Historians cheat. Mostly, they reconstruct the story of our past as a straightforward narrative with a beginning, middle, and sometimes even an end.
What they don’t usually tell us is that a great deal more was going on than that single narrative of events–and, sometimes they have to flip back and pick up another strand instead to straighten it out.
That’s why, at the moment, there is little that the historians can do to help us sort out the enormous chain of events that is deciding the future of the world and of the U.S. For the world is in the throes of vast developments, as perhaps it always is, which will profoundly affect the future of all of us.
About all we can do is to be as clearheaded as possible about the various candidate strands for our attention.
So here goes:
• Islam, a totalitarian religion which borrowed heavily from both Judaism and Christianity in its inception, but which always aimed at a dictatorial political regime with an international monopoly of power, is on the march again. Its earlier attempts to overthrow European civilization–with all the West’s borrowings from various ancient origins–were defeated when victorious European armies withstood armies of invaders. This time, however, the threat of Islamic totalitarian dominance is more subtle: Its radical elements seek to overthrow European and the scattered free societies elsewhere by exploiting their greatest moral asset but greatest vulnerability, openness and freedom, through terrorist attacks. It remains to be seen whether the absence of a unified Islamic command will undermine their thrust.
• The longest period of general peace and stability in Europe’s history is threatened by a new aggressive power, Vladimir Putin’s Russian state. What had come to be accepted as an international norm–that no international boundaries would be breached by force–is now at risk. Because Putin’s regime is close to failure on all counts–economic, political and moral–it is a greater threat since, because he has so little to risk, he may be seduced into a more and more adventurous strategy. The most successful alliance in history, the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), which had insured that era of stability, is now being put to its ultimate test. Already there is a falling away of some members, belying the underpinning principle of one for all and all for one. As in the bitter past there is the temptation for some to choose short-time accommodation over principle and endanger the system.
• President Barak Hussein Obama has set out to transform an American Republic, which had not only been the torch of liberty for its brief 200-year existence but increasingly the guardian of stability for the rest of the world. He and his supporters belong to an American political minority that for a half century have believed the Republic’s founding principles were not immutable but subject to change with the vast industrial and (now technological) revolution. A part of their program is to withdraw American power, especially at a time of its weakened state because of domestic economic malaise, from the role it has played in giving the world a Pax Americana since World War II. However amateurish and incompetent they have shown themselves to be, it is too early to know whether they have wrought their will and the world will be a permanently different place after their departure.
• The arrival of the digital age has changed the nature of the world economy and presented new challenges to all its various societies. Even more than the industrial revolution of three hundred years earlier, it has shown how ingenuity can not only satisfy the basic needs of human beings but provide an increasing leisure for longer-lived individuals. The skills for using leisure at its most sophisticated level may be harder to develop than the application of the new digitalization to problems of livelihood. “Bread and circuses” takes on new meaning in this environment.
• The decline of institutionalized Christianity and religious faith in general in the Western world removes a basic construct of its civilization. So far no new belief system has arisen which provides an equivalent rationalization for a moral and legal system which has seen it through a thousand-year progressive advance. In fact, self-criticism and self-doubt have become a fixture of modern societies–often, of course, providing the basis for self-improvement but as often so nihilistic that they are destructive of stability. The healthy skepticism that religion gave the human ego now gone tends to reward unadorned narcissism and hubris. Without that deflator, too often the ambitions of the society as a whole and individuals in power lead to disaster.
While these huge developments are moving on their individual tracks, they are, of course, interfacing with one another with increasingly difficulty for predicting interactions. For example, Putin’s aggressive thrust is being countered internally by the rise of an Islamic threat to the Russian state. Its declining population forces him to rely more and more on an army of Muslim military recruits, while armed radical Islam gnaws at the southern reaches of the empire and its largest minority, a restless Muslim Tatar population, demands identification. On the other hand, Putin’s brazen aggression in Ukraine is being enhanced as it is sucked into the power vacuum created by Obama’s “transformative” strategies. And Moscow’s growing challenge to other parts of the former Soviet empire will be likely the test for the future of NATO.
Living in interesting times as the Chinese curse goes means that we as individuals are caught up in forces far beyond our control or even out of our understanding. There therefore may be no lessons of history and we are on our own.
* A version of this column will be posted Monday, February 9, 2015, on the website http://yeoldecrabb.com/.