- Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Wall Street Journal
- Principal Columnist on Foreign Affairs
- Regular panelist on Fox News’ Journal Editorial Report
THE COMING GLOBAL DISORDER
by Bret Stephens
[The following is an excerpt from the longer article]
It is January 20, 2013, and Barack Obama has been inaugurated for a second term, following a convulsive post-election period.
The drama began on election night. Obama’s decisive 324–214 electoral-vote margin belied doubts about the integrity of the vote. Mitt Romney won the overall popular vote by racking up wide margins in the states he carried. But Obama won with razor-thin margins in Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin. The president claimed victory late that night, after Romney decided the country would be ill-served by a succession of brutally fought recounts.
On Wednesday, November 7, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 1,600 points, forcing an automatic shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange. By the end of the month, the Dow had lost 30 percent of its value. The Federal Reserve had little to offer: Its third round of quantitative easing had done nothing to stimulate the economy. Hiring freezes became the order of the day. The unemployment rate moved above 9 percent. Unchecked federal spending and a weaker economy also appeared to guarantee a debt-to-GDP ratio well above the 100 percent mark. The economic shockwaves—instantly dubbed the Second Great Recession—were felt throughout the world, but especially in countries with export-dependent economies: Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China.
Not all the news was bad. The president nominated Erskine Bowles as treasury secretary, the pick of a deficit hawk reassuring markets. Budget sequestration was avoided thanks to an 11th-hour deal to extend Bush-era tax rates, though again only for another two years. After running a soak-the-rich campaign, the reelected Obama seemed to lose interest in raising rates. Indeed it was unclear what, if anything, Obama intended to do with a second term except preside over the implementation of his Affordable Care Act, which became a certainty when the outcome of Senate races split the chamber 50–50, with Joe Biden as tie-breaker.
Abroad, Obama’s reelection was greeted with undisguised dismay in Israel, which only deepened when incoming Secretary of State John Kerry called for renewed talks with Iran. (Kerry’s appointment made it possible for Massachusetts’s governor, Deval Patrick, to appoint Elizabeth Warren, narrowly defeated in her contest to unseat incumbent senator Scott Brown, to serve in the Senate after all.)
Elsewhere, Obama’s reelection seemed to confirm an impression that the United States had entered a long and perhaps irreversible period of decline. The impression was especially pronounced in Tehran, Moscow, and Beijing. In Islamabad and Kabul, expectations of a complete American exit from Afghanistan went from probability to certainty. Reports circulated of secret meetings between the head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency and Iran’s defense minister to divvy up Afghanistan into Iranian and Pakistani spheres of influence. The news prompted more than one observer to recall the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939.
Obama had won the reelection he coveted. Yet just a few thousand people came out to hear him deliver his second inaugural address, despite the unseasonably warm weather. Four years earlier, more than one million people had braved arctic weather and filled the Washington mall to hear their new president speak.
_____________Even with this scenario, good reasons remain to be confident in America, at least in the long term. Things could always turn out better. Half the value (and all the fun) of offering forecasts for the very-near future is to see how they check out.
Walter Russell Mead has observed that the United States continues to hold most of the good geopolitical cards—it’s just forgotten how to play them. Those cards include North America’s fracking revolution in oil and natural gas, which over time will mitigate (though not eliminate) the geopolitical risks in the energy markets and create new opportunities for domestic manufacturing and industry.
They include America’s continuing appeal to hearts and minds in much of the world, including the East Asian periphery that China is so keen to bring within its sphere.
They include the inherent weakness of all America’s principal geopolitical competitors, not only Iran and China but also Russia and the European Union.
They include the natural resilience of the U.S. economy and the continuing innovative nature of our people, whose products others may imitate but whose soul, as it were, remains distinctively American.
They include a political culture that, thanks to our federalist structure, is immensely varied and experiment-minded.
They include popular attitudes toward politics that are individualistic to the core and disdain conformity and taboo.
Put another way, the prospect that we may soon live in a much more disordered world does not necessarily put the United States on a path toward terminal decline. Modern Europe emerged as a world power in the 16th and 17th centuries, a period of interminable religious wars that decimated much of the Continent. The United States emerged as a superpower in the early 20th century during another long period of global disorder that exacted its toll on us. We can emerge that way again.
