Woody Island is a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea, not quite a square mile in size. Over the past 80 years it has been occupied by French Indochina, Imperial Japan, the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China, South Vietnam, and, after a brief war in 1974, the People’s Republic again. Now known as Yongxing to the Chinese (or Phu Lam to the Vietnamese, who still lay claim to it), the island has an airstrip, a harbor, and a few hundred Chinese residents, none native-born, many of whom make their living as fishermen.
An obscure tropical island may seem an odd starting point for an essay on the coming global disorder. Yet great conflicts have been known to flare over little things in faraway places. “On the morning of July 1, [1911,] without more ado, it was announced that His Imperial Majesty the German Emperor had sent his gunboat the Panther to Agadir to maintain and protect German interests,” wrote Winston Churchill in his history of the First World War. The proximate causes of the German foray to this deserted Moroccan bay “were complicated and intrinsically extremely unimportant.” But the real purpose of the kaiser’s move was to test—and, he hoped, to break—Britain’s alliance with France and, perhaps, scope out the possibility of establishing a German naval base in the north Atlantic. “All the alarm bells throughout Europe,” Churchill recalled, “began immediately to quiver.”
Could another Agadir crisis be lurking in the South China Sea? On July 24, 2012, Beijing decreed that henceforth the little village of Sansha on Woody Island would be considered a “prefecture-level city,” complete with a mayor, a people’s congress, a military garrison—and claims to administer the 770,000 square miles of surrounding waters, an area larger than the Gulf of Mexico. Beijing’s coup was protested loudly by Vietnam and more quietly by the U.S. State Department, which fretted that the move ran “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences” in the South China Sea. In response, Beijing called a U.S. embassy official to the carpet and demanded that the United States “shut up.”
China’s leaders are fond of advertising their country’s “peaceful rise,” and the pro-China chorus in the West has sought to engage Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. Yet in the last three years alone, Beijing has provoked quasi-military confrontations over disputed waters with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and even the United States, all the while insisting that it has “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the whole of the sea. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries,” explained Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi at a regional summit in 2010. “And that is just a fact.”
What is also a fact is that the South China Sea sits on estimated oil reserves of 213 billion barrels and equally massive reserves of natural gas. Fully one-third of the world’s overall volume of trade passes across the sea every year. Each of the sea’s other claimants has reasons to accommodate Beijing even as they resent its bullying habits. China, it is sometimes noted, sees the sea not just as an economic resource and an extension of its sovereign domain, but as the natural basin for a 21st-century version of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, this time under Beijing’s sway.
The United States also has core national interests at stake in the South China Sea. America has long stood for freedom of navigation and flatly rejects China’s territorial claims to the waters. A 1951 mutual defense treaty binds the United States to Manila, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act binds the United States to Taipei, and a 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement formalizes a defense relationship with Singapore. U.S. military ties to Hanoi have strengthened dramatically in recent years. Thousands of U.S. service members are permanently based in nearby Okinawa, Guam, and, as of this April, northern Australia. As part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the United States plans to deploy more than 60 percent of its naval power to the Pacific by the end of the decade.
This would suggest that there is a limit to what the People’s Republic can hope to achieve in the South China Sea. In what seems like a textbook illustration of the balance of power, Beijing’s aggressiveness has alerted its neighbors to the common threat and drawn them closer to Washington. Perhaps all that would be required to head off future Chinese encroachments is an unequivocal message from Washington that the United States will not tolerate them. During the Agadir crisis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George famously warned the Germans: “If Britain is treated badly where her interests are vitally affected…then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.”
That declaration did not, of course, prevent the ultimate outbreak of war. But it did help end the immediate crisis, reassure France that Britain would be at her side, and move statesmen like Churchill, soon to be at the Admiralty, to prepare for what was coming. Today it is hard to imagine the Obama administration speaking in a similar vein, which all but guarantees fresh provocations by Beijing in the months and years ahead.
Alarm bells should be quivering after what happened on Woody Island on July 24.
The frightening thing is that they are not.
How does global order come undone? How do the arrangements and understandings through which war is generally avoided, commerce generally protected, and the cause of civilization generally advanced, cease to function?
