Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
— W.B. Yeats
Yeats’ iconic lines were penned in the context of World War I as the relatively stable and predictable international order of the 19th century gave way to chaos, carnage — to lethal disorder. Barely two decades later, Europe proved even that horrific lesson had not been learned and repeated the whole catastrophe in World War II. But out of that second cataclysm a new player, America, moved center stage.
Just as a handful of men who met in Philadelphia at the end of the 18th century created a new nation, a comparable group of hardheaded visionaries — Truman, Marshall, Acheson and in Europe men like Adenauer and Monnet — were determined to lay the foundations of an international system that would not succumb once again to “mere anarchy.” This time the center had to hold. Their efforts produced global institutions centered on the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Adenauer and Monnet began to build what became the European Union. Together, these added up to a new political/economic order. But there was one other absolute requirement — hard power that would protect the new order. The need was obvious; Stalin had already sent the Red Army into Eastern Europe and made clear his intention to extend Soviet dominion over the rest of the continent. Only America stood as a credible barrier and working with European partners created NATO that stymied Stalin’s ambitions.
Asia was a different theater but something quite comparable took place. The United States enlisted Japan as an ally, defended South Korea, and frustrated plans by China’s new communist regime to invade and occupy Taiwan. Out of all this came a network of defense agreements with countries such as Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore that established the U.S. Navy as the dominant power in East Asia. This was acceptable, even welcome, to most countries of the region (except Mao’s China) because the United States was focused on simply preserving regional peace and stability — something that served the interests of a region bent on economic development and modernization. The same Pax Americana similarly benefited Europe. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-91, the American role seemed to be validated by history. A famous book of the time was titled “The End of History.”
But history did not end and dictators with imperial ambitions did not disappear. In Russia, a new would-be czar emerged in the person of Vladimir Putin, an autocrat obsessed with old Russian/Soviet dreams of dominating Europe and intimidating the world. In China, a cautious post-Mao leadership devoted to an agenda of economic growth has been supplanted by a leader who wants much more. President Xi’s “China Dream” envisions a new Middle Kingdom astride Asia and beyond. The 20th century was America’s, but that is over, and the 21st century is China’s. Any doubts as to the implications of Xi’s ambitions have been dispelled by China’s overt territorial aggression in the South China Sea. In international waters where China has no valid historical or legal claim, the Chinese military has established a series of bases and Chinese maps claim “indisputable sovereignty” over a vast maritime space. In a recent major speech, Xi made clear that China’s ambitions are global, including a presence in the Arctic and Antarctic.
What this adds up to is a far-reaching challenge to the American built and led international order. That challenge is further magnified by technological change. Remember when the internet was going to be an instrument for building national and international community? Everyone would be in touch with everyone else and it would be wonderful! It turns out that the same technology has provided a powerful megaphone for hatred, radicalism and lies, both domestically and internationally. It has also provided a whole new arsenal to international despots who seek to weaken perceived adversaries and even engage in pure criminality. Prominent current examples include Russia’s use of social media purveying lies and half-truths to sabotage the U.S. presidential election and to sow divisions within American society. Meanwhile, North Korea has mounted a major internet-based effort to steal money from central banks, bitcoin exchanges — and through ransomware attacks on businesses and large public institutions. There are also growing indications that North Korea is planning attacks on the energy and communications infrastructure in South Korea and the United States. China has long used a vast army of online hackers to steal technology and other secrets from American companies while penetrating U.S. Defense Department databases.
In Europe, the impact of Chinese and Russian online penetrations is a long-established concern. Meanwhile, the European Union is under severe strain from separatist and narrow nationalist movements in Catalonia, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Britain is committed to leaving the EU even as the evidence mounts that this is a really stupid thing to do. Putin continues to fish in troubled waters with major military exercises along Europe’s borders.
All this adds up to a clear — even desperate — need for a reassertion of visionary global leadership by Washington. Instead, at this critical moment, we have a President who has embraced a narrow, quasi-isolationist nationalism. With truth under global assault, we have a rain of falsehoods coming from the President’s Twitter account. With evidence of Russian internet sabotage growing, we learn that the President’s own family retweeted Russian lies during the campaign. This could not come at a worse time.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.