To do so, however, it’s essential to be mindful of what soon may be coming our way. I have mostly treated the prospective travails of Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East as separate and self-contained issues. They are not. As the late Wall Street Journal editor Robert Bartley was fond of saying, there is only one economy—the world economy. That’s something American conservatives especially should bear in mind before taking a told-you-so satisfaction in Europe’s sinking economic state. Social democracy will look good if what succeeds it is either a more hard-edged socialism or a more soft-edged fascism. Both political strains are, distressingly, alive and on the upswing throughout Europe today.
Then, too, politics in one region affect politics in another in unpredictable ways. Chess has always been a problematic metaphor for the way in which great powers plot their course in the world; the reality is somewhat closer to a game of billiards, played by a cast of incompetents and pretenders. Where will the cue ball carom next? How will the disorders of one region knock into the disorders of another?
Since 1945, American power has been the principal guarantor of world order. This was never a perfect world order, and it certainly was never anything approaching a perfectly peaceful one. But the United States did provide a variety of what one might call umbrella services for the rest of the world.
Under those umbrellas, trade flourished, free societies took root and grew, aggressors were usually held at bay if not always defeated, and a relatively stable and predictable pattern of global conduct emerged. It was a civilized world that could afford to cultivate its anxieties about nuclear winters, global warming, and carcinogens in our coffee.
On November 9, 1989, the pattern was disturbed—to most everyone’s joy and relief—by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It was an event that, much as it seemed predestined in retrospect, took nearly everyone by surprise. Twelve years later, the pattern was disturbed again—this time to near universal horror—by the events of 9/11.
Again this was not, in hindsight, a bolt from the blue (hadn’t Islamic terrorists nearly succeeded in doing as much during the first attack in 1993?), but it seemed that way. Predictability attenuates our capacity for surprise, in global and daily affairs alike. Yet as Paul Berman once observed, maintaining the capacity for surprise is among the most essential attributes of political wisdom.
It would be banal to say that conditions are present today that could lead to another world-historical “surprise” on the scale of 9/11. Such conditions are always out there, waiting to be made sense of in light of some culminating event. What differs today is that a series of distinctive trend lines, having developed over long periods, all are coming to a head almost at once. What differs also is that they are coming to a head when American power has abruptly gone into an eclipse. Like a perfect storm, bad weather and bad luck are striking at the same time.
Perhaps the storm metaphor is inapt, however: It calls to mind too many trite expressions such as “batten down the hatches” and “run to higher ground.” It is a recommendation for isolationism and protectionism. It is the opposite of what the world needs today, which is the unequivocal reassertion of U.S. determination and power—evidence that Americans, at least, do not consider themselves a nation in retreat.
The crucible is Iran.
It may take a decade or more before Europe sorts itself out. In the Arab world, the process is likely to last at least a generation. China’s internal politics will mostly operate at their own pace, though the United States can do more to encourage Chinese economic development—not least by refusing to pick needless trade fights—while forcefully obstructing Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
As for the United States, the prospective Europeanization of the economy through Obama-Care, which is a recipe for 1.5 percent trend growth and skyrocketing debt for as long as the eye can see, must be reversed.
Iran, however, is a clear and present danger to the stability of the Middle East and the security of the United States. It presents Western policymakers with a clear, binary choice: Avoid a confrontation now because it will likely entail unforeseen and unpleasant consequences, or accept a nuclear Iran soon, which will entail easily foreseeable and utterly disastrous consequences. It says something about the quality of statesmanship and public discourse in the West today that the choice should be presented as a difficult one and that the decision—at least as of this writing—should be so much in doubt.
_____________As she opened her famous survey of U.S. foreign policy in the November 1979 issue of COMMENTARY, Jeane Kirkpatrick looked out to a world in which a pro-American dictator in Iran had fallen to religious fanatics, another pro-American dictator in Nicaragua had fallen to Communist guerrillas, Soviet influence was on the rise in Africa, central Asia, and the Caribbean, and the U.S. military had become a shell of its former self. “The U.S. has never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends in the Third World,” wrote the woman who would soon be Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the UN in the article that got her the job, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.”
The Berlin Wall fell exactly a decade later. With the perspective of time, this does not make Kirkpatrick’s analysis seem misguided or overblown: It merely underscores how much the West and its allies were able to achieve in the space of a few years. The same possibilities are with us today, whatever the apparent trend lines.
Pace Marx, and pace the declinists of our own era, history makes nothing inevitable, and nothing is forever, either. This essay has tried to show why there are good reasons to fear we may be entering a long and damaging period of global disorder. A democracy that is as great as America’s may yet summon the leadership to chart our way through it.