Historically, there is no single template. Appeasement was much to blame for 1939, but in 1914 Britain and France were nearly as ready for war as Germany. The two decades preceding the Second World War were economically bleak, particularly in Europe: Depression bred disorder, and vice versa. Yet the two decades before the First World War were exceptionally prosperous, with per capita GDP rising by about 20 percent in the UK, 30 percent in Germany, and 50 percent in France. The crises that led up to the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 represented a failure not only in, but of, the balance of power. What failed in the 1920s and ’30s was collective security, in concept and in practice. The kaiser and his generals anticipated a short, decisive, brilliant campaign in 1914; it is hard to imagine that even the most hardened Prussian militarists would have wished for the cataclysm they wound up provoking. By contrast, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Tojo summoned the whirlwind with their eyes wide open. Germany’s ambition in 1914 was to redraw the borders of Europe and its colonial possessions. Germany’s ambition in 1939 was to remake the face of man.
Still, a few common threads emerge. Revisionist regimes—states that want to overturn the established global order—will spy an opening through which they believe they can improve their international position, and jump. Those openings can be made possible by the inattention of the would-be keepers of global order, or by their wishful thinking, or by their lack of means to protect what they are supposed to protect and suppress what they are supposed to suppress. Global order can collapse when its keepers cease to believe they have the political obligation or the moral right to enforce that order against its challengers. Global order also collapses as a result of simple miscalculation: A regime assumes its opponents are fools who can easily be had; a government realizes too late that it cannot negotiate its way to peace.
Whatever the precise cause, global order has come undone in the past and may soon come apart again. The undoing will be preceded by a number of seemingly unconnected events and trends whose significance and direction become clear only in the wake of some spectacular event. What might some of those events and trends be today? And what might some of the spectacular events look like in the not-so-distant future?
FIVE HARD LANDINGS
It is March 2014. A surprise diplomatic overture by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the late fall of 2012 forestalled what many believed was an inevitable Israeli military strike by opening all Iran’s nuclear sites to international inspection and suspending the production of uranium enriched to a 20 percent level, which is near-bomb grade. The move was sufficient to convince the weight of international opinion that diplomacy could be given more time to work. Suspicions remained, however, that Iran had merely off-shored its uranium-enrichment program to North Korea, whose state-of-the-art facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was disclosed at the end of 2010.
In the late spring of 2013, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard. His death brought about the collapse of the regime, and then a period of reprisals against his political supporters and Alawite kinsmen. Assad’s death also further isolated Iran’s leaders, internationally as well as domestically. For the Iranian presidential election in June 2013, the regime—fearing a reprise of the aborted revolution of 2009—was careful to permit only those candidates whose anti-reformist credentials were unimpeachable.
It didn’t work. The combination of a transparently rigged election with the example of Assad’s fall sparked a series of massive anti-regime protests throughout the country that were met, but not suppressed, by bullets. Within weeks, the regime found itself facing the same slow-burning fuse that had ultimately toppled Assad. It feared its days were numbered.
Yet the regime had (or so it thought) an ace card: a small, secret arsenal of relatively compact nuclear warheads, fitted to ballistic missiles. What should be done with them? Merely declaring the possession of the weapons might not be believed, or it might invite military action by the United States or Israel, thereby accelerating the regime’s downfall. Keeping them a secret, on the other hand, would risk squandering an asset and potentially gifting them to their domestic enemies in the event the regime toppled.
As mass demonstrations turned into civil war, with army units defecting to the side of the opposition and waging increasingly successful battles with the loyal Revolutionary Guards Corps, the question of what, if anything, to do with the weapons became urgent. What about using them against Israel?
The temptation had always been present, but it was curbed by the fear of retaliation. But now the logic of such a strike—a jihadist Hail Mary—started to become persuasive. Assume Israel struck back with its own nuclear weapons: Whom would it be killing, except millions of Iranians also struggling to topple the regime? And assume the regime, at its dying breath, managed at least to fulfill its core ambition to destroy the Jewish state: Would it not be a worthy capstone for the Islamic Republic? Suicide is a sin, but this would be an act of martyrdom on a world-historical scale.
Such were the thoughts dominating the minds of Iran’s embattled leaders in March 2014.
