Archive for category World Affairs
“Close the borders!” “I’m not going to travel anywhere!” “Kick any African out of the country!” These are statements of irrational fear of Ebola. The reality is that the US is probably going to contain the virus this time due to the intense and thorough efforts by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) . Ebola is not easily transmitted, the biggest threat currently is to care givers, especially those at the end of life.
Yet while a lot of the panic we see in the US is irrational fear, there is reason to fear the spread of Ebola, which could become a global pandemic. That rational fear is illustrative of the changing nature of global politics. Diseases like Ebola cannot be contained geographically if it reaches a certain tipping point. Due to globalization the threat is real and universal. China does a lot of business on the African continent, one could imagine it hitting that country. The world is connected.
So what is the proper response? First, the racist reaction of some needs to be rejected. The idea that this is an African or “black” disease is simply wrong. It’s a human disease, and no life is more valuable than another. Second, irrational fear must give way to rational fear. That is the fear that the disease could spin out of control in Africa, thereby dramatically increasing the likelihood of a global pandemic.
That rational fear gives us one logical course of action: the countries of the developed world, with wealth and technology, need to do all they can do to combat Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia before it spreads further. We need to recognize that their problem is our problem. Trying to isolate ourselves from them only increases the chances that we’ll ultimately suffer from a pandemic. Our best defense is to defeat the virus while it can still be contained. Rapidly, time is running out.
It strikes me that Ebola is a perfect example of how our thinking is not yet in sync with the reality of globalization. We still think in terms of sovereign states, independent, and able to protect ourselves from outside threats. We’ve not yet internalized the fact that we are so connected with the rest of the world that sovereignty exists more as a legal concept than practical reality. Instead of calling for a massive influx of aid and support for the fight against Ebola in Africa, we call to close the borders and stop travel. That’s short sighted and counter productive.
Yet it’s still that way on a plethora of issues. While neo-liberal orthodoxy keeps us from grasping protectionism in a down economy, on most issues we act like we have the power to go our own way as a country, regardless of what others want. That is an illusion.
China could in a day destroy our economy. China won’t, because the consequences for China could be catastrophic. However, they have the capacity to inflict economic harm at will if we do things that they find contrary to their interest. That’s just one example. Globalization has so linked the world economy that we’re all on the same boat, even if we imagine we’re captaining one boat in a vast fleet of individual ships.
Ebola perfectly illustrates the dangers of such anachronistic thinking. By fearing the disease and thinking we can protect ourselves, we call for things like travel bans, isolation, and an internal focus. We worry about it spreading here, and follow the small number of US cases with diligence, open to rumor and gossip.
What we should be doing is following the cases over in Africa, worried about the inability of those states to contain the virus. We should be clamoring for our government, the UN, and the governments of the industrialized world to do everything possible to contain Ebola now in those countries. The reality is that if Ebola continues to spread, it will mutate, perhaps become airborne, and ultimately be global. Nothing we can do will prevent it from hitting our shores if that happens.
We don’t really protect ourselves by focusing on what’s going on now in the US, our best protection is to be proactive in places where Ebola is rapidly spreading.
But we won’t, too many of us are locked in old style thinking. Meanwhile the clock is ticking on our chance to contain Ebola in West Africa, our best bet to avoid a global pandemic.
In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face. Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.
Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant. So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?
First he notes the nature of the changes taking place. The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure. He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions. The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system. This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions. Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.
And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily. In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit. Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny. Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.
Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states. For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system. He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.
I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete. Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead. After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world. It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world. The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.
Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order. Kissinger’s words:
To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?
For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. – Kissinger
This conclusion seems vague. It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization. Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics. One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work. The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail. The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression. This order could suffer a similar fate.
My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media. We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will. But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock. The world is in motion.
The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization. The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization. Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational. Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance. Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.
What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems. The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change. Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression. These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power. Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people. Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world. Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has spoken out about the challenges facing today’s world order. It’s worth reading. He notes that globalization and technology change are driving a break up of the old world order. Kissinger contends that that the global environment is fundamentally different than it was in his heyday, and that efforts to get back the old order are doomed to fail. New political structures and ideas are required. I’ll blog more about his ideas soon, today I want to write about Kissinger’s general world view.
