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Menu for Today’s Tricky Planet: Use Your Head
We live in an enigmatic age, far more complex as the years go by and certainly since the disappearance of the Soviet Union in 1991. With the failure of so many reformers avoidance of cynicism about all causes is now an overwhelming challenge. In a sense, it is the refusal to abandon the future to a seemingly inexorable and dismal fate that alone justifies trying to change the world as it is, but we must be aware of past failures and the reasons for them. All this is a starting point.
The first and most important consideration is that the world’s status quo is heading toward disasters — political and military, ecological, and economic. Violence both between and within countries and ethnic groups is more and more common. A handful of dominant nations — the United States being the preeminent — control the world’s future to a large degree, but they are scarcely alone. Inter-ethnic conflicts often occur due to autonomous causes that great powers do not directly prompt, even though the World War One peace treaty created artificial divisions in the Middle East that still disturb the ethnic stability and peace of the region. More states are busy becoming nuclear powers, and to be a nuclear weapons-based military colossus is today within the capacity of many nations that had neither the technology nor the money required 50 years ago. A growing proportion of the science needed for acquiring the nuclear technology for building bombs has become more accessible. Its relative cheapness is part of attainability.
Second, the failure of socialism and communism, the great hopes of the past century, has left a void in the intellectual and political life of countless nations and the minds–and motivation–of numberless people. The best argument now, today, and it is an argument by default, is that the status quo needs a rational alternative because it is heading toward disaster—and we cannot accept that passively. This argument is partially existential.
The third factor is the rise of forces — above all, but certainly not alone, in the Muslim world — that defy our comprehension within the boundaries of conventional radical ideas and pose an element of unpredictability and surprise. This uncertainty confuses us but also the ideologists and functionaries of the status quo who have power and the practical responsibility of controlling its impact, an enterprise beyond their powers. The “Arab spring” caught the C I A completely by surprise and N A T O had no conception of the nature of the opposition to Muammar Gadaffi when it began its bombing in 2011 on their behalf. And these are merely a few examples of how the powers-that-be and the men and women who run them bumble and make compounded errors. The September 11, 2001 attack on the Twin Towers in New York, the most deadly foreign assault on American soil, was possible because all of official Washington simply did not expect it despite the billions it pays for intelligence every year.
In a word, default and failure elsewhere and the political status quo is the best incentive for those of us who still maintain the world must be changed. But we must now proceed with much more realism and respect for the historical experience than most past advocates of change — ranging from Marxists to the classical economists from whom they derived this mood of confidence in the inevitability of progress, both in the past and in the future, with their optimism and their assumptions about the virtually automatic nature of the historical process. Change is far more difficult than ever, and failure again a possibility, but to cease trying is to abandon the effort as impossible.
To desert the struggle is to surrender to atavistic forces that would bring a long night to the human condition. Put this way, if only for our self-esteem, we are obliged to continue to oppose dangerous foreign policies, lies, and obscurantism. We must renew the opposition but we must remain true to reality also — and this combination will lose many who would otherwise be a major part of “good causes.” Betrayal by men and women who claim to want some type of “reform” has often been a fact in the past and nothing will be gained, indeed a great deal will be lost, by refusing to confront that historical reality. The best argument for radicalism is the status quo itself. Illusions may be comforting but social reality has not worked that way over the past century. There have been wars and mass murders, and if the forces that run the world have their way, there will be more of them.
Let us put some order and detail on these comments.
There is, first of all, the spread of nuclear weapons, and although we may deplore it, their proliferation is a fact that the spread of knowledge along with the growing cheapness of any research based on technology makes possible. Since World War Two the number of nuclear powers has increased greatly, and the pace of their increase will only get greater. Science that used to require expensive and exceedingly difficult tests on the ground can now be “simulated” by computers, and making nuclear weapons has become affordable to nations once too poor to make them—partially because they have more money but also because the technology required has become much cheaper and knowledge of it more widespread.
We now live in an age where computers and high technology dominate our life—making medicine far more effective but they increasingly control warfare also, which is changing its nature and making the United States less in possession of the relative military supremacy it had after 1946. Proliferation may be a bad thing but in certain situations it may produce stability to the extent it produces a “balance of terror.” There was no nuclear war between the U S and the Soviet Union during the so-called Cold War (which was very hot in the Third World), and although it was stymied or losing in Korea and Vietnam in both its wars there, the U.S. ultimately did not use its overwhelming nuclear power, at least in part because it would have had to confront the onus of the opinion of a large part of the non-Communist world if it did so. Like it or not, such considerations have counted in the past, even with Yankee yahoos.
Indeed, the unilateral possession of the nuclear bomb can make a nation vulnerable. If the Iranians retaliate against an Israeli attack by raining missiles with conventional warheads–which they have– on Dimona (which they have already implied they would), where the Israelis developed and probably keep a good part their formidable nuclear arsenal, they can reactivate much, perhaps even all, of Israel with the fallout from Israeli installations. It is a major reason, but scarcely the only one, why the former heads of Israeli intelligence oppose a war with Iran. And if Israel knows the Iranians can retaliate with nuclear weapons—even one would create havoc on such a small country—then it is likely to be far less inclined to attack with its large number of nuclear bombs.