I write this on September 1, 2012—one low, dishonest decade since the world first learned of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programs from an Iranian opposition group. The dishonesty cuts both ways. The International Atomic Energy Association has just issued another report that leaves little room for doubt that Iran continues to enrich uranium to ever higher levels of purity while seeking to cover its nuclear tracks. The report also notes that Iran’s efforts to master the technologies of nuclear weaponization persisted well after 2003, putting paid to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that had claimed the contrary.
There has been abundant deceit—self-deceit—on the other side as well. Among those self-deceptions: that the intelligence on Iran had been “hyped” by a warmongering Bush administration. That Iran’s nuclear intentions were unknowable. That Iran was using its nuclear card not to build weapons but to seek a grand bargain through which it could normalize relations with the West. That punishing sanctions would swiftly bring the Iranians to heel. That the targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists could, in tandem with a cyberwarfare campaign, achieve decisive results without the risks of air strikes.
But perhaps the greatest of self-deceptions has been the view that Iran is a rational actor that would inevitably turn out to be a “responsible” nuclear power. This argument always suffered from many defects, among them the defect of assuming that rationality is understood the same way in Tehran as it is in Washington. But no less a problem with the argument is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime as its premise. Iran’s leaders may not be “suicidal,” but that depends on the length of their time horizons. A regime that is planning for the long haul will probably want to husband its resources. But what if Iran’s leaders believe their regime doesn’t have long to go?
What makes matters worse—not in an imagined scenario but in the world as we find it today—is the confusion of signals between Iran and its adversaries. The West has repeatedly set red lines and Tehran has repeatedly transgressed them without consequence. Israel at this writing continues to threaten action even as its ability to act with decisive effect is increasingly in doubt. The United States, both during the Bush and Obama administrations, has repeatedly signaled its profound ambivalence about Iran’s nuclear bids, insisting they are “unacceptable” while indicating that we are unwilling to pay much of a price to prevent them by any means necessary.
The result is a case study for how global disorder emerges. None of the key players—Iran, the United States, or Israel—is quite sure of how the other will act (or react). The United States and Israel aren’t even sure of how they will act. U.S. policymakers seem to believe that a nuclear Iran would be terrible, but no more terrible than a pre-emptive attack. Israeli military and intelligence planners oppose a unilateral strike and are in near public revolt against their more hawkish civilian masters. Iran understands it has an opportunity to tiptoe across the nuclear threshold. On the other side of that threshold it sees a brighter horizon for itself: greater regime security, the unique prestige that comes from defying the West and winning, enhanced regional influence, and, above all, the opportunity to further revise an “arrogant” global order it believes it was created to replace.
It is October 2013, and Greece is out of the eurozone. Now who will be next?
Greece’s exit wasn’t exactly voluntary: Most Greeks had little appetite to exchange their euros for a new-old drachma they knew would soon be worthless. But neither were the Greeks seriously prepared to fire thousands of civil servants and privatize state-owned assets to meet the terms demanded by their international paymasters. Faced with an election, German chancellor Angela Merkel decided she could not make the political case for throwing more money down a bottomless Greek hole. And perhaps Greece’s exit would scare some of the next-in-lines—Portugal, Italy, Spain, and, yes, France—into some reform-minded sobriety. Or so she hoped.
Merkel’s show of spine did not, however, save her from a narrow defeat at the hands of a Social Democrat–Green coalition. Not that the change of government seemed to make much of a difference toward resolving the crisis, which European policymakers had failed to understand from the beginning. It was not a currency crisis. Nor was it a debt crisis. Yet the result of their misdiagnosis was to create both a debt and currency crisis. By the summer of 2013, every country in the European Union, with the exceptions of Estonia, Bulgaria, and Poland, was deep in recession.
Social unrest was soon to follow. Destitute Greeks began flooding into other European countries, somehow supposing that countries with 12 percent unemployment rates would have more opportunities than countries with 30 percent unemployment. With Greece already out of the euro-zone, calls mounted to kick it out of the European Union altogether. Neo-fascist parties such as France’s National Front and Austria’s Freedom Party were predictably vocal on the issue and scored well in municipal and parliamentary elections.
