Bruce Thornton, So much for “the end of history.”
Nearly 30 years ago the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Communism, the last challenge to the Western paradigm of liberal democracy and free trade, disappeared, defeated by the same free-world alliance that had vanquished earlier totalitarian foes like fascism and Nazism. History understood not as events but as a tournament of conflicting socio-politico-economic orders had ended. A “new world order,” over a century in the making, finally had won.
That heady optimism was expressed by George H.W. Bush in his 1991 State of the Union address. The disintegration of the Soviet Union seemingly confirmed the triumph of democracy, free markets, and transnational institutions, or as Bush said, “a new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind––peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.”
The Nineties saw several developments that seemingly confirmed Bush’s optimism about the future: The swift defeat of the brutal dictator Saddam Hussein, and the ending of revanchist violence in the Balkans by multinational coalitions; the expansion of NATO to the borders of Russia; the creation of the European Union by the Maastricht Treaty, and the welcoming of communist China into the World Trade Organization. All were signs of history’s “end.” At the same time, the tech revolution was relentlessly shrinking the world further, facilitating global trade and global communication through the World Wide Web, more powerful computers, email, and social media.
Over the last three decades, however, three disruptions have challenged the assumptions of a Kantian “perpetual peace” based a “rules-based international order” that reflects a new “harmony of interests” among the world’s peoples. Each crisis has exposed the flawed assumptions behind the naïve optimism and arrogant over-confidence of those in the West who have promoted, built, and managed this paradigm.
9/11: Jihadist Terror
History returned with a vengeance on September 11, 2001. The smoking ruins of the World Trade center reminded us that another vision of socio-politico order, Islam––one that had occupied two-thirds of the old Roman Empire and serially raided and invaded a nascent Europe for a thousand years––was not done with history. The “war on terror,” including the Second Gulf War and the invasion of Afghanistan, both of which are still not finished, should have made us rethink our triumphalist assumptions about the inevitability of democracy and free-trade and peace and human rights.
And it should have chastened us for our arrogance and failure of imagination. Our continuing inability to create liberal democracies and human rights among peoples for whom such concepts are alien didn’t lead to a critical reassessment of the New World Order’s foundational assumptions. Indeed, President George W. Bush, in the 2002 National Security Strategy, defined the foreign policy of the United States as promoting a “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” Bush returned to these themes in his inaugural speech in January 2005––while the failure of remaking Iraq and Afghanistan was still obvious. He linked U.S. security and global peace to the “force of human freedom” and the expansion of democracy: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”
The terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the expensive, both in troops and resources, misguided wars abroad repudiated these utopian goals. We failed, and still fail, to acknowledge that Islam is a 14-centuries-old socio-political order contrary to the Western liberal “rules-based international order.” The New World Order’s banishment of religion to the realm of the private was exposed as a mistake, and its global identity revealed to be an artifact of Western elites that did not capture even their own peoples’ varied and distinct identities.
The election of Donald Trump for now has led to a retreat from policies that reflect this unwarranted and arrogant belief in transforming Muslim nations into Western liberal democracies. But the foreign policy establishment, evidenced in its hostility to Trump, still defends this bankrupt paradigm. They have continually criticized his weakening of the “rules-based international order,” especially his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his pressuring NATO members to live up to their pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defense, and his “America First” foreign policy principle and frank nationalism.
Despite Trump’s pushback and the pause in major terror attacks, Islamic jihadism remains a potent threat. And it threatens the New World Order, evidenced by Iran’s race to acquire nuclear weapons. Finally, it repudiates the fundamental assumptions of a common global identity and a “harmony of interests” underlying that order.
2007-9: The Great Recession
The Great Recession exposed the dangers of a globally integrated economic system. It began in a feckless government policy in the U.S. that relaxed standards for home mortgages, particularly interest rates, in order to increase minority home ownership. A real estate bubble followed, and Wall Street wolves took advantage by creating risky financial instruments for marketing these sketchy mortgages. When lending rates increased and the bubble burst, financial institutions were damaged, infecting the whole global economy. Unemployment in the U.S. reached over 10%, GM declared bankruptcy, banks disappeared, and consumer spending slowed. What followed with the election of Barack Obama was one of the slowest economic recoveries in history, and economists proclaimed growth of GDP would remain at 2% indefinitely.
In Europe, the sovereign debt crisis and bank failures revealed fault lines in the EU project. Its economic regulations and the single currency, managed by Brussels and its elite transnational technocrats, were exposed as incoherent: A single currency with various economic policies determined by distinct sovereign nations was always a recipe for disaster. Particularly in the Mediterranean South, interventions by the EU, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund were accompanied by demands for fiscal austerity that the Southern tier felt to be high-handed and arrogant.