With the world becoming more dangerous, what can we do? The first priority is to employ realism and reason to confront the status quo we face, not a priori deductions that please us but avoid the complexity of the situation that now confronts us in the economic, military, and ideological domains. We may not like the reality of living in a world full of enigmas and dilemmas which are not easily solved, but comforting illusions have been tried in the past and failed — badly. We live in a period where dealing with problems cannot be based on illusions—which has been tried in the form of all concepts of inevitable progress, Marxism included. And failed. We cannot stamp out injustice by wishing it away with mythical assumptions about an inherently radical working class or the like. That was tried, and it too proved incapable of transforming the status quo into something better. Two World Wars illustrate the extent to which we now live in an age of history full of dilemmas and disappointments. In a word, comforting illusions are still illusions that change nothing and fail, and failure is now far too expensive and dangerous than ever as an option.
What I am saying makes for greater complexity in our analysis of the human experience. Alas, reality is complex and nothing is to be gained by assuming it is simple or that all we have to do is lock hands together and make the evildoers cower. But people who are evil have not given up easily in the past and they will not in the future. Their real weakness is less our opposition to them than the fact that reality is as complex for them as for us and they have been unable to solve the mounting dilemmas and problems that they too confront. The world is becoming more complicated for us, the problems we have to solve more intractable and complex, but for them too—and they have the responsibility of governing a system that is becoming increasingly unmanageable.
What are the problems the men and women of power must now solve? The order I present them is arbitrary, but the first I want to mention is the situation in the global and national U S economy since 2007. Henry Paulson, Bush II’s Secretary of the Treasury, called the 2008 financial crisis “breathtaking…the worst financial crisis since the great depression.” But economic problems did not end in 2008 and in various ways they have persisted to the present day. In certain important regards, problems have gotten much worse: the currency bloc based on the “euro” is teetering and may even break up; the end result may be trade wars and financial chaos. And trade wars are more likely now than they were in 2008, with grave implications in many domains, from economic to the political and military. Underlying structural problems, both in the United States and internationally, like income distribution, unemployment, growth, housing sales and prices, have all continued since Paulson gave his dour analysis in 2008, and even gotten worse. Washington, which now has a national debt of $15 trillion on its hands, is seriously divided on a solution for it and the Europeans have financial chaos–and major differences on how to deal with them–that may end the existence of the euro as a currency. A great deal has appeared in the world’s press on such economic questions, so I need not go into them in detail, but suffice it to say that the problems of housing finance that existed in 2008, much less the other economic questions that existed simultaneous with it, are still very much alive this day.
Then there is the fact that making wars–and the U S spends an inordinate amount on its military machine, as much as the rest of the world put together–has led America to get bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan–and the verdict on the outcome of those protracted conflicts is a long way from final. War and its military budget has created havoc in America’s finances and priorities, but it certainly was stalemated in Korea, where the United States tried to win, and lost the war in Vietnam–though in both places the venality of its proxies and allies was a crucial factor. But the US’s proxies are mostly venal, as they were in Kuomintang China and South Vietnam, and neutralize its military power. Official America also has its vulnerabilities and it always has.
It will not help to turn to obscurantism — of which religion is the foremost — to deal with a reality, which transcends it–as well as our imagination. In the complex situation we now confront in the world, religion’s assuring simplifications give solace to some but they change nothing. We are obliged to think harder.
The United States had pretensions after 1945 to be able to dictate the future of global affairs, both political and economic. And for a time Europe’s weakness made it inordinately influential. The United Nations system, which President Franklin Roosevelt made certain would be based in New York as a kind of legacy he left to the state of which he had once been governor as well as a reflection of U.S. supremacy, conformed to America’s desires — especially the Security Council and its veto proviso. But although its overweening military power and the activities of its intelligence services produced victories for it in the Philippines and Iran (at least temporarily), to name but a couple, it lost or stalemated its major wars in Korea and Vietnam, virtually bankrupted itself in the process of seeking its hegemonic goals and today some elements in American ruling circles are beginning to be worried by the limits on American power and the extent to which it has overextended itself economically and militarily. For the moment, at least, China in its present form, as a hybrid communism with strong attributes of capitalism in its functional economic life, has begun to emerge as a political, military and, above all, an economic force that can challenge American power in the vulnerable stage it is now in. China’s role may become far greater than it is today, depending to the risks China is willing to take confronting a United States which still has important elements unwilling to accept the limits on American power that, in fact, emerged when the U S lost or stalemated its wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Even the U.S. Administration, as President Obama’s inauguration of a permanent American base in Darwin, Australia showed in mid-November of this year, does not want to give up being the primary Pacific power. But unlike the U.S. and most other great powers, China has ample economic resources–almost too much dollar and euro reserves for its own economic security–and its military is growing far stronger, especially in cyber-warfare that can paralyze American computers, satellites, and its equipment dependent on electricity.
To reiterate the point I made in the opening, the world has become increasingly complex and simplistic notions and pabulums, which were tried for many decades, have failed. With these admonitions, we have no choices but to continue trying changing a world that is becoming more dangerous every year and shows not the slightest sign of reforming itself. Our success or failure will determine whether mankind attains a modicum of peace and stability or whether it continues to go down the dismal road to more conflict and chaos.
GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War? and The Age of War: the US Confronts the World and After Socialism. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is World in Crisis.