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Sunday, August 14, 2005

The World Crisis

The news of the last few months includes the following:

1. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza strip, a welcome acknowledgement of demographic and political realities--but one that has brought Israel within sight of civil war, sharpened Israel's civil-religious split, and could easily turn the Gaza strip into a Hamas-led mini-state of 1 million people, leaving the situation more fraught with confrontation than ever.

2. An amazing escalation of insurgent attacks upon American soldiers in Iraq that has killed four Americans a day every day this month, confirming that determined rebels have found effective tactics to counter absolute conventional military superiority.

3. Continued struggle over the future constitution of Iraq, leading to a story in today's Washington Post in which more than one senior Administration official explicitly gives up on the original goal of creating a democracy and acknowledges that Iraq will emerge as some kind of Islamic Republic. And although no one actually says so, the story also makes clear that the lives of Iraqis after we leave will be worse off in nearly every respect than they were under Saddam Hussein.

4. The emergence of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela as a Latin American leader of some stature, within a much broader political swing to the left in South America.

5. An emerging crisis of Russian-Polish relations occasioned by attacks on a Russian in Warsaw and several Poles in Moscow, but exacerbated by anti-foreign rhetoric in the Russian press.

6. A continued anti-government offensive in the United States, led by Grover Norquist, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, who in the last 20 years has build an extraordinarily powerful network of contributors, lobbyists, and activist groups that is trying permanently to shrink the size of the federal, state and local governments of the United States, with no regard whatever for the consequences. Despite Norquist's own potential legal problems, highlighted by the indictment of his ally Jack Abramoff, this is clearly, along with the religious conservative movement, the most vital political movement in the United States.

7. The split in the A.F.L.-C.I.O, as service unions finally abandon the old craft/industrial leadership as inadequate to the task labor now faces.

8. The rejection of the European constitution by French and Dutch voters.

All these developments, I would suggest, tend very strongly to confirm the thesis first developed in an American context by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which I have been intermittently echoing here for more than a year. The thesis is, in the end, quite simple. Even though we can from the vantage point of the early twentieth century discern a long-run trend in history towards equality, democracy, and free-market capitalism since at least the eighteenth century, there is nothing inevitable about that trend, and it has not, in any case, been uniform. Social and political consensus grows out of periodic crises that occur every eighty years or so, and last only as long as the generations that lived through the crises. For the last fifteen years or so American public life has been ruled by a fantasy: the fantasy that the end of the Cold War would accelerate, rather than doom, a trend towards democracy, capitalism, and secularism. Instead, the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was created in the 1920s, before the last great crisis in Western Europe and the United States) was a preview of what was going to happen within two decades in Europe, America, and the former colonial regions that had remained under their influence, to varying degrees, since the end of the Second World War. That process is now increasingly advanced and the United States is showing no idea how to respond to it.

We are most immediately concerned with what is happening in the Middle East, and this, too, fits into the pattern which I have outlined. Eighty years ago western influence (and even western rule) was replacing Ottoman rule in Palestine, Syria (including Lebanon), Iraq, Egypt (where that process had begun in the 1880s), and around the Persian Gulf. In addition, after the Balfour Declaration, the Arab-Zionist struggle for the control of Palestine began in earnest, climaxing after twenty years of struggle in the independence of Israel in 1948. During the second half of the twentieth century various Muslim nations experimented with different kinds of western rule, ranging from western-style democracy, as in Lebanon, to western-style totalitarianism, as in Ba'athist Syria and Iraq. Except in wholly traditional Saudi Arabia, the influence of religion fell. It has now revived, to the extent that senior American officials have had to acknowledge (in today's Post that Iraq will not emerge from occupation as a democracy, but as some kind of Islamic Republic. Clearly the example of secular modern Turkey, which the Bush Administration apparently regarded as the model for a new Iraq, is not about to gain more adherents; indeed, it is far from clear that it will survive within Turkey itself.

It seems to me that the time has come to face a most uncomfortable fact: that the same process, a growth in the influence of religion as opposed to secular civic virtue, is also taking place in two apparent bastions of western thought, the United States and Israel. The United States of 1960, in which a Catholic presidential candidate had to secure his legitimacy by promising that his religion would have no influence on any decision he made, has given way to a nation in which religious groups demand that their values prevail within elementary school classrooms. Objections to judicial nominees who might be influenced by their religious views are denounced as anti-religious discrimination. Religion is also more influential in India than it was in the wake of independence, and Hindu nationalism has emerged as a rather frightening movement in South Asia, especially in close, nuclear-armed proximity to Pakistani fundamentalism. Religion has also gained within Russia, though hardly to the same extent, as far as I can see, as in India, Israel, the Arab world or the United States.

The great exceptions to this trend, so far, are Christian Europe and its direct descendant, Latin America. In Paris last June, I asked a very old friend of mine, a European who grew up in the United States, why there is no religious revival in Europe. She replied that the holocaust had doomed religion in Europe. That may be; in any event, the horror of the Second World War showed Europe the dangers of any excessive religious or ideological enthusiasm, and Europe's leaders have not forgotten it. The defeat of the EU constitution, however, suggests that the attempt to create a purely rational, bureaucratic, legalistic, almost bloodless set of institutions to rule Europe in this new century has gone as far as it can go. Within ten years Europe will be ruled by men and women who do not remember even the aftermath of the Second World War, and they, too, may lead the continent in new directions.

Meanwhile, we must once again confront another discouraging fact: that the progress of western history has been secured only at the cost of real cataclysms every eighty years or so, and we may face another one again. The bucolic, Republican United States of the first half of the nineteenth century gave way to the civil war. The economic boom of the 1920s gave us the depression, violent labor strife, the collapse of the world economy, and the Second World War. In each case, only the crisis itself, whether secession, depression, or the march of totalitarianism, forced us to organize, mobilize, and sacrifice, and lay the foundation for a relatively secure world. The world of the 1950s was of all these perhaps the most secure, but since the late 1960s the children of that world have been busily dismantling it in one sphere after another. That has now left us with a $300 billion federal deficit, an unprecedented trade deficit and domestic debt, state governments pressed to cut even more in an era of crumbling infrastructure and declining education, and a citizenry with no agreement on the most basic issues of national life. Meanwhile, the fate of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq suggests that our military power--expressed mainly in the form of sophisticated weaponry--is not very relevant to the changes the world is going through.

Meanwhile, I have been fulfilling a long-held ambition, to read more--eventually, perhaps, all--of the classic multi-volume work by Francis Parkman, another New England historian, on the struggle between the French and the English in North America from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth. The story of their conflicts from the 1680s onward, where I decided to begin, is chilling. Both sides, with Indian allies, carried on guerrilla warfare with as much ferocity as one can find today in Iraq. Their wars were a series of raids, kidnappings and massacres, held in check only by the relatively small numbers of people involved. The book, in short, is yet another reminder of what human beings are capable of, and of how precious the gift of a relatively secure environment really is. It took centuries to create one within the United States, and the process, as always, involved a great deal of injustice, violence and suffering. It has been renewed, as we have seen, at 80 year intervals ever since. In our present political environment it is hard to see how we will come out of this crisis stronger; but the younger generation who will build a new America is still filled with energy and optimism, and one might easily have been wrong in 1857 or 1929, as well.