Kissinger earned his Ph.D. studying Austrian Foreign Minister Klemens von Metternich, who was in that role from 1809-48, also serving as Chancellor from 1821-48. Kissinger’s academic work was rooted in studying the world between 1814 – 1914, when there seemed to be order and stability in Europe – and he took those principles to ones that should work anywhere, taking into account local idiosyncratic conditions.
In any system there will be competition for power. That’s because resources are scarce, humans seem driven to compete, and humans are greedy. In the international system, with no real rule of law or enforcement, is an anarchy. In anarchy, brute force is the main principle, it’s survival of the fittest, domination by the strongest.
Luckily states can create stability despite anarchy through diplomacy, maintaining a balance of power, having leaders that recognize war ultimately is not in the best interest of any state, and stopping any “revolutionary” power hoping to alter the status quo. If states can agree to respect each other’s right to exist, agree that war should be a last option, and share some common goals, diplomacy should be able to solve any problem.
It won’t – Kissinger and realists argue that it takes “statesmanship” or the ability of leaders to understand that maintaining the status quo is ultimately in the best interests of everyone, and who can negotiate effectively, and then be willing to strike early and strong against those who would upend the system (like a Hitler). Realists admire how this seemed to work for 100 years, with only a few minor skirmishes intervening.
But there are flaws in Kissinger’s world view. Perhaps the reason there was no major European war for so long is because the Europeans were conquering the planet, imposing their standards across the globe, destroying indigenous cultures and taking whatever resources they could get their grubby hands on. Once the world was almost completely colonized the Europeans quickly turned on each other.
Moreover, such a system relied on common shared cultural values. The diplomats and leaders all spoke French had more in common with each other than the average citizens in their home states. In an era of globalization, that’s not likely to be replicated.
Finally the focus on power and order inherently means ignoring those without power. Kissinger’s most brilliant and successful policy was detente (a French word meaning a relaxation in tension), a policy that probably made a peaceful end of the Cold War possible. But in that policy we can see the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.
Kissinger, a brilliant academic was snatched up by Nixon when he became President in 1969. He started out as Nixon’s National Security Advisor and quickly became more powerful than the Secretary of State, William Rogers. He gained Nixon’s trust and crafted policy – and when Rogers left in 1973, Kissinger took on the role of Secretary of State.
He was relatively young, very charming, spoke with a distinct German accent, Jewish, and something of a playboy. He was known to cavort with a number of attractive women – I still remember a Mad Magazine set of song parodies that included “I wonder whose Kissinger now?”
He had a problem: The US was bogged down in a pointless war in Vietnam. The Soviets had achieved nuclear parity and communism was at its peak – the disease and decay that were already slowly destroying its sustainability were hid behind the iron curtain and streams of propaganda.
Kissinger decided the US had to change the Soviet Union to a status quo power the US could deal with. This include high level summits allowing Kissinger, Nixon and Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev to meet and “practice statesmanship.” It included triangulation – opening to China. China and the USSR hated each other, so the US getting friendly with one pressured the other. It worked. It led Moscow to pressure Hanoi to end the Vietnam war so the US could extricate itself (“Peace with Honor” was Nixon’s slogan). And suddenly the Cold War didn’t seem quite as scary.
In exchange for recognizing the reality of Communist rule in East Europe, the Soviets allowed more trade, visits, and connections to the West. The agreed that systemic order was more important than the US-Soviet rivalry, and thus could be dealt with. Kissinger left office in January 1977.
But while detente was based on the notion the Soviets could be a status quo power, Kissinger knew there would be rivalries and conflicts. So he also worked out a mostly unwritten agreement that proxy wars in the Third World were allowable, and that neither side would allow a third world conflict to lead to nuclear war. Kissinger would say that yes, those wars could be bad, and sending arms and weapons to African or Asian proxies did mean there would be death and destruction. But given the nature of world affairs, it’s the lesser of two evils. It helps make sure the US and Soviets don’t blow each other up.
