and nationalism are resurgent, which is another way of saying that the post-war bipolar and unipolar worlds have collapsed. Welcome to the way things used to be. The future as announced has been postponed.
Kaplan is aghast. He notes that Nobel Committee awarded its peace prize to the EU as “a statement against this trend” but nevertheless acknowledges that “the age of deepening European integration is likely behind us. Get ready to see more nasty and thoroughly frightening political groupings like Greece’s Golden Dawn emerge across the Continent.”
Paul Bracken in his book The Second Nuclear Age (which I am now reading) believes that not only is sectarianism back, it also will be nuclear armed. We are intellectually unprepared for it lulled into a stupor by a fairy tale of our own making. Bracken argues that right after the Berlin Wall fell Western elites did everything in their power to edit out the role that strategy played in keeping the peace. Why they did this is fertile ground for intellectual inquiry. But my own guess is the rewrite was to hide the fact that social democracy was also on the losing side of history. For if history judged that Soviet bigness would not inherit the earth then some means had to be found to disculpate similar Western institutions from the same judgment.
The way out was to differentiate between the two rival systems in terms of their consciousness, not their institutional likeness. That emphasis on “values” freed every Western government to spend the “peace dividend” on their own special kind of bigness. Moreover, it appealed to the lazy by making further rigorous efforts to keep the new found peace unnecessary. Attributing the fall of the USSR to a deus ex machina reduced international stability to a given. Conflict? That’s so yesterday dude.
It is now argued that the cold war was won by Western values. Liberty free markets and democracy triumphed over tyranny, state control, and military overspending. Nothing, it is now said, could stand in the way of Western values winning out …
For all practical purposes U.S. dependence on nuclear weapons went to zero. Nuclear forces were left to rot, technologically and intellectually … I cannot think of any policy in American history, not the Monroe Doctrine, not liberal internationalism, not containment, that had more widespread, bipartisan support. The problem is … other countries simply didn’t buy it …
It wasn’t just a handful of rogue nations like North Korea that went nuclear … India the world’s largest democracy, joined the nuclear club. China upgraded its nuclear forces … add Russia to this group … along with the secondary nuclear powers Pakistan, Israel …
There are nine countries with the bomb. Eight have modernized their nuclear arsenals … The one exception is the United States. In the world of the second nuclear age, it is misguided for America to continue the charade that nuclear weapons are useless. Other countries sure don’t think so, and they are the ones that count.
But perhaps no strategic thought is required to move forward. Surely the Cold War was not won by effort but by Reagan’s Irish luck or if you don’t believe in things like shamrocks and leprechauns then at least credit historical destiny.
But the world was already changing even then. The same forces which toppled the Soviet Union soon began to eat at the foundations of ‘Soviet like’ central agencies like the EU and the US Federal government. And so we arrive at our present world. Robert Kaplan correctly notes that the best days of the EU are now behind it. He forgot to add that no number of Nobel Peace prize statements will rescue it. The Westernized elites of the new globalized world are competing against the pride of the nations and the edge of the sword. And they have not yet learned how.
It’s a new world out there. And like the shepherds two millenia ago we will find that we are not exempt from learning how to live with the changes in it. Merry Christmas to all and peace on earth to men of good will.