In one of those misbegotten historical analogies, it’s fashionable these days to talk about the parallels between our current scene with the world of 1914. Most historical comparisons are faulty, but often made by people who should know better.
Nothing, in this instance, could be further from the truth.
That we are coming up on the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War is not a good enough excuse for these misapprehensions. Whatever else the 1914 world was, it constituted at its head a collection of somewhat threadbare empires that shared the uneasy job of ruling the world from an industrialized, dominant Europe. They all, despite the deanship of the British Empire “on which the sun never sets”, shared enough equality to be fierce competitors. And therein lay the roots of the catastrophe of The Great War from which European [and therefore world] civilization has never completely recovered.
True, today there are regional conflicts blossoming [or continuing their traditional animosities] all over the globe. And there is the disconcerting arrival of a new boy on the block, China, which like Wilhelmine Germany often seems itching for a fight. And there is the constant possibility of outbreak of new conflicts, even one that might seduce all the major and [many if not most of] the minor powers. War is, after all, one of the traditional adventures of the human race and despite the optimists not likely to disappear.
But there is one cardinal difference between the end of the Belle Époque and the world of 2014: the U.S. for all its failings is still the overwhelmingly the single dominant geopolitical giant. Furthermore, with the defeat of fascism in World War II and communism in The Cold War, Washington won at least token lipservice for the supremacy of democratic political systems and market economics.
Look around the world and one sees, often unremarked because it is so accepted as the norm, the influence of this and other American “soft power” on every other country. It is, for example, the now requirement for a written constitution however lacking in the genius of that formidable U.S. document. Or whether it is the smaller seedy copying of American popular culture, the wretched loud, inane poverty-stricken rhythms that pass for music or a call for “a government shut down” in Thailand’s current near civil war, the U.S. sets the fashions.
There is an underlying and basic reason for this American omnipresence. For whether it is accepted by the world, or indeed by its own citizens, the American state’s claim to exceptionalism is not rooted in race, language, or even geography, but in ideology. It’s not a coda such as the totalitarians of the 20th century preached that could rouse populist sentiment for others’ subjugation and war. But it is a call for a new individual freedom which older societies have never known and now attempt to emulate. That difference of the Americans from earlier dominant states, perhaps more than anything else, sets 2014 apart from 1914 under any consideration of today’s concert of powers.
Indeed, there are two fundamental questions when examining what is going on in our world today:
- Is it that the current scene is that different than it has always been, except for the explosion of information [and disinformation] due to the digital revolution which constantly remolds our perceptions of reality?
- Even more germane, is the current American amateur and incompetent leadership simply aberrant, or has “the American century” [so beloved of Henry R Luce who set many of those U.S. patterns of communication and influence] ended like the empires before it, starting a steep and inevitable decline?
There are no easy answers to either of these questions.
For one thing, the revolutionary effects of digitalization of the economy are rolling out on a daily basis like waves from a tempest. Whether it is in communications or fundamental scientific research, the effects of the new breakthroughs are incredibly forceful. They are changing our society in so many ways we cannot possibly comprehend them at their first encounter. Yet human emotions, the raw material of political events – and conflict – are not that different however much forced into new channels of expression. The Balkan wars the world went through in the final decades of the last century had the same roots and expressed themselves not all that differently than they had when they became the trip wire for opening the century with World War I.
It’s our hypothesis here that wherever regional conflicts exist, they are markedly affected by the overall dominance of the U.S. and its intellectual as well as its power projections. That is not to say, of course, that these regional conflicts are – as the U.S.’ bitterest critics would pretend – the result of American action. Washington did not invent, for example, those excruciating tribal, ethnic, religious and political feuds which bloom perennially in the Middle East. They have, indeed, in many instances existed for more than a thousand years, some even much longer.
But it is to say that American strategy and policy toward that region, and other conflicted areas around the world, is an all important ingredient of the total mix. The fact, for example, that the U.S. has for more than a century [at times, ironically, with the help of the Japanese in an earlier alliance with the British] maintained freedom of the seas in the Western Pacific is as much a part of that regional heritage as any indigenous element.
It is all too apparent, then, that the current U.S. administration’s, and yes, manipulation of American resources around the globe, is critical to the maintenance of the balance of power and to peace and stability. Nor is it to say that there is a foolproof methodology in working out those stratagems. It was, after all, one of the most seasoned diplomats, Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson, who helped loose the Korean War by publicly excluding that peninsular when he defined the American “defense perimeter” in East Asia.
Just as the Soviet Union and North Korea in 1950 tried to move into what they saw as a vacuum, around the globe today chaos and aggressive forces are filling the void created by the Obama Administration’s attempted withdrawal of American power. Pres. Obama and Sec. Kerry may see themselves as master Machiavellians, “leading from behind” or organizing vast pacts for peace and stability with aggrandizing powers such as Iran. But they are in fact agreements not to agree.
I the real world, the exercise of authority, however skillful the diplomacy, must in the end be met with a concomitant commitment of resources, and alas! including military power. The Obama amateurism is self-evident when the Oval Office first commits the U.S. to a military thrust at the barbarous al-Assad regime in Syria, and then as Joe Alsop once said about a similar episode in Laos under Pres. John F. Kennedy, “marched up the hill with bands playing and flags waving, and then casually marched down again”. And thus the death warrant was written for the efforts to build a non-Communist South Vietnam.
It is no secret that the American electorate is tired of war, not with the common sense to see that enormous sacrifices in both Iraq and Afghanistan may have been for naught. And it would be foolish to minimize the difficulty of making a policy that calls for the backing of force in that domestic environment on the eve of new elections. [It’s called statesmanship!] Yet the Obama Administration has followed not led: in the Iraq withdrawal when it would not pursue diligently the necessary agreement for maintaining a continuing U.S. force to stabilize the democratic regime Washington was leaving behind. In foreign affairs as in most human activities, there is no “sure thing”, of course, and it may well be that had that been done, the present chaotic sectarian war would have exploded anyway. But it is certain that one of the reasons for the current chaos there is the lack of a forceful American policy.
It was all very well for Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, again with trumpets, to commit the U.S. to a “pivot” to Asia in the face of what is the publicly unacknowledged – for good and sufficient reason – the growing aggressiveness of a nascent China. Luckily the rapid integration of American and Japanese military power is moving ahead on autopilot despite the Obama Administration’s neglect of Tokyo’s first strong prime ministry in more than two decades. There is, of course, the little problem that the Obama Administration [or any U.S. executive] can not get out of the Mideast briarpatch to turn its full attention elsewhere. But increasingly aggressive rhetoric matched by a snowballing military force with all the borrowed and stolen American technology is bringing a “Chinese problem” into focus that cannot be denied despite the entreaties of American business always after its dollar. [Remember that U.S.-Japanese trade maximized on the eve of Pearl Harbor!]
It’s not likely we will know the answer to these colossal ambiguities for a very long time, maybe having to leave it to historians. And much depends on how much more damage Mr, Obama and Mr. Kerry can do in the three years of their administration yet to play out. But the world is watching the growing circus with increasingly trepidation.