Europe’s Muslim minority was also badly affected. Muslim neighborhoods in Brussels, Berlin, Manchester, and Marseilles saw their murder rates rise sharply; jihadist cells became more widespread and better hidden. Criminal syndicates—many of them Russian, some linked to Russian intelligence—also gained leverage as more Europeans were driven into the gray- and black-market economies. In Italy, the size of the country’s gray-black market doubled to nearly 50 percent of the economy, further depressing tax revenue. Governments responded by yet again raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, which also accelerated the trend toward tax evasion and avoidance.
Europe’s crisis had consequences beyond its own borders, too. European defense spending, already at rock-bottom levels, was gutted even further, leaving an already tottering NATO effectively defunct. The Russian government exploited opportunities to exert its leverage over peripheral EU members such as Romania and Cyprus. Ankara, breathing a loud sigh of relief that its previous bids to join the EU had been rejected, returned to its “neo-Ottoman” project of creating de facto satraps in northern Iraq, western Syria, and even pockets of neighboring Bulgaria and Greece.
But perhaps the most lasting consequence was ideological. With Europe as Exhibit A, leaders from Cairo to Tehran to Singapore to Beijing argued the case that liberal democracy was not, after all, the standard-bearer of political modernity, much less the logical endpoint of civilization. There could be a better way, one that did not put material considerations above spiritual ones, or individual interests above communal needs.
Reviewing this dire forecast, a skeptic might argue that it will all come out right in the end. As the late economist Herbert Stein once observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” European leaders may stumble along, but at some point the wisdom will be found to put things right. Britain, after all, finally got around to electing Thatcher. Why can’t we expect similar leadership to emerge in Italy, France, and Spain?
Four reasons, mainly. The first is institutional. The politics of Europe are now hopelessly split between national institutions that have democratic legitimacy but lack the necessary scope and pan-European institutions that have the scope but lack the legitimacy. The result is the kind of split-the-difference, consensus-based, and often undemocratic decision-making that has prolonged and deepened the crisis.
This has raised some hopes among ardent Europeanists that the crisis will ultimately force EU member states to cede more of their authority to central management in Brussels. They shouldn’t count on it. Political leaders don’t easily part with their executive prerogatives. Nor will many ordinary Europeans be eager to have their budgets—meaning their pensions and welfare checks—dictated by remote bureaucrats and minor parliamentarians living in Belgium. Indeed, nothing would more quickly spell the collapse of the European Union itself than that kind of supra-democratic power grab.
Next there is demography. It’s true that demography isn’t destiny—quite. But it’s close. A recent report from the European Commission notes that by 2060 the EU’s overall population will increase by about 15 million people, but the number of working-age Europeans will, over the same period, decline by 15 million. The percentage of people over the age of 65 will nearly double, to 30 percent from 17 percent today.
“The decline in the workforce will act as a drag on growth and per capita income, with a consequent trend decline in potential growth,” the commission reports. “The latter is estimated to converge to below 1.5 percent in real terms in the long-term in the EU” (emphasis added). Translated into American, the Commission anticipates that Europe will have Obama-era levels of growth for the next half-century.
The third factor is the poverty of ideas, at least good ones. It is hard to overstate the extent to which classical free-market concepts have been demonized in Europe. Efforts to reform entitlements or labor-market restrictions—the real source of Europe’s economic woes—are almost invariably portrayed as immoral assaults on “social solidarity.” The notion that cutting marginal income-tax rates can spur dramatic economic growth is considered passé at best, if not vaguely sinister.
This has had profound effects on the quality of economic management throughout the euro crisis, beginning with Greece. Greece had a solvency problem that was treated as a liquidity problem. This led to the creation of huge bailout mechanisms for Europe, which explicitly violated the “no-bailouts” clause that is a central pillar in the single currency’s legal and economic architecture. The very term “euro crisis” gave rise to the notion that the solution to the problem was monetary and could come from a central bank. Yet what mainly ails European economies isn’t that they need looser credit: Britain, for instance, has had four straight years of rock-bottom interest rates without any economic growth to speak of. The problem with European economies, very simply, is that they are uncompetitive and unfriendly to business creation, which in turn is due to a cosseted labor market, sky-high taxes, and complex economic regulations.