Detente’s success – the exchanges brought western ideas more quickly into the East bloc, the Soviets felt smug in their status as a recognized legitimate world power, and as the inevitable economic collapse began, there were enough links with the West to give Gorbachev time to make radical changes that could not be undone. Some people credit Reagan and Gorbachev with the peaceful end of the Cold War, but Nixon and Kissinger set the stage.
The failure? Proxy wars and disregard for the third world. Looking only at power politics rather than the broad array of global problems allowed many former colonies to decay into corrupt, brutal regimes. African states were very young in the sixties – a supportive US might have allowed a transition to viable political and economic systems. Instead the super powers simply used those states as powerless puppets in a geopolitical struggle.
In maintaining proxies, the US supported brutal dictators in world hot spots like the Mideast. This helped assure that dictators would be able to hold power, not allowing real opportunity to their people, and setting up the anger and frustration young Arabs experience today.
The problems today ranging from Ebola to ISIS to terrorism have their roots in that neglect of the third world. Kissinger’s policies were brilliant in dealing with short term geopolitical crises, but failed by creating conditions which would lead to problems that threaten the very nature of world order.
We talk about human rights as being extremely important. People like me who dislike war and militarism often support military action in defense of human rights. Everyone is appalled by ISIS atrocties. We look at the lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide as failure of the world to adhere to the “never again” promise on preventing genocide.
But what are human rights? How are they determined? Can we enforce them? In the West there has been a focus on political rights – free speech, liberty, freedom of association, etc. In the third world the counter argument is that political rights are meaningless if people are starving and have no place to live. They focus on economic rights, such as a right to food and shelter. Others say that there are rights associated with identity and community.
Enlightenment rationalism led to the hope that if only we could find a first principle and build from there, it would be clear how to understand the world and human ethics. Many in the West thus follow John Locke’s argument that there are natural rights to life, liberty and private property which we get by dint of being human. To be human, one must be alive. To be human one must be able to feed and shelter oneself. That requires both property and liberty to go out and get the material needed to live. This way of thinking, called liberalism, generally stops with those rights – those rights are seen as foundational, no other true rights exist.
That approach has a glaring weakness – namely, humans can live as human without private property. Indeed through most of human history there was no such thing as private property. As hunter gatherers we just took what we could get. Property rights arose with the creation of agriculture, but most often these were collective/community rights governed by custom and tradition. So clearly there is no objective need for private property.
More fundamental to the problem is that the notion of “rights” doesn’t exist in nature. In nature you can do whatever you choose to do, limited only by your capabilities and the consequences of your actions. Nothing more. Locke’s argument assumes that there is some right to exist as a human which leads to those other rights. But no such right exists in nature, it only exists as a human construct, a belief that life is valuable and therefore should be protected. We have that belief for our species, but put a hungry tiger in your house and I guarantee he won’t care about your “rights.”
Similarly, when we down a burger and fries, we haven’t thought about the right of the cattle to live – let alone live naturally without genetic manipulation and inhumane factory farm conditions. Our hunter gatherer instincts show as much regard for animal rights as the hungry tiger has for our rights. The notion of rights is a human creation, reflecting what we think ought to be followed based on our experience, empathy, and context. This concept has practical use (hence most societies have traditional rules against theft and murder, even if they don’t talk in terms of rights) and abstract (how should humans treat each other, what is the best social order?)
If the concept of rights is a human creation, then so is every notion of rights, whether Lockean liberal, social democratic or communitarian. This means we have the freedom to create the idea of human rights and to determine which rights we want to create, defend and hold dear. We don’t find rights in the ether, there is no “first principle” to give us objective rights; rather, we create both the notion of rights, and what rights we choose to recognize.
So we are free to come up with whatever notion of human rights we want, including things like a right to a paid vacation or a right to bear arms. However, no notion of rights will be viable if it isn’t held by a vast majority of society. And if different “isms,” philosophies and religions have different notions of rights, it will be (and has been) hard to construct a viable, effective form of human rights.
