New worlds emerging
Let me begin with an excerpt from the Bush Administration's infamous National Security Strategy of 2002, which summarized the history of the preceding 100 years as follows:
"The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages."
This confident paragraph probably owed a good deal to Francis Fukuyama's The End Of History and the Last Man, a well-known book written in the wake of the collapse of Communism. As Keith Windshuttle pointed out in his neglected classic, The Killing of History, Fukuyama had revived Hegel, who believed that a "world spirit" was directing history towards a goal. Hegel's pupil Karl Marx adapted this teleology and simply redefined the goal towards which history was progressing. He turned out to be wrong, but we can now see that Hegel did not turn out to be right.
Here is how I might redraft that paragraph, above.
"During the twentieth century, a number of ideologies competed for power and influence around the globe, drawing upon various versions of the more or less scientific principles of the Enlightenment that began in Europe in the seventeenth century and swept all before it in the eighteenth and nineteenth. While Fascism in Germany, Communism in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, and social democracy or American liberal capitalism obviously differed in fundamental ways, all sought to impose some structure on industrial society and all claimed to represent the best interests of the greater part of society as they defined it. By the middle of the twentieth century these various versions of Enlightenment truth were so widely believed that almost no regime was left anywhere in the world that rejected them. From Egypt to India and Pakistan to Turkey and the emerging nations of Africa, nearly every regime aspired to create some sort of modern state, establish a rule of law, and work to benefit its people."
To which I would now add:
"The collapse of Communism--following by 45 years the defeat of Fascism--did not as it turn out signal the triumph of liberal capitalism as practiced in the West. Instead, it seems to have been the first chapter in a long story of the decline of Enlightenment values--a decline which is increasingly visible in much of the non-western world, but which threatens some of the western world as well."
Let us be specific.
The collapse of Communism marked the end of the Cold War international order, in which US and Soviet troops occupied virtually all of the industrialized world (at least until the emergence of Chinese industrial power) and Washington and Moscow sponsored and subsidized regimes all over the globe. That order featured long and destructive proxy wars and civil conflicts, but it also allowed the superpowers to keep a lot of the globe relatively quiet, and borders, throughout that era, remained stable. The crisis in the Ukraine--not the first conflict, but surely the most serious--to break out in the former USSR--is potentially extremely serious, and grows out of a Russian attempt to reshape the post-1991 order in those territories, just as the Communists managed to do so in the early 1920s, when Ukraine and much of the Caucasus had previously been independent. As Timothy Snyder, one of the more serious scholars of his generation, shows in an article in the current New York Review of Books, Vladimir Putin is trying to form a new "Eurasian Union" as a counterweight to the European Union, based upon a rejection of liberal, democratic, secular western values. He is among other things using homophobia to do so. The new western tolerance of homosexuality, it seems to me, is the latest triumph of the Enlightenment spirit. Yes, one hundred years ago, the new discipline of psychology, led by Sigmund Freud, "scientifically" discovered that homosexuality was a stage we all passed through, in which some people unfortunately became stuck. In the last few decades, however, the evidence that homosexuality is a very powerful predilection for millions of men and women, whether biologically or emotionally acquired, has become overwhelming, and western nations are rapidly moving to treat homosexuals and their relationships just like everyone else. Even in the United States homophobia has been a potent political force, although it seems to be in retreat. It is far stronger in Russia, apparently, and in parts of Africa and in the Islamic world. More important, however, is Putin's general repudiation of western ideas of democracy and free speech in favor of a Russian tradition of authoritarianism, the tradition that has so impressed so many students of Russia for centuries, and for which the collapse of Communism has not turned out to be a cure. Putin is now using his ideological mix to try at the very least to split off the Crimea from Ukraine, and there is no telling where his ambitions, or those of a successor, might lead. In any case, democracy has not taken root in most of the territories of the former Soviet Union, and things did not go well in Ukraine even when the opposition was in power.
Exhibit B of the decline of western civilization is to me at least as frightening. It comes from a remarkable article about contemporary Turkey published in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago--which unfortunately is available to subscribers only. Written by a Turkish-American scholar named Elif Batuman, who has been living in Turkey, it deals ostensibly with a wildly popular Turkish miniseries, The Magnificent Century, a kind of Upstairs, Downstairs set in the palace and harem of the 16th-century Ottoman sultan Sulemein the Magnificent. This is such a brilliant idea dramatically that I'm amazed no one has imitated it in the West. The courts of Louis XVI, Charles II of Britain, or even Francis Joseph of Austria Hungary (which lasted for more than 65 years!) would provide at least as much excitement, sex, and intrigue. But what is both fascinating and disturbing is the pride in their Ottoman heritage that the series has awakened. In the 1920s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a new Turkey, which renounced the Ottoman Empire--which as late as 1914 had ruled most of what we now called the Middle East--in favor of a relatively homogeneous state based upon western values. The creation of the state was very cruel, involving the murder of at least hundreds of thousands of Armenians and the ethnic cleansing, by treaty, of a huge number of Greeks, but the Kemalist state was extraordinarily modern, featuring the emancipation of women and the separation of church and state. Like most other political regimes, the Kemalist state lasted about eighty years, and remarkably is passing from the scene without widespread violence. But the new Erdogan government is in many ways frightening. Not only has it done a great deal to rehabilitate the Islamic traditions that Ataturk discarded, but it has also begun talking about spreading Turkish influence into all the areas from which it retreated as a result of the First World War, including the Middle East and even North Africa. Turkey aims apparently to be a major player in the increasingly chaotic region to the South, siding with the Sunnis against the Shi'ites. There is no telling where this might lead.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Obama Administration intermittently tries to keep remnants of the New Deal tradition alive, but without doing anything serious to deal with globalization and its consequences. The Republicans, who are dedicated now to undoing the work of the past century, have been able to stop any moves in that direction since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, whose future may well be decided in the coming Congressional elections. It is certainly possible that the Republicans could regain control of the Senate this November, and in my opinion it is quite possible that they could defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016, with truly enormous consequences. Meanwhile, the political culture of western Europe, while still faithful to the best twentieth-century traditions, is hardly robust. The values of the Enlightenment have included an emphasis on higher education, and the complete emancipation of women. As a result, those committed to those values consistently show low birth rates. That is probably the single greatest threat to Enlightenment values as an organizing principle of society during the coming decades--including here in the United States.
The collapse of Communism marked the beginning of new struggles more than the end of old ones. They are radically different from those of the twentieth century precisely because we now live in an age of weaker national loyalties and weaker states. They are political more than military, marked more by terrorism than by big battles. They may kill many fewer people, but they will also have far less inspiring results.