Finally there is the grip that the beneficiaries of Europe’s massive entitlement state—accounting for 25 percent of European GDP as against 17 percent in the United States—have on their elected leaders. Not many retirees will support candidates who might put their pensions at risk, and the growing rolls of unemployed are not about to vote away their unemployment checks on the speculative hope that less government will someday lead to more jobs. What’s more, government workers are amazingly numerous in Europe, reaching an astounding 38 percent of the workforce in Belgium. And, as many an unlucky tourist will attest, they are also well unionized. That’s one reason why even right-wing parties such as Britain’s Conservatives or Spain’s Partido Popular have not been willing to do more than tinker around the edges of the welfare state.
The marriage of interest-group politics and welfarism has always been the Achilles’ heel of modern democracy. The present crisis has driven a spear through it. What Europe has isn’t merely an economic or even a political crisis. It is a civilizational crisis. A critical mass of Europeans has become addicted to the very stuff that ails them. Maybe they will, in time, sober up. Or maybe not. Sometimes decadent democracies find their Thatcher. Other times, they find their Juan Perón.
It is October 2012, just weeks after the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Libya and the near-storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The liberals who formed the early vanguard in the protests that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak—and who gave some Western observers hope that an “Arab Spring” would bring progressive governance to the Arab world’s most important state—were quickly sidelined by the country’s Islamist political forces. These include the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme Salafists of the Nour Party, which together took three-quarters of the vote in parliamentary elections.
In June the Muslim Brotherhood narrowly won the presidential election with Mohamed Morsi, an engineer with a U.S. doctorate, as its candidate. Morsi was not the Brotherhood’s first choice, and he was widely dismissed as a political lightweight who would also be a figurehead for the country’s real powerbrokers in the military. Yet within two months of his election, Morsi—using the pretext of a terrorist attack on soldiers in the Sinai—dismissed the defense minister and the chiefs of staff and replaced them with his own men. The military raised no objection. Nor was there any objection when Morsi revoked “constitutional edicts,” issued by the military and rubberstamped by the judiciary just before his election, intended to curtail the powers of the presidency.
The unwillingness of the military to assert itself over the Brotherhood should not have surprised knowledgeable observers: A conscript army was always unlikely to fire on its fellow citizens (at least Muslim ones) at the behest of senior officers seeking to preserve the political prerogatives and financial perquisites they had enjoyed under the detested ancien régime.
What has happened in Egypt is part of a larger Middle Eastern pattern. Islamist parties now dominate the politics of Turkey, Lebanon, Gaza, and Tunisia (though they lost decisively in Libya). In Morocco, Islamists run the parliament, though they remain subservient to the king. A post-Assad Syria will probably feature a large if not dominant role for the Brotherhood.
How is the U.S. to navigate this new landscape? American options aren’t good—and they’re getting narrower. The administration’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq has left us with no leverage over a government we brought into existence and once hoped could be a reliable bulwark against Iranian encroachments. The administration’s refusal to intercede in Syria is quickly spawning the very conditions the administration cited as its reasons not to intercede in the first place: civil war, regional instability, an increasingly prominent role for Islamist radicals in the opposition. In Egypt, we must try to purchase favors with a regime whose principles and instincts are fundamentally anti-American and violently anti-Semitic.
Once again, the country most threatened by these transformations is Israel. Its embassy in Cairo was nearly sacked. Gas no longer flows from the Sinai. The frequency of attacks coming from the peninsula has forced Israel to once more fortify its southern border. Gaza has broken free of its former encirclement: Sooner or later, Israel will have to choose between retaking the Philadelphi corridor separating the Strip from Egypt, allowing Hamas to further arm itself, or agreeing to a much larger Egyptian troop presence in Sinai as the price Cairo will surely exact in order to purchase calm in Gaza.
The conditions that existed between Israel and its largest neighbor immediately prior to both 1956 and 1967 are again coming into view.
This is just a summary of the turn the Arab world has taken over the past 18 months. Had it been written two years ago, it may have struck many readers as fanciful. The largest Arab state is now in the hands of a movement whose nearest political relation, in Gaza, is Hamas. The looming prospect of nuclear Islamism is being joined with the rise of democratic Islamism, which mixes international legitimacy with political discipline and moral fervor.
