I shall defer any further comments on our election for at least a week, to see if present trends continue. So far, last week's analogy between Trump and Bryan is looking pretty good, at least with respect to how the election seems likely to turn out and what the long-term consequences might be. But the election of Hillary Clinton will leave us with enormous problems to solve--problems which our establishment, of which she is now the leading representative, has little grasp of. History is at a turning point, and the powers that be, it seems to me, are doing their best to ignore it.
Last month's attempted coup in Turkey and the Erdogan government's response represent a major world-historical event. Turkey's Fourth Turning, or crisis, was somewhat delayed. It was in the 1920s that Kemal Ataturk founded secular, modern Turkey, based on western dress and institutions. Turkey has been evolving in a much more religious direction for more than a decade, but without any dramatic break with the past. That break has now come. Whoever was actually behind the coup, the regime clearly used it as an excuse to execute a carefully planned and widespread purge, comparable to what Italy went through in the 1920s and Germany in the early 1930s, when only those who would accept Fascist or Nazi rule were allowed to remain in positions of responsibility. The Turkish government, meanwhile, has started a worldwide propaganda campaign to blame the coup on an exile living in America, whose extradition was quickly demanded in two separate op-ed pieces in the New York Times. Turkey is now au authoritarian state,. and a major player in the Sunni-Shi'ite civil war that is tearing the Middle East apart. Since its accession to the EU was being treated as a real possibility before the coup and the government's response, and since the United States still talks as if Turkey was our ally in the Middle East, this should be moving our leadership a chance to re-evaluate our whole policy--but there is no sign that this is happening. There are at least two very important conclusions that might be drawn.
To begin with, it is time for the US government to abandon the fantasy that it has any real allies in the Middle East. We still claim to want more allies against various forms of terrorism, led by ISIS; we want political change in Syria, including the end of the Assad regime as presently constituted; and in theory, we want peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But increasingly it seems that no major Middle Eastern actor shares these goals. The Sunnis and the Shi'ites are focused on defeating each other, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and above all in Syria. Turkey seems more concerned with the Assad regime than with ISIS, and perhaps more concerned with the Kurds, as well. Our other major ally, Israel, seems simply to welcome the increasing chaos among its Muslim neighbors, which leaves it in a stronger position. The weapons we send to various groups in Syria generally find their way into the wrong hands. Russia has now outplayed us there by seizing upon one of the truly possible courses of action: supporting the Assad regime. Having decided that it was too evil to continue, we have had no effective response.
Indeed, important elements within our leadership remain committed to the fantasy of popular upheaval leading to more democracy in the Middle East. This is the theme of an article in the current New York Review of Books (which unfortunately is available to subscribers only) by our UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, who wants us to do more to show that we are on the side of oppressed peoples and against their governments. She specifically calls on our diplomats not to spend so much time dealing with their host governments--always their primary function--but instead to engage with the people. "This should include building relationships not only with well-known
civil society organizations," she writes, "but also with groups like teachers’
associations, workers’ unions, and leaders in the business community—and
not only with the vocal majorities, but with the minorities who are
harder to find and hear. This kind of engagement demands a greater
investment in our diplomatic efforts at a time when many
governments—including the United States—are facing significant pressure
to scale back the resources they dedicate to investments overseas, and
to cloister diplomats in fortress-like embassies in the parts of the
world where such local connections are actually needed most. So leaders
must make the case to the public not only for why we cannot isolate
ourselves from these problems, but also why we must widen the scope of
our diplomatic engagement as a national security imperative." With large portions of the world sliding towards anarchy and suspicion of American motives higher than ever, this is a recipe for disaster, not least among the people whom Power wants to help.
Power, essentially, is clinging to the Hegelian vision that has seduced the US foreign policy elite since the fall of Communism, the idea that western values are now destined to triumph everywhere and that we can easily hasten the process. In fact, the events in Turkey are parallel to events almost 40 years ago in Iran, where another relatively secular, pro-western regime was overthrown by its people and replaced by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The prestige of western civilization reached its peak in the era of the two world wars and began to slip in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Its retreat is accelerating in much of the Muslim world. In my opinion, the regimes that we shall have to live with for the next few decades will have less in common with our values than the USSR did. If we can accept that, we can use the situation to reaffirm our own values, especially at home. If we remain in denial, we will do more harm than good, and our government's prestige will be further eroded.
Meanwhile, on a broader front, we are coping, in a new way, with the consequences of the nuclear age. While fears of nuclear terrorism--most probably in the form of a "dirty bomb"--are growing, nuclear weapons have kept the peace among the major powers now for 71 years. There is in my opinion an excellent chance that they will continue to do so. That, however, has made it unnecessary for the governments of the major powers to demand the kind of allegiance they received from their peoples during the first half of the twentieth century, or to make comparable claims on their nations' resources either for defense or for other public goods. I have often remarked that I will not be disappointed to depart the earth without seeing a conflict on the scale of the two world wars, but great power conflict had some beneficial long-term consequences, particularly in the victorious nations. The whole post-1945 emergence of the American suburban middle class was in many ways a direct payoff to the young men of America who had fought the Second World War, and to their families. Ordinary Americans are suffering today because the government feels no such obligation to them. We have, sadly, found no substitute for war to bind us together and exert a claim on our resources for the common good. All over the world, economic oligarchies control more and more of the economic surplus.
The Trump campaign, I am afraid, will leave any serious attempt to address our problems further away than ever, even if he is soundly defeated. Trump has made himself the issue, and the incessant focus on his latest outrageous remark leaves no room for any serious discussion of the issues we face. Clinton seems especially determined to run as the establishment candidate on foreign policy, and Trump will not provide any coherent alternatives. The establishment is clearly completely out of touch with the more than 40% of the electorate that will vote for him, and many Democrats will vote without great enthusiasm as well. Government will remain divided. Our real challenge--to revive our best traditions and make our government actually work--will remain, whatever the result.