So maybe the key is to look into our hearts. What makes us cringe? What is something that almost everyone finds repulsive? What acts illicit disgust and anger across cultures, and among people of diverse philosophical perspectives? Those acts certainly include beheading, torture, rape, murder, theft and array of actions. This doesn’t come from a rational argument, but a sense of common empathetic sentiment. Hollywood films work world wide because the emotions of certain core circumstances transcend boundaries.
The United Nations has several human rights documents and treaties, though they remain aspirational rather than legally enforceable. That’s a start. As we see ISIS butcher innocents, children being used as pawns in war, women being kidnapped and used as slaves in the sex trade industry, and governments torturing enemies, it’s time to work harder to create and enforce a core standard of human rights.
The first step is to recognize we don’t have to ground our rights in nature, religion, or some external factor. We work together, look inside our hearts and minds, and determine what we humans want to recognize as basic rights. From there we can decide that we will work together to defend those rights, whether deep in Iraq or in a small town in Missouri.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit Kiev this coming weekend, her first visit to Ukraine since the crisis began. The Germans have been in an active dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for weeks, Last weekend German foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hosted a meeting with his French, Russian and Ukrainian counterparts to discuss how to end the crisis.
At this point, the Germans have successfully dissuaded Russia from expanding the conflict, even as the Ukrainian army clears pro-Russian separatists from the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kiev’s forces are rapidly defeating the separatists though fear of a Russian invasion is real. This is the first real test of German’s ability to take a leadership role in using soft power to try to diffuse a potentially devastating crisis.
Some might wonder why the US is acquiescing to European leadership here. Shouldn’t we be pressuring the Russians and asserting America’s role as leader of the western world? In a word, no. In fact, the title ‘leader of the western world’ is passe. While there is a European based civilization generally known as the “West,” it is a cultural construct. The West as a unified international force ceased to exist with the end of the Cold War. The world is no longer divided into neat blocs. Perhaps the point where this became crystal clear was in 2002-03 when France and Germany worked with Russia to stymie US efforts to get UN approval for the Iraq war.
More to the point, the US has little at stake in Ukraine. While politicians may wax poetically about stopping Putin, this isn’t the Cold War. Ukraine was part of the old USSR after all, we’re not about to risk all out nuclear war because of separatists in east Ukraine, or even a Russian invasion. In 2008 when Russia took South Ossetia, President Bush resisted calls to come to the aid of Georgia (South Ossetia was a Russian part of Georgia wanted to join Russian North Ossetia), even though Georgia actively supported the US in Iraq. We have no vested interest in the Russian near abroad; for Russia, it’s their primary focus.
Germany, on the other hand, has real interests. It gets natural gas from Russia, it’s promoting democracy and European stability, and it wants to make sure there isn’t another move to a Europe divided into blocs, even if this time it’s the Russian bloc and the EU bloc. While the US has little with which to pressure Russia, Germany is a main trade and investment partner of Russia, and the ambiguous relationship between the two countries goes way back. If Russia’s economy is to grow and modernize, it needs a close relationship with Germany.
The Germans understand that pressuring Putin with tough talk and threats is counter productive. The American penchant to pull no rhetorical punches in condemning Russian support for the separatists serves no useful purpose other than to create an emotional backlash in Russia – a backlash Putin wants to take advantage of. The Europeans prefer quiet pressure: the promise of closer economic ties as a carrot alongside the potential stick of increased sanctions.
Will it work? The odds are better than one might think. While Russia has the power to invade Ukraine and annex eastern portions, it’s not really in their interest. Those are poor parts of Ukraine which would be costly to administer, and the already vulnerable Russian economy would be hit by sharper western sanctions. If they hold back, Putin will have his nationalist bone fides questioned – something which could harm his popularity. But he’d likely expand economic ties with Europe, which Russia needs.
In all of this, it appears likely the EU is ready to accept that the Crimea is again part of Russia. That allows Putin to claim a victory even as he backs down, and historically the Crimea is more Russian than Ukrainian anyway. The longer this drags out without a Russian invasion, the better the odds that the crisis will end quietly rather than escalate to an all out Russian-Ukrainian war.
