More than two centuries ago in the north Atlantic world, a dream was born: a dream of a world ruled by law, whose principles would be drawn from human reason. Science would continue improving the quality of human life; industry would create new products; and governments, established with the consent of the governed, would promote progress under law. Logic, reason, and fundamental principles of equality would replace tradition, family, and inherited wealth as sources of authority. All citizens would enjoy equality under the law. During the 19th and early 20th centuries the idea also arose that nations, as well as individuals, would enjoy equal rights, and hopes grew that they might settle disputes among one another by legal means. Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt involved the United States in two world wars to make that happen, and Roosevelt enjoyed extraordinary, though hardly complete, success.
So striking were the achievements of western civilization, moreover, and so overwhelming was the power that they gave the western nations, that new leadership in the rest of the world converted almost en masse to western views. The Japanese after the Meiji Restoration of 1867, the Bolsheviks of 1917, the Turks of the late Ottoman Empire, the virtually stateless Jews of Eastern Europe, and, gradually, the colonized peoples of Asia and Africa all sought a state and a nation based upon some form of western principles. The First World War led to the founding of a series of new modern states in eastern Europe, and the Second led rapidly to the independence of former colonies all over the globe. The Second World War also left most of the world living in the sphere of influence of one or the other of the two superstates that had done most to win it, the United States and the Soviet Union.
It was not altogether accidental, it seems to me, that this era of the spread of western civilization was also, we can now see, the great era of the printed word. Books played the most important part in the spread of new ideas. Newspapers--which during the 20th century developed an ideal of objectivity--created a worldwide educated public. Public business revolved around speeches, laws, constitutions, and diplomatic correspondence. The news of the day is filled with evidence that all this is now ceasing to be true, that western civilization has certainly passed the peak of its influence in the world, and that we are sliding towards a new form of anarchy without any idea of where it might end.
Thus, here in the United States, the morning papers tell me that Speaker John Boehner has rejected any new immigration law this year. And that is no mere difference of opinion on what needs to be done. Boehner has effectively denounced the legitimacy of President Obama, claiming that his past behavior on a number of fronts suggests that he could not be trusted to enforce the terms of any compromise legislation on immigration. In fact, we are told, the Republicans, despite some fears about the future impact of the Hispanic vote, feel they can increase their majority in the House and win back the Senate this fall thanks to Obamacare's problems, and do not want to hurt their chances by giving the President any kind of victory. Such tactics are utterly alien to the Enlightenment model of government. They are reminiscent of how the Nazis and Communists brought down the Weimar Republic a little more than 80 years ago, as I have mentioned here more than once. They also are reminiscent of the Vietnamese Communist strategy of dau tranh, an attempt to make it impossible for government and society to function, which I explored at length here on May 19, 2012. The Republicans have made enormous progress in their struggle with the help of changes in media over the last thirty years. No single news broadcast commands the attention of more than a fraction of the public, and newspapers and magazines no longer shape opinion or create consensus. Tens of thousands of white male retirees, it seems, spend their whole day watching Fox News. The educated elite now divides between readers of the New York Times and readers of the Wall Street Journal, whose editorial pages agree on virtually nothing.
Meanwhile, the Russian government has apparently leaked the tape of a conversation between our Ambassador to Ukraine and the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. Russian intelligence presumably regards this as retaliation for the NSA's tapping of foreign leaders, but it is obviously an infringement of the confidentiality upon which government business often depends. Meanwhile, clearly the US and the Russian governments are jousting over influence in Ukraine. Valdimir Putin, who does not even claim, as his Soviet predecessors did, to stand for any universal principles, is trying to use energy supplies, intimidation, and the presence of ethnic Russians to continue rebuilding some form of the old Russian empire in the former Soviet Union. In contrast either to the old Communist regime or the Tsars, he does not dispose of overwhelming military force with which to do so, but that may mean merely that the struggle will be messier, more prolonged, and ultimately more destructive of all political authority--none of which will do the peoples of the region the slightest good.
In the Middle East, John Kerry, who seems even more of a relic of a past age than I am, is making a last effort to secure peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, based upon the 1949-67 borders of Israel. The Israeli government and the settlement movement are busily escalating their intimidation of West Bank Palestinians and their ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem. In one mildly sign, a new bill in Congress that would have imposed even tighter sanctions upon Iran to wreck any chance of a nuclear agreement, and would have commited the United States to support any military steps Israel took to stop Iran's development of nuclear weapons,.now appears to be stalled, and AIPAC has backed away from it. The failure of the deal with Iran would doom perhaps the last chance to avert a decades-long regional struggle between Shi'ites and Sunnis.
Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and even Stalin drew on a shared vision of a world ruled by law to win the Second World War. Even Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were animated by a vision of a stable world. We are in danger of slipping into a world of sectarian struggles, in which the traditional world leaders think only of their own advantage. Meanwhile, videos on youtube and short comments on twitter have replaced speeches and news stories as the forum for international conflict. The Republican-induced paralysis of our own democracy is a dreadful blow to democracy worldwide. And last but hardly least, the Republican position on immigration seeks in effect to institutionalize a situation in which millions of our workers have no legal status. Not since slavery has the United States experienced anything comparable. I cannot help but wonder whether the great achievements of western civilization are too far away to inspire enough of us anymore. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."