What does the future hold for democratic Islamism? There is a view that power and accountability will make it pragmatic and responsive and ultimately moderate. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, the estimable Fouad Ajami argued in June: “If any overarching vision inspires the Brotherhood, it is the Turkish model. The Iranian theocracy claims Morsi’s victory is a vindication of its model, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Shia theocracy is anathema to Egypt’s Islamists, alien to their idea of Islam and its workings and rituals.”
There is something to Ajami’s view. The Brotherhood, for instance, has promised to revive Egypt’s decimated tourism industry—and says it won’t allow its views on beers or bikinis to get in the way. Morsi appointed an ambassador to Israel. And the sharp differences between the Egyptian president and his Iranian hosts at the August meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran suggest that Islamism, like Communism before it, is hardly an ideological monolith.
Yet the “Turkish model” Ajami cites should give us all pause. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has delivered nearly a decade of economic growth. It also makes common cause with Hamas and imprisons more journalists—94 at last count—than any other country in the world. “The arrests of journalists are part of a larger campaign by Erdogan to crush domestic opposition to his rule,” Dexter Filkins noted in the New Yorker earlier this year. “Since 2007, more than 700 people have been arrested, including members of parliament, army officers, university rectors, the heads of aid organizations, and owners of television networks.”
As for Morsi, the analyst Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution reports that the new Egyptian president is (like many members of the Brotherhood) a 9/11 conspiracy theorist: “When you come and tell me that the plane hit the tower like a knife in butter,” Morsi has said, “then you are insulting us.”
Then there is Khairat el-Shater, still the most powerful man in the Brotherhood and the movement’s leading ideologist. In a talk in Alexandria last year, Shater spelled out the purposes of Islamist government: “restoring Islam in its all-encompassing conception, subjugating people to God…the Islamization of life.” Shater believes that securing such a government requires “one or two million” cadres to maintain a “perpetual” revolution. He also believes that the ultimate goal of the movement is unalterable: “No one can come and say, ‘let’s change the overall mission’….No one can say, ‘forget about obedience, discipline, and structures.’…No. All of these are constants that represent the fundamental framework for our method, the method of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is not open for developing or change.”
Shater may or may not have the last word on the direction of the Brotherhood. But nobody should doubt that his is a totalitarian vision. In a kind of nightmare fulfillment of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda, millions of Muslims are consenting to leaders who have long looked askance at the traditions and types of freedoms familiar to the West: freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, a tolerance for intellectual provocation and dissent.
“It is ultimately a cruel misunderstanding of youth to believe it will find its heart’s desire in freedom,” says Leo Naphta, the totalitarian avatar in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. “Its deepest desire is to obey.” In today’s Middle East, Naphta’s dismal proposition is being vindicated.
It is July 2016, and there’s yet another show trial for yet another fallen top party official. Neither the verdict nor the sentence is in any doubt: guilty as charged, suspended death sentence, free in about 10 years.
Following the 2012 drama of Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai—the ambitious Chongqing power couple whose murder of a British businessman accidentally went public—most observers expected the party to do a better job at keeping its scandals under wraps. But revelations about Bo’s immense wealth whetted the public’s appetite for details about the ill-gotten personal fortunes of other senior officials, and internecine rivalries within the party would, from time to time, set someone up for a fall. The general secretary turned out to have a puritanical streak and believed that the trials could both clean out the stables and reconnect the party to the masses.
It was an idea straight out of the Gorbachev playbook, and equally ill-conceived. Nor did it help the party that growth had come to a standstill, thanks to the never-ending crisis in Europe, cheaper labor in Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Burma, persistently high inflation, a burst real-estate bubble, and tapped-out stimulus spending.
Under these conditions, it was not a surprise when, following the victory of the independence-minded Pan-Green coalition in Taiwan in March 2016, the Chinese army abruptly landed on the Taiwanese island of Quemoy. Though Quemoy, which lies just a mile from the Fujian coast, had once been a Cold War flashpoint, Taipei had long since opted to demilitarize the picturesque island and turn it into a showcase for better cross-Strait relations.
