In 1990 I published my third book, Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler. It was, I see now, an analysis of the development of western civilization, viewed through the prism of eras of general war. Its four sections dealt with the periods 1559-1659, 1661-1715 (the era of Louis XIV), 1789-1815 (the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era), and 1914-45. It focused on what nations were fighting about, and whether they were successful in achieving it, which in turn led me to the nature of politics in each of these eras and how it led to, and affected, war.
When I began that book, the rise of the modern state had already been a major theme of European history for well over a century. The founder of modern history, the German Leopold von Ranke, had placed this topic at the center of his work. I concluded, however, after more than a year of working on the first period, that traditional interpretations had greatly exaggerated the speed at which anything approaching a modern state had developed in the European nations. The key players in both the national and international politics of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, I found, tended to be great aristocrats rather than monarchs, such as the Duke of Alba in Spain, the Guise, Montmorency and Bourbon families in France, the Dutch nobles who led the Dutch revolt, and German noblemen like Albert von Wallenstein, the great general of the Thirty Years War. They often commanded more resources than their monarchs, and their monarchs' attempts to compel their allegiance usually ended in disaster. They also acted independently on the international stage, frequently making alliances with foreign rulers against their own. They walked around with armed retainers, sometimes hired private assassins, and often raised armies of their own. Some of them organized religious parties--both Protestant and militant Catholic--but the interest of their families always seemed to be their primary motive. Because of their power and their monarchs' attempts to control it, every major European nation suffered through at least one long period of chaos during that tumultuous century. Louis XIV, who was one of the heroes of the book, managed to tame the aristocracy in the second half of the 17th century by bringing them to Versailles and making them fight his wars, instead of their own. He also subsidized his fellow monarchs, instead of their great aristocrats, and thus strengthened monarchy all over the continent. The result was a century of political, cultural and economic progress.
The Second World War, I concluded at the end of the book, brought this long era of international politics to an end. The European powers--led by Germany--engaged in the two world wars in a struggle to become world powers, comparable in size and strength to the United States or the USSR. They could not do so, and 1945 left Europe in the hands of those two victorious powers, divided into rival spheres of influence. That order was collapsing by the time the book appeared in 1990, but that had happened too late to discuss. Even more than ten years later, when I added an epilogue to a new second edition, I did not see where things are going.
Now that is clear. The critical development of the twenty-first century, I am convinced, is the growth of a new global aristocracy, reflecting our new economy. It is dominated by financial interests, energy magnates, and the leaders of the new technology in cyberspace. It is allied with, or dominates, many of the governments around the world--including those of Russia and the United States. (I really don't know what the situation is, in this respect, in China.) It is having major impacts on foreign policy and war. And it is relatively impervious to the workings of democracy, which it has learned, here in the US, to control.
It would take a long book and a lot of research to get a really clear and comprehensive picture of the new aristocracy's power, and I must confine myself to a few observations. The new aristocracy is even more international than the old one. Its members, whether from Russia, China, or the Middle East, are buying up high-end real estate in all the most desirable places in the globe--the places, like Paris, London, Vancouver, San Francisco, Boston and New York, became so desirable because their nations had strong political orders over the last few centuries. Great aristocrats own most of the world's leading professional sports teams. In the US, one family, the Kochs, have put together what is by far the most powerful private political network in US history. Other parts of the aristocracy exercise great influence on US foreign policy and have recently managed to torpedo the nuclear agreement with Iran. The new aristocracy has promoted, and benefits from, the new global economic order, and many of the agreements that have created and seek to expand that order now try to protect its enterprises from any government interference. As Thomas Piketty showed, the new aristocracy has managed to hide a very large portion of its enormous wealth from scrutiny.
Last, but hardly least, two allies of the new aristocracy are now the heads of the Russian and American states.
Whether Donald Trump actually counts as a member of aristocracy depends on the answer to the mystery of how much money he really has himself. Since I am quite skeptical about the extent of his fortune--like John LeCarre, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find that he really has nothing at all--I am more inclined to see him as a useful front for the new order, rather than a full-scale member. And what triggered this piece was a long article in yesterday's New York Times--one now doomed to be largely ignored amidst a new barrage of stories about the FBI investigations--about a certain Thomas Barrack, a Lebanese-American who has been a go-between between Donald Trump and various princes from the UAE and Saudi Arabia since the time of the Trump campaign.
The amazing Times story, written by David D. Kirkpatrick, is based on a journalistic coup. Some one gave the Times a long string of emails between Barrack, who heads his own financial firm, and the UAE Ambassador the the US. When in 2016 Barrack wanted to introduce candidate Trump, the Ambassador told him that many people in the Gulf region were very worried by Trump's evident hostility towards Muslims. Barrack reassured him that Trump had long-standing interests in the UAE and elsewhere. In subsequent weeks he managed to build relationships between Trump and the Saudis as well--and Barrack suggested that Paul Manafort be brought into the Trump campaign. After Trump won the election, Barrack exchanged emails with the UAE Ambassador talking about "a lot of things that we will have to do together. Together being the operative word." After the inauguration, Barrack also brought Jared Kushner together with the UAE Ambassador. He had previously bought up $70 million of Kushner's huge debt, growing out of his purchase of a New York skyscraper.
This was not the only channel between the Saudis and the leading Gulf states on the one hand and the Trump campaign on the other. An earlier Times story, co-written by Kirkpatrick, described how Eric Prince, once head of Blackwater--a private army similar to those of early 17th-century Europe--arranged an August 2006 meeting among Donald Trump, Jr.; an "Israeli specialist in social media manipulation," who offered to help the Trump campaign; and a Republican donor, George Nader, who explained that the Saudi and UAE monarchies wanted to help elect Trump. Since taking office, the Trump Administration has concerted numerous important actions with the Saudis, denouncing the Iran nuclear agreement, agreeing to the blockade of Qatar, and making a big new arms deal.
The media obsession with Trump's connections to Russia has obscured these and other Middle East associations,. which are at least as important. Meanwhile, Trump is in office thanks to American members of the new aristocracy, such as the hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, Breitbart's patron; David Pecker, the publisher of National Enquirer, who stopped some stories of Trump's affairs from appearing before the election; and Rupert Murdoch of Fox. The Koch brothers didn't back Trump's candidacy but they have quickly made peace with the Trump Administration and have been able to implement a great deal of their agenda with its help.
Within the United States, a tradition arose about 120 years ago of robust reporting leading to the redress of grievances and the improvement of public life. I and many others still find it hard to write about problems without sounding as if they can, and should, be fixed. There will be no easy fix for these problems, however, regardless of what happens to Trump and his Administration. They represent, I think, a fundamental historical shift, comparable in scope to the growth of the Enlightenment state from the 18th through the 20th centuries, which they are now undermining. We will be living in this world for a long time. It is better to begin by facing reality.