When the Center Cannot Hold

May 24, 2015

Santa Fe

Looking out across the world today one is struck with the degree to which things are falling apart. Words to this effect were first penned by William Butler Yeats in 1919, and that was indeed a time of chaos. As Yeats predicted, the center did not hold, and thereafter monarchies, empires, and governments that had provided global stability collapsed and were slowly reconfigured.


Now again, the world order seems to be dissolving around us.  In recent elections in Britain, nationalists surged into dominance in Scotland, carrying with them the implied promise to raise again the issue of Scotland's secession. In 1603, England was for the first time ruled by a Scottish king, and in 1707 the two countries unified as the United Kingdom. Now, they threaten to come apart, disuniting the United Kingdom.  In addition, David Cameron the leader of the victorious Tories has promised a referendum on the question whether Great Britain should withdraw from the European Union. That debate will put the whole concept of the European Union on trial.


At the same time, conversations to alleviate Greece's debt crisis appear deadlocked.  If these negotiations are not successful, Greece, too, threatens to withdraw from the European Union and if they go the speculation is that Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and maybe even Italy, will reconsider the benefits of the austerity imposed upon them by northern Europeans.


Mediterranean Europeans have long survived and prospered with a good deal of personal government, including payoffs, bribes, and family networks that we call corruption but that they find natural and maybe even essential. They might rather stick to the old ways then bow to Angela Merkle’s austerity.  It is instructive that when, in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to cut out these personal deals, or personal government, and establish the rule of law in the Soviet Union he failed. Populations like his that had survived for generations on personal networks didn’t like to see those deals replaced by some abstract principle like the law. Vladimir Putin has, of course, completely reestablished personal government in Russia and the masses are not objecting very much because this is what they consider more natural and collegial than democracy.


Down on the eastern Mediterranean where democracy has never seemed natural, Syria has been in civil war for the last four years. Iraq is again torn apart by war, this time with the Islamic State, and has lost control over much of the territory for which the US fought.  Altogether the principle of a unified Syria, or a unified Iraq, which was to be established according to boundaries set by the European powers in Paris after World War I, does not hold for millions of Syrians or Iraqis. By attempting to impose a national principle, the Western powers have attempted to create an adhesive stronger than either tribal or religious principles and they have so far not succeeded.


In Africa, Libya and Somalia are failed states, completely unable to establish national governments.  In Yemen, Shias and Sunnis are also engaged in a disastrous civil war as their sponsors in Saudi Arabia and Iran pour gas on the flames, supplying arms to opposing factions, destroying civilization.


The civilian suffering that now runs from Libya to Somalia, to Syria, through Iraq, and down to Yemen, is incalculable. Hundreds and thousands of refugees seeking to escape are being turned away from Europe and Turkey as national principles and our own historic identities trump compassion. The West has no substitute for the national principle, but in these times of chaos, women and children, destitute and hungry, on their own, are left out by that principle.  Perhaps they hope for us to find a religious principle buried deep in our own traditions that might be more compelling than nationalism. But we have not yet found it.


In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has carved out the eastern industrial sector of the country crippling the government in Kiev and the likelihood is that the Ukraine that we have known in the post-Soviet period will not be reassembled. That is to say that the post-Soviet organization of states, having already been disrupted by the annexation of Crimea, is not holding firm and it too is dissolving.


The Obama administration is seeking to establish coherence among commercial nations through the development of a new Transpacific Partnership Agreement. This agreement would, in a limited way, establish a kind of rule of law between investors and states among 12 nations in the Pacific. The upside is that investors could count upon legal procedures to protect their investments in a wide geographic area. The coherent philosophy, the tie that binds, is the idea of free trade and allegiance to the free market. Unfortunately for Obama and his Republican supporters on this measure, a great many Democrats in Congress consider the new agreement to be extremely damaging to labor and environmental interests. The administration has not made public provisions with sufficient sufficient teeth to enforce protections for these interests, and therefore the president's coalition in the Congress is falling apart.


That is to say that in the world order today, one more potential unifying theme is under great duress, and this time the unrest coming from well-informed constituencies in our own country.