The takeover was bloodless; the diplomatic fallout was not. A U.S. carrier battle group was sent through the Taiwan Strait. The State Department recalled its ambassador from Beijing, claiming the takeover violated the One-China Policy. Congress immediately approved a large military-aid package to Taiwan.
By then, however, the quality of U.S. guarantees was increasingly in doubt. The U.S. Navy, nearly 600 ships and 15 carrier battle groups strong at the end of the Reagan arms buildup, had fallen to 240 ships and just 10 carriers. The result was a force that was both overstretched and hollow, a fact lost on neither U.S. nor Chinese military planners. And although the Quemoy landing had led to a burst of public support for Taiwan and its freedom, it didn’t take long before pundits and lawmakers began asking whether the United States should risk war with China for the sake of a country that spent so little—less than 2 percent of GDP—on its own defense. Indeed, wasn’t it the same story when it came to most of America’s allies in the region, such as Japan and the Philippines: that we were prepared to fight for the freedom of people who weren’t prepared to fight for their own?
Congressional hearings and media debates on this question were, of course, keenly followed by the Chinese embassy in Washington.
The “rise of China” is the cliché of our age. Predictions of just when the Chinese economy will overtake America’s as the largest in the world range from a pessimistic 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund, to a more optimistic 2020, according to the Economist. What memories there may be of the similar fantasies that once were seriously entertained about the Soviet Union, Japan, and the European Union seem not to embarrass today’s China boosters.
Nonetheless, in many ways the world would be a safer place if China really were on its way to the top: A rising power that benefits from the existing global order has more incentive to bide its time than to overthrow that order, particularly if doing so carries potentially large penalties. If Chinese leaders really believed they would soon run the world thanks to the mere arithmetic of compounding GDP figures, why would they bother picking needless quarrels over tiny islands in the South China Sea?
Yet there are good reasons to suspect that China is neither rising nor even stable. Since Mao Zedong’s death and the initiation of economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, the twin foundations of Communist Party rule have been economic prosperity and Chinese nationalism. A Chinese regime that cannot deliver consistently high rates of economic growth will emphasize its claims as the keeper of China’s national interest, from the South and East China Seas to Xinjiang and Tibet to the Korean peninsula. And doing so will mean picking fights, lots of them.
What are some of the signs of Chinese weakness? Indicators include stagnant or declining rates of electricity consumption, rising inventories of unsold goods, and a glut of unsold housing. As for the official statistics, the New York Times reported in August that “the severity of China’s inventory overhang has been carefully masked by the blocking or adjusting of economic data by the Chinese government—all part of an effort to prop up confidence in the economy among business managers and investors.”
China’s economic problems hardly end there, however. The Obama administration’s near-trillion-dollar figure in stimulus spending may have seemed wasteful to many Americans, but it pales next to Beijing’s stimulus program, which came to more than 15 percent of Chinese GDP, along with local government spending that collectively was more than three times as much. Much of the money was spent on infrastructure projects. How did that go? In the last five years alone, 18 bridges have collapsed in China. “These are not mere footbridges,” Bloomberg reports: “They are major, expensive spans.” That’s an indicator not only of shoddy construction standards and abusive labor practices but also of massive graft falling into the laps of local party bosses and well-connected middlemen. Foreigners in China, at least the more credulous ones, may admire China’s trophy projects, such as high-speed rail networks and mega-tall buildings. The Chinese themselves take a more cynical view.
The greatest threat to China’s rulers is the widening gap not between rich and poor, or country and city, or even Han and non-Han Chinese. It’s between popular expectations and their delivery by the party. More Chinese are graduating from college than ever, only to discover that academic performance counts for little next to political connections when it comes to landing a good job. The rise of a caste of “princelings”—the well-heeled children of high-party officials—further sharpens the sense of injustice. Any country whose top universities become factories of unemployment will in time face a crisis of social order.
The question to ask about China, then, isn’t when it will overtake America as the world’s leading power. It’s whether Chinese leaders will seek to divert growing popular discontent with party rule into a series of confrontations with China’s neighbors, and perhaps with the United States as well. The little islands of the South China Sea beckon like any tropical paradise, offering the hope of respite and distraction from mounting troubles at home.
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.