It’s really up to Putin – and no one is sure on what he’s basing his calculus. In any event, the leading role of Europe in negotiating and dealing with the crisis, with the US in the background, is an example of how the new multi-polar global polity operates. Europe thought they could deal with Yugoslavia’s breakup in the 1990s and failed. Now the challenge is clear – find a way out of the Ukrainian crisis without it devolving to war.
Most of us treat the story about the Ebola outbreak in Africa as a curiosity. This isn’t the first story about Ebola somewhere in Africa, but it always seems to get contained. However, the current Ebola outbreak has become more widespread than any time in the past; if it spreads in Nigeria, especially to the capital of Lagos where a case has been reported, it risks becoming the a world wide epidemic.
It started, like small past outbreaks have, in what seemed to be an isolated village, Guéckédou, Guinea. In December 2013 a two year old died of suspected Ebola, as did a few others. After that things seemed quiet until February of this year when the disease started spreading through Guinea. In March Doctors Without Borders warned that this was a dangerous epidemic and would be difficult to contain.
But Ebola in an African country is not unprecedented, so most people shrugged off the news. Then in May it spread to Sierra Leone, and later to Liberia.
A few facts: Ebola is spread through exchange of bodily fluids, which can include sweat and thus touch can transmit the disease. It kills over half of its victims, and this strain seems to have a death rate of near 70%. Once infected, there is no cure. There are treatments, but those usually involve basic patient care to increase the chances of survival. There is no vaccine, nor are there any potential vaccines or cures anywhere near any kind of human testing. Since the disease has been very limited in scope, drug companies haven’t had the profit motive to invest large amounts in preparing for a potential outbreak.
If it spreads, we’re in trouble.
There has been a case in Lagos, Nigeria, a city of over 20 million people. Not only is Lagos immense, but it is full of slums and dirty living conditions. If it spreads there, it could rage out of control. Lagos is also home to major transnational oil companies who operate in Nigeria. Ebola in a city won’t stay in the slums. There is a lot of international travel from Lagos, and it’s likely that an outbreak in Lagos would become global.
At this point, the response has been slow. Seen as an African disease, the West hasn’t taken it seriously, nor has it given African states affected the aid they need. Governments in the West haven’t funded research into cures or vaccines because it wasn’t seen as a major problem.
But it’s not too late. At this point, the virus is not out of control, even if this outbreak is larger and more dangerous than any time in the past. For once Ebola is in a position to become a global pandemic, and even if the chances are still relatively small, the time to act is now. Not only to prevent this outbreak from spiraling out of control, but to prepare for the future. This will happen again, and again, and each time the risk of a pandemic will grow. This needs to be a global priority.
The governments of the West need to give as much aid as possible to assist the effort on the ground in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria. The focus now can’t be primarily on potential cures or vaccines — there’s not enough time for that — but to treat, quarantine, and contain the virus where it is.
That means sending people and supplies – basic medical equipment, including gloves, sanitizing agents, sheets and material used to disinfect and create sanitary conditions. Good quarantine facilities will make it easier to contain the virus. People on the ground can make it easier to identify cases and get help to where it’s needed.
Yes, it’s dangerous. More health care workers have died in this outbreak than any other Ebola outbreak before – not only in absolute terms, but as a percentage of the health care workers. That is scary – and one can understand people in the West not wanting to go into a situation where even the top doctors have not been immune from infection. But we send troops into battle, and health care workers have proven themselves as brave as soldiers. They often have helping others as their main goal.
Still, if we want to send enough people to make a difference, they need to be well equipped and everything possible done to protect health care workers. This is real. The time to act is now – this is a real and present danger, and the warning signs are clear. Otherwise we risk that 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Ebola plague.
The war was just two weeks old. The Germans were convinced their Blitzkrieg tactic would work – they’d dispatch the French within six weeks, then turn to the Eastern Front and defeat Russia. They would acquire Lebensraum, literally “room to live.” It was General Erich Ludendorff’s belief that without colonial possessions, Germany could only acquire it’s “place in the sun” by conquering and settling the vast plains of Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
The French were enthusiastic about the war when it started, but by mid-August they realized that the German machine was organized and efficient. Their plan relied on the ‘French spirit’ overcoming the cold mechanistic Teutonic mentality. That didn’t work. French Commander Joseph Joffre had to re-organize the French plan – which was essentially to go on offense – to organize a defense. It would be nearly mid-September when it became clear the Germans had failed, and the Blitzkrieg turned to trench warfare, with the lines hardly moving in nearly four years.