It is probably the case that throughout most of history nations or peoples were more apt to be in chaos than organized under widely unifying governments. After the decline of the Roman Empire, Europe fell into centuries characterized by contesting monarchies sweeping back and forth, gaining ground, losing ground, consolidating and destroying. Historically speaking, even in Europe, international chaos is not unusual.


For a time, and especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of this chaos was suppressed with the establishment of military empires. Across the globe, politics was dominated by the Chinese Empire, the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the French, English, and Dutch empires. All of these empires began, however, to unravel with the American revolution of 1776 at which time the British Empire lost its most promising colony. That unraveling was completed in the 20th century when the British, French, Dutch, and German empires began falling apart after the First and Second World Wars, and finally the Russian Empire fell apart in 1991.


Since that time, and with, first, the declining coherence established in the West during the Middle Ages by the Catholic Church, and, second, with the recognition of the limits of military supremacy as a method to establish civilization, neither militarism nor religion has provided the unifying principle that would hold nations or peoples together. Today those principles of unification have been greatly weakened in much of the world.


The European Union and the trade agreements have been attempts to create a rule of law that allowed economic supremacy, or at least economic conduct, to be the organizing principle of the world. For some 20 years now this has seemed to be working as a replacement for military empires and for the

dominance established by the religions. But now it is becoming apparent that a free-trade regime entailing protection for investors and those with the greatest amounts of money, has not resulted in stability for the masses, and this in turn is probably because it has not resulted in economic equality.


There is no such thing, and will never be any such thing, as complete economic equality. But inequality must exist within a range, and when the range is so great that majorities of different peoples find themselves helpless or hopeless, as is the case in much of southern Europe, Latin America, northern Africa, and even in the United States, then people begin to question the organizing principle. And in this case, the questions run to the flaws, inherently and structurally, in capitalism, especially when it is unregulated.


In the West we have existed since Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher under the promise that there is no other organizing theme except free enterprise and for 35 years we have been trying that. Now, however, writers from France to England to the United States are raising serious questions about whether the free market is a sufficient organizing principle, while governments throughout Europe, including especially Angela Merkel's government in Germany, continue to push austerity and therefore the free market as the essential solution. There is almost a clean division between right and left on this question and not much agreement about how to go forward. Thus the unifying theme of the post-Empire period, the post-Soviet period, and the post-free-trade period has not yet been articulated, nor described in passionate and inspiring terms by anyone.


Thus it is that from Scotland, to Greece, to Libya, to Ukraine, and even to the politics of Washington, the place to go from here, the mountain to climb as a community, the aspiration for all people that would replace the aspiration to go to heaven, or the aspiration to be all-powerful and number one, lies currently beyond our reach. And thus it is that whether the president is Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or one of the multitude of Republican contenders, none has yet been able to describe the future in terms as exciting as the nationalisms and militarisms of the past.


It would not be fair to blame any particular person, any particular political party, any presidents or religious leaders, for this lack of any ability to describe the next step in the evolution of civilization and of world politics. We are probably into unknown territory for which the leadership and the ideologies of the last thousand years do not yet prepare us. Let us, therefore, look out upon the chaos of today’s world not so much with condemnation as with awe and wonder as we watch for some new synthesis, some new building blocks that honor the human spirit, justice, and nonviolent means.


Never before in human history have we had the tools that we have today. We live in a new age of communication, the Internet, and knowledge of each other that is unparalleled in history. We also live in times when geneticists, quantum physicists, and environmentalists explain convincingly how we are inextricably bound together, irrespective of national or ethnic identities. The synthesis of these discoveries, combined with our new ability to let everyone in on the information, is already a fertile soil sufficient to provide the next leap in civilization. If, from the current chaos, arises a new more civilized synthesis than anything Karl Marx could ever conceive, or, for that matter, anything Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher could ever conceive, we will be onto something big.




This essay was first offered as an introduction to a radio conversation with William Stewart, former Foreign Service officer, correspondent and bureau chief for Time Magazine and now lecturer on world affairs. The full radio conversation exploring these topics in more detail, and including Stewart’s trenchant analysis, can be found here.