In socio-political terms, in terms of global civilization, it is no longer clear that humanity is making progress. Yes, Chinese are accumulating more wealth–which is certainly better than Western opium wars, warlordism, or Maoist excesses–and a vision of clean energy is taking hold in Europe. Yet, on the whole, the forward march of mankind seems all too frequently to be turning into a hesitant one-step-forward-two-steps-back. If we are indeed reaching a tipping point threatening to deprive us of the hard-won progress of the bloody 20th century, now would be a good time to start facing up to reality.
The post-war era–yes, I am referring to WWII–is over; it is time to toss aside the forecasts that almost all of us have been carrying in our heads based on the outcome of WWI and the boom of the 50s (in terms both of economics and decolonization). It is even time to toss aside assumpti0ns based on the later evaporation of the Cold War and rise of global democracy. None of the straight-line projections regarding American power or the popularity of late 20th century Western values any longer merit being taken for granted.
The challenges are clear, albeit more often than not still being denied by ruling elites: global warming, sectarian conflict, great power addiction to “war is the answer;” environmental degradation; the alienation, desperation, and orgy of destruction of Muslim societies across the globe from Bangladesh to Brussels; the accelerating neo-capitalist/neo-colonialist war against not just former colonies but now Detroit, Wisconsin public workers, Greece, Puerto Rico, and indeed the whole U.S. middle class. But where are the visionary leaders, the reform movements?
America? The dominant trend in the U.S. today is a self-destructive class war by the rich to reverse the New Deal: a slow-rolling financial bulldozer wrecking the late 20th century Western values that Americans are now so fond of taking for granted as self-evident natural rights despite the obvious fact that Western values even in recent historical periods have also included Stalinism, fascism, racism, and colonialism. Making this self-destructive trend much worse is the replacement of strategic vision in foreign policy by a short-sighted but emotionally satisfying (and, not incidentally, profitable for the individuals driving that financial bulldozer) assumption that war is the answer, with the more subtle advocates of using the big hammer we possess simply because we possess the biggest such hammer arguing that the growing record of military failures only proves that the solution is simply to redesign the hammer (economic warfare, Stuxnet, drones, or regime change by the manipulation of terror gangs). Yes, Bernie’s movement may change this somber prognosis concerning the future of America, but right now that seems a bit of a long shot: the lessons of both the series of wars in Muslim societies and the Great Recession of 2008 have quite effectively been swept under the political rug by the ruling elite. In result, our thinking about the prognosis for the U.S. over the foreseeable future must focus less on the question of the degree to which the U.S. can continue to advance than on the question of how much further backwards the U.S. is going to slide in a political context of elite enrichment at the expense of the 99% both domestically and globally.
Europe? Recent history is supposed, in the West, to have centered on a U.S.-European partnership in which the momentary missteps of one would always be covered by the leadership of the other. The nastiness of German dismissal of Greek social needs, the absence of European vision regarding the Muslim world–particularly Europe’s morally challenged attitude toward Muslim refugees, and England’s stinging rejection of European unity–indicate that the world cannot rely on Europe to replace a declining America.
China? China, vastly impressing everyone with its dramatic march toward the level of a second-rate society with–already–world-class achievements in total economic size and even R&D, might just barely manage to reform its politics enough to surpass the governance of an increasingly corrupt U.S. Communist China with a better quality government than the U.S.? That should be a sufficiently shocking concept to awaken everyone on the Potomac…except that such concepts are not remotely entertained on the Potomac, the admirably cautious and low-key progress of China’s current positive-sum foreign policy based on quiet economic deals in all directions notwithstanding. Progress to date notwithstanding, the difficulty that China is having, even when at peace with the rest of the world, in coming to terms with breathtaking levels of pollution, aging of a population that will become increasingly desperate for health services and care for the old (N.B.: a problem even the rich U.S. has hardly begun to address), and the dangers of corruption in a country lacking a solid rule of law all suggest that China’s progress over the last two decades is likely to slow significantly.
The BRICs? Putin’s recent tactical brilliance may put Russia back on the world stage, but new Russian prominence is more the eager filling of a vacuum than a reassertion of superpower status. As for the rest of the powers at the edge of the stage, Erdogan–provoking ethnic conflict to undermine nascent Turkish democracy–is busy pushing Turkey backwards; India is overwhelmed with domestic social issues; Mexico is fighting a desperate drug war; Brazil, perhaps with the encouragement of Americans still dreaming of the Monroe Doctrine, is committing suicide in a sad determination to reject all the hope of social reform and a turn toward democracy represented by the vision of Lula. India needs to offer justice to its Muslims while the proponents of dictatorship are marshaling their forces in Turkey, Brazil, and Russia.
The Muslim World? While everyone in and looking at the Muslim world focuses on the mad struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran or the spreading sectarian conflict ripping apart Muslim societies–with the active encouragement of all manner of outsiders, the real threat to the Mideast is global warming. The Mideast does indeed, as the West believes, represent a huge danger for the West but that danger is less terror than an unmanageable flood of climate refugees as global warming increasingly makes life impossible due to heat, drought, the loss of water, and the collapse of agriculture. The Mideast may prove to be the canary in the mine regarding the question of whether or not the world can learn in time to deal with global warming. So far, it seems that the worse the climate gets, the more our actions will serve to exacerbate the peril.
Nowhere does there appear to be much focus on anything but short-term, zero-sum squabbles: the war of the rich against the middle class and culture wars in the U.S. or sectarian efforts to redivide an ever smaller pie in the Mideast. The world is confused, leaderless, and uninspired. Washington blew its historic opportunity to build a genuinely new relationship with post-Soviet Russia. The West watched, motionless, while progressives risked their lives during the now failed Arab Spring. One has the sense that Obama’s breakthrough with Iran will fail due to the inability of Washington to conceptualize a truly positive-sum implementation. No regime anywhere appears to understand the opportunity presented by the millions of Syrian refugees desperate for evidence that there is a place for them, somewhere on earth, to build a new, peaceful, secure society. Old assumptions are increasingly questionable, and it is more and more uncertain what, aside from a slow crawl backwards, exists to replace them.