Things fall apart
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
This week the New York Times ran a Thanksgiving Day op-ed on the consequences of the European settlement of North America on both human and animal populations. The article gently suggested that the Europeans had done at least as much harm as good, because the Indian tribes had taken better care of the landscape, both by using fire to thin out forests and by remaining in balance with animal populations like passenger pigeons. While I cannot evaluate that specific claim, the article struck me as a relatively low-key illustration of a current academic trend: the tendency to blame the world’s ills on the spread of western civilization. That position struck me, as it always does, as a vast oversimplification—but it also made me think once again about whether any civilization has really discovered a lasting defense against the war and hatred that periodically devastate humankind.
Thirty years ago, I wrote a book on Nazi expansionism, and discussed Hitler’s belief that history was, at bottom, nothing but a struggle for space among different peoples. Fifteen years ago, in Politics and War, I described all the major European nationality conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century, and had to conclude that Hitler had identified (and of course accelerated) a powerful and destructive current in European history. The passion for self-rule had broken up the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman and German Empires during the First World War, and led to both the deaths of more than ten million Jews, Poles, and Soviets at the hands of the Nazis and the forced transfer—or, as we would now say, the ethnic cleansing—of more than ten million Germans at the end of that war. In Asia the Japanese took millions of lives in their futile attempt to subjugate China, and after the end of the war the independence of India and Pakistan led to perhaps the largest recent exercise of ethnic cleansing of all. The establishment of the state of Israel had a similar impact on the Palestinian population, albeit on a far smaller scale. The formation of the United Nations and the attempt to codify international law and the rights of citizens—a project that had failed spectacularly during the interwar period—was of course a reaction to all these catastrophes.
Such conflicts, while relatively rare in Europe at least since the first half of the seventeenth century, had of course intermittently occurred for as long as history has been recorded. More importantly, there seems in fact to be little evidence that things were very different in other continents. The pre-Colombian population of North and South America was not made up of pacifists. Tribes seem to have been in a more or less constant state of war, and archeology has turned up whole civilizations, such as the Mound Builders of the Mississippi Valley, who somehow disappeared in the millennia before European contact. Human sacrifice and cannibalism were prevalent in Mexico. Africa and Asia, also, were the scene of frequent imperial conflicts and population movements. What has distinguished European civilization—which in the second half of the twentieth century became world civilization—was the attempt to regulate international conflict and establish agreed, universal principles of human rights. Any successes that such efforts have had, however, have been periodically interrupted by more or less catastrophic failures.
It was not until the mid-1990s, when I first read Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe, that I first began to understand how temporary the achievements of my own lifetime might be. The relatively long periods of peace that the Atlantic world has enjoyed in the last two centuries—1815-1854, 1871-1914, and 1945 until the present—were each made possible by wars—in two cases, by prolonged and extremely costly wars, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic conflicts in the 1792-1815 period and the two world wars in the twentieth century. They not only redrew the map, but either secured or enforced the allegiance of the peoples involved to the victorious authorities. In every case, however, their effects lasted only as long as the lives of the people who actually remembered those conflicts, even as children. The order they had lived under died with them, destroyed by generations who did not remember the previous conflicts and, paradoxically, felt no stake in the world in which they had grown up. And the life of any new social and political order, as Strauss and Howe argued with respect to the United States, tended to be about eighty years. It was 83 years ago that William Butler Yeats published the poem I quoted at the beginning of this essay.
The process they described as been playing itself out in Eastern Europe for about fifteen years. Three major states created by the First World War—Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union—have ceased to exist. Tens of thousands have died or been uprooted in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, and other parts of the former Soviet Union as a result. Another even more serious conflict now threatens in Ukraine, because Ukraine is really two nations, not one—a majority Ukrainian nation in its central and western regions, with a very large Russian enclave in the East. The new Russian government does not seem at all reconciled to the eclipse of its power and the Russian populations of other states are a temptation to further expansionism.
The same dynamic is at work in the Middle East. Although the region’s history is too varied and complex to make too many facile generalizations, some things are clear. The conflict that created Israel, which lasted from about 1919 until 1948, has been in a new and more intense phase for two decades, and fewer and fewer Palestinians or Israelis show any commitment to maintaining the settlement that was arrived at in 1948 and lasted until 1967. Sunni-dominated Iraq, a creation of the First World War, has been consigned to oblivion with a big push from the United States, although it was already cracking even before the invasion in 2003. This may create a civil war in Iraq, one in which Turkey is threatening to intervene to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state. In Egypt, Syria and Jordan, where independence in the 1940s and 1950s led to relatively secular military rule, the postwar elites seem to have lost the allegiance of a much more religious younger generation—a process that has already played itself out in Iran, which seems to have been on a somewhat earlier cycle. Further east, the India-Pakistani conflict has been exacerbated by increased religious nationalism and the acquisition of nuclear weapons on both sides. In Africa, collapsing post-independence states range from the Congo to the Ivory Coast—the latter, until quite recently, a major success story.
Here in the United States, the Bush administration, as I have already noted, has been abandoning the domestic and international principles that have governed policy since 1945—and in so doing it has accelerated the progress of international anarchy in the Middle East, confident that we can put something much better in its place Europe, where the last crisis had far more devastating effects and lasted about ten years longer, remains committed to international institutions and the peaceful resolution of disputes. But the low European birth rate has led to the immigration of large Muslim minorities whose allegiance is inevitably suspect, and we cannot yet say what political consequences this will have during the next thirty years. Europe seems likely to continue to diverge from the United States, however, as a new generation of European leaders takes over—one whose memories of the United States begin, not with the aftermath the Second World War and the formation of NATO, but with the war in Vietnam.
The last time the world fell apart, from 1931 through 1945, the United States entered the fray relatively late and had a decisive impact both in Europe and in Asia. We created a new order, however, only by expanding, wittingly or unwittingly, the reach of Communism as well. (Within twenty years we may even be nostalgic for Communism; it was a far more western ideology, and in many ways an easier one to deal with, than the movements that oppose western values today.) Now, as other, but as yet less important parts of the world disintegrate, we must keep in mind, I would argue, that our population is relatively much smaller than it was then, and that the spread of anarchy, so far, has not reached the areas we have traditionally and rightly identified as vital interests, such as Europe and Japan. As in 1930-45, we will have to accept limitations on our power to shape outcomes to our own liking. In one hundred years Islamic fundamentalism may appear rather like Communism does today—a powerful ideological current that began as a revolutionary movement, secured control of several states, and eventually changed as a result of its internal contradictions. It was not necessary, and probably not possible, to stamp out Communism in 1918, and it is probably neither necessary nor possible to eliminate our new enemy, either.
“Globalization” will not put an end to history either, any more than the collapse of Communism did. Globalization is a complex, recurring process—one that characterized the 1850s and the 1900s, as well as the 1990s—which creates winners and losers and sharpens clashes between states and civilizations. The autarkic economic policies of Japan and Germany in the 1930s were responses to its failures. Globalization emphasizes interests, and civic consensus can only be built around values—whether they are Lincoln’s, Roosevelt’s, or Osama Bin Laden’s. The world as we have known it is disintegrating. Our task is to preserve our own values, to try to keep western civilization intact and at peace within its own borders, and to limit the scope and destructiveness of changes which, in large measure, we will not be able to prevent.