In the US the European war was not seen as our problem. The largest ethnic group in America was (and still is – though by a much smaller margin) German. The idea that the US should take sides wasn’t popular. American President Woodrow Wilson, in fact, viewed it as a sign of American superiority that our Democratic system would remain at peace while power politics led the autocratic powers to a pointless war in Europe.
On this day, Americans were more pre-occupied with their own hemisphere – namely the opening of the Panama Canal, which would allow ship travel between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans without having to make the daunting journey around the tip of South America. The expanse of trade and ease of shipping promised a new economic era – not to mention that naval ships could now be moved far more quickly between the two oceans. But the US was content to let the Europeans fight their war.
World War I would shatter the Europe of old, harken the collapse of the British and French colonial Empires, replace the Russian Czar with Communism, redraw the maps and bring in a world to be built with the use of reason rather than custom. Royalty and nobility were replaced with ideology and raw power. Connection to the land, one’s role in the community, and church was replaced by consumerism, industrial assembly line work and materialism as a way of life.
This was true in the US as well as Europe. In the US in 1900 over 40% of the population was in farming, by 1990 that level dropped to 1.9%. The US census stopped counting farmers after that, the number ceased to be relevant.
But while it may be true that rational thought finally eclipsed irrational and often tyrannical tradition, the 20th Century did not usher in an era of liberation and prosperity. In the first half, humans using reason created ideologies – secular religions based on core assumptions and beliefs – and found it possible to rationalize all sorts of heinous acts, including war, often with the good intent of creating a truly democratic and just society. Mass consumption and economic change led to the Great Depression, environmental crises, and humans to be used as tools, whether in sweat shops, sex trade or as consumers to be used for their disposable income.
100 years ago the modern world finally pushed aside tradition and custom, and an era of radical change, new technology, and more deadly wars began. World War I would be the last war in which military deaths out numbered civilian ones.
A century ago today, people viewed the future with hope. Yet for over thirty years it would be defined by war and depression, and the US would not be immune. Now as we look forward to the next 100 years, a few lessons seem clear.
1) Ideological thinking is dangerous and obsolete. It led to the Second World War, defined the wasted resources and existential danger of the Cold War, and divides people along unnatural and often absurd lines. People who might otherwise be able to practically deal with problems see the world abstractly – including other people, nature, and community.
2) War, environmental degradation, a soulless consumerism and massive global corruption the planet at this point in time. Materially the West is very well off, but we’re a society riddled with alienation, depression, anxiety, obesity, lack of connection to nature (especially children) and a loss of meaning and community. In the third world corruption, abuse, war, sex trade, and poverty dominate, with communities/tradition ripped apart by global capitalism.
While the “West” has been in constant transition ever since knowledge trickled into Europe from the Islamic world and in the 13th Century the Church shifted from Augustinian other-worldliness to Thomist logic, one can see World War I as the destruction of the old order, and the creation of a new, modern, rational, ideological and very materialist era. It’s clear at this point that our way of conceptualizing and ordering reality isn’t working. This new era is under threat from economic collapse, environmental degradation and climate change, terrorism, energy shortages, and a host of problems. Humans are caught struggling to find meaning, and often doing so by following an ideology or doing anything to, as Erich Fromm put it, escape from freedom.
That has to change if we are to successfully navigate a future in a world that is changing at an even faster pace than it was a century ago. There are signs of hope – the EU has started a transition to a post-sovereign interdependent political structure. Social media is opening up new avenues of change, though that can be used for good, evil, or trivial. But we can’t go on like we did in the past.
100 years ago the European leaders were caught up in the “cult of the offensive,” believing the next war would be quick, decisive, and won by the country bold enough to start the conflict. They thought they could harness 20th Century technology to expand 19th Century political structures. Instead, the war destroyed the world they knew, and things would never be the same. Unless we expand our thinking, we could be headed for a similar fate.