Suddenly the “one Europe” version of the New World Order, in which national differences were subordinated to a transnational governing elite, was fissuring. National differences in cultures and mores were still important and acted as centrifugal forces, straining the bonds of the Union. For all the global elite’s denigration of nationalism, Germans are still Germans, and Italians are still Italians, with different historical memories, different attitudes toward work and leisure, and different expectations of what governments should do for its citizens.
These divisions have not healed, and indeed were widened by the 2015 crisis of migration from the war-torn Middle East of mostly young male Muslims, including large numbers of jihadist terrorists. The Schengen Zone of open travel among European states was now revealed to be dangerous, and many countries reinstated border controls. Terror attacks increased in frequency and lethality, and entry states like Italy and Greece resented having to bear the disorder resulting from migrants transiting through their countries to the welfare paradises of northern Europe. Eastern European members simply refused to accept the EU mandated quotas for migrants professing a faith that for a millennium had attacked, conquered, and occupied their territories.
The Great Recession uncovered deep flaws in the globally integrated economy, one of which is the dismissal of national identities and cultures. It seems that Joseph de Maistre was right: “Now, there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world. In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on . . . . But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.” There are no “citizens of the world,” nor is there a “global community” beyond the tiny globalist elite.
2020: The Coronavirus Pandemic
The fracturing of the EU has been worsened by the pandemic. The divide between the EU North and South has widened even further, as already strapped economies are nearing collapse, such as Italy’s, the fourth largest in the EU, with France not far behind. That calamity can be averted only by the successful northern economies that will pay up or see more countries abandon the EU as did Great Britain.
More significant is the dysfunctions in the West’s relationship with China. Like the formation of the EU, bringing China and its totalitarian communist regime into the World Trade Organization was a milestone in the expansion and consolidation of the New World Order. China’s role in the pandemic, particularly in obscuring the origins, scope, and infectability of the outbreak, and in attempting to blame it on the U.S., confirmed what more than 25 years of its bad behavior should have taught us: an illiberal, culturally different country ruled by ruthless autocrats cannot be trusted to abide by the terms of an institution based on principles and values it does not share.
Rather, those laws and conditions will be, as Jonathon Swift put it, “like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through.” Since it joined the WTO in the Nineties China has violated trade agreements, stolen intellectual and technical property, dumped products, manipulated its currency, and committed other violations to gain an economic advantage over its rivals, particularly the U.S. Worse yet, in our globalist delusions about the transformative powers of free trade, we have outsourced critical industries, such as computer chips and pharmaceuticals, to China, giving them potent leverage over us. The “rules-based international order” has merely afforded China the mechanisms and cover for undermining the economies of the West and increasing China’s global power.
Finally, the virus crisis has stripped the pretensions of the technocratic foundations of the New World Order, discrediting its progressive champions and their naïve faith in science as transcending professional interests, partisan biases, political ideologies, and nationalist loyalties. Real science and technology work well for understanding and manipulating the material world, but are less reliable when humans––defined by their passions and interests, their self-awareness, and their undetermined free will––become part of the equation. Then certainty and predictability become rare and transient, lying as they do beyond the “complexity horizon,” as mathematician John Allen Paulos calls it, “that limit or edge beyond which social laws, events, and regularities are so complex as to be unfathomable, seemingly random.”
The past few months have confirmed this assessment. The “experts” we have relied on to advise our leaders during the crisis have been inconsistent and sometimes incoherent in their prescriptions, vitiated as they are by incomplete data, flawed models, questionable assumptions, and political pressures. As a result, panic, hysteria, and political rent-seeking have flourished, leading to policies like quarantining the healthy, productive young and shutting down a thriving economy, throwing the country into a recession on its way to becoming a depression. As a result, lives have been needlessly lost and others will be ruined for years to come, while trillions of dollars have been added to budget deficits and the national debt.
Time to Decide
The Trump administration has made some critical moves towards realizing that goal of dismantling some of the New World Order, particularly in terms of China. But as the fierce, relentless domestic and international hatred of Trump shows, the global managerial elite will fight hard and dirty to protect its interests.
We will see in the coming months whether the crisis will make us all rethink our unexamined assumptions about technocratic globalism, the transnational institutions of the “rules-based international order,” the one-world delusions about bringing democracy and freedom to cultures inhospitable to the principles and virtues necessary for those goods, and the outsized authority and power we reflexively grant to government “experts” to solve all our problems, even those that lie beyond the ken of science, and depend on our own common sense, practical wisdom, morals, and virtues.
Or we will watch as our unalienable rights, national sovereignty, and freedom, already assaulted by government autocrats, are further eroded. The choice is ours.