‘Is the world slouching towards a grave systemic crisis?” asked the historian Philip Zelikow at the annual gathering of the Aspen Strategy Group earlier this month. Now that’s what I call a question! Zelikow is more than just a history professor (he teaches at Virginia University, so had a ringside seat for the odious antics of the neo-Nazis on its Charlottesville campus two weeks ago). He has also served Republican as well as Democratic presidents in the White House, State Department and Pentagon. As executive director of the 9/11 commission, he was effectively the author of that body’s report. His pessimism is that of a practitioner as well as a scholar.
Zelikow resists the temptation to engage in the kind of Trump-bashing that is more or less obligatory in Aspen, where liberal Manhattan goes each summer to breathe cool Colorado air. Aside from a dig at Donald Trump for his Warsaw speech in defence of western civilisation and a comparison between the president and a pinball (“So many bright lights, so noisy, so bounced about”), Zelikow’s critique is directed at all three of the post-9/11 administrations.
Instead of asking pragmatic questions — such as “Where can we do the most to tilt the balance towards an open and civilised world?” or “What states or regions or issues are pivotal?” — the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have all been lured by the threat of Islamic terrorism into “the broken ‘wilderness’ areas of the world . . . just the places that . . . are least likely to change the course of world history in any positive way”.
As Zelikow rightly notes — and as I tried to explain back in 2003 — this is the late Victorian imperial playbook. Indeed, whichever empire you choose, as far back as Alexander the Great’s, the path always seems to lead to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush.
It’s a hard habit to kick. Trump campaigned to disentangle America from a war he claimed he had opposed. Yet a year or so after he first used the phrase “America first” he finds himself reading from the same old Kipling-era script, increasing the US presence in Afghanistan, deploying special forces in Syria and Iraq and sacking admirals for naval collisions off Singapore.
At best, says Zelikow, this is playing defensively. It certainly doesn’t put points on the scoreboard. So what should America be doing? Zelikow advises policy makers to “start in whatever area you deem crucial, like Brazil or Mexico or Egypt or Turkey or Pakistan or Indonesia” and build a new world order on “local problem solving”. His role model is the post-Second World War programme of economic aid to western Europe named after General George Marshall.
Not very original, you may say — but Zelikow adds a twist. Why, he asks, did America decide to invest in western Europe in 1947 when it was China that was more imminently threatened with Communist revolution? Why did it choose Paris and Bonn over Jerusalem, turning down the option of establishing a peacekeeping force in Palestine? Betting the house on western Europe was, argues Zelikow, “the idealism of ‘what works’”. The resulting “catalytic episode” — Europe’s postwar economic miracle — vindicated Marshall and the American combination of capitalism and democracy.
Something similar happened after the 1970s when American and European capitalism seemed doomed by stagflation. Beginning with the election of Margaret Thatcher, the West successfully revamped itself. At the same time, after Mao’s death China opted for market-based economic reforms. Another catalytic episode was 1989-91: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War.
Good times. However, Zelikow’s point is that such catalytic episodes come only after “a deep system-wide crisis . . . when people all over the world no longer think the old order work[s]”. The bad news is that we are on the brink of just such a systemic crisis now, triggered by the impact of “the digital revolution and the rise of a networked world”, but also manifesting itself in the spread of Islamic extremism, the opioid epidemic in America and much else. The worse news is that American leadership is a pale shadow of what it was 70 years ago.
“Every one of America’s major adversaries now has the strategic initiative,” says Zelikow. “They — Russia, Iran, China — are currently better positioned to set the time, place and manner of engagement, including political engagement.” Once again drawing the parallel with Britain’s imperial decline, Zelikow fears an approaching “Suez moment”.
I agree with much of this but I would emphasise that the same lecture could have been given if Hillary Clinton had been elected president — she of the impending memoir that may as well be titled Sore Loser.
Regardless of who is the US president, the West no longer has the economic secret sauce it once possessed: the growth rate is a grinding 2%, the returns go to the top 0.1% and the public and private debt just keeps piling up. Central banks have kept the show on the road for nearly a decade with expedients such as quantitative easing and zero interest rates. The real fun will begin when they take away the medication.
Meanwhile, the networked world born in Silicon Valley was supposed to create a “global community” of netizens, just as the Reformation was supposed to create a priesthood of all believers. In both cases the result was polarisation and spiralling conflict. If the internet is the world’s town square, it increasingly resembles Tahrir Square in Cairo shortly before the military crackdown. Anyone who wants to take umbrage at anything shrieks “hate speech!” — the modern term for heresy.
Zelikow wishes Washington could quit presidential pinball, kick the imperialist habit and work constructively with countries such as Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan or Indonesia. Yet their governments are even less capable of dealing with these new problems than ours. All over the world, antiquated political institutions are in crisis. It will soon become clear that authoritarian regimes are in just as much trouble as the democracies.
So yes: the world probably is slouching towards a grave systemic crisis. That crisis is already manifesting itself in mass online hysteria, rampant cyber-warfare and accelerating nuclear proliferation. Nostalgia for Truman and disdain for Trump are understandable at such a time. But let’s not forget what happened three years after Marshall announced his scheme for European reconstruction. The same administration that gave us the Marshall Plan also gave us the Korean War.
If Trump’s slow-building showdown with Pyongyang proves to be his Suez moment, then Zelikow wins. Until then the history of the future shrouds itself in its customary mystery, mocking our attempts to predict it.