“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
— W.B. Yeats
These familiar words were penned at the conclusion of World War I and captured the sense of foreboding and despair that shadowed Europe. As it happens, we are within a few days of the centenary of the Armistice that ended that cataclysm. But Yeats captures a new foreboding that shadows our own time. Once again, there is fear that the center may not hold; that things are falling apart.
A minimally stable international system of nation states requires two things: (1) governance within states sufficient to prevent domestic disputes and grievances from spilling over national boundaries and (2) agreements and institutions/law among states sufficient to prevent the inevitable disputes among them from sparking wars. Twice in the 20th century, those requirements were not met and the system failed. Internal state breakdowns, some of them associated with the Great Depression, produced radical nationalist leaders with no regard for the niceties of international law, institutions or diplomacy. The results were two world wars.
After the second of these cataclysms, the United States led a determined and far-seeing effort to prevent a repeat — “never again.” That effort included fostering democracy in countries such as Germany and Japan in the belief that democratic polities were less likely than dictatorships to launch wars. It also included an impressive strategy of international institution building, including the United Nations system and security alliances led by NATO. The latter was constructed with real urgency because immediately after the war a new threat from power-hungry dictators (Stalin and Mao) emerged. However, by the 1990s, the prospects for enduring international stability (what Kant called “perpetual peace”) seemed brighter than at any time since antiquity. Stalin and Mao were gone and the institutions and laws that comprised a “liberal world order” that could, at least in theory, benefit everyone seemed vibrant.
It was a false dawn. The twin threats to international order are back in a new guise, but the dangers are the same. One of the epochal events of the second half of the 20th century was the unwinding of colonial empires and the emergence of over 100 new independent “Third World” countries. It was obvious that many, if not most of these new states, would face major governance challenges. The United States and other wealthy countries, along with UN agencies and private foundations, made huge efforts to assist them. There have been many successes, but in key parts of the world, notably North Africa/Middle East and Central America, governance has failed. That failure along with out-of-control population growth has produced a flood of migrants fleeing poverty and societal breakdown — heading toward Europe and the United States.
In Yeats’ metaphor, the United States and Europe/EU constitute the global “centre.” In addition to the strains noted above, that center is under new pressure from Russia and China, both of which seek to break the U.S./European-led international system. Putin’s Russia is actively trying to weaken the Atlantic alliance at every opportunity. China seeks to displace the United States as international leader, first in Asia and then globally. The net effect is that international stability is under huge and growing strain. Into this mix we add the election of Donald Trump, a president who will “make America great again” but who has no regard for the intricate web of institutions and obligations that we call the Western alliance and the rules-based international order. Add also the British decision to withdraw from the EU, damaging both in the process.
In recent days, we have two more developments. In Brazil, an election has brought to power an unexpected president, but one whose profile looks very familiar. Jair Bolsonaro is a populist, nationalist product of the political right whose campaign featured insults and threats directed at gays, women, blacks and indigenous peoples while speaking warmly of past military dictatorships and promising to give the military free rein to kill criminals. He has also pledged to withdraw Brazil from the international climate accord and open up the Amazon rain forest to unrestricted commercial exploitation. Bolsonaro is an authentic voice for a populace sick of endemic corruption, crime and government malpractice — the failure of governance. He also represents one more crack in the foundations of global stability.
An even more ominous political watershed occurred in Germany where Angela Merkel, chancellor for 18 years, announced her pending retirement after setbacks suffered by her CDU party in local elections. As Brexit careened toward a dysfunctional conclusion and the White House treated NATO and the EU with routine contempt — and reactionary nationalist strongmen emerged in Poland, Hungary and Austria — Merkel stood as a beacon of stability and continuity. However, she stumbled when confronted with the toxic challenge of mass migration out of North Africa/Middle East to Europe. Responding to her religious and humanitarian convictions, she opened Germany’s doors to a million immigrants and triggered an intense and understandable backlash among many (not all) German citizens. Whoever succeeds Merkel as chancellor will, at least initially, lack her gravitas and influence.
On top of all this, we have seen the rise of political intolerance and political certitude. Democracies can only function in a climate of compromise. But Yeats foresaw our present: “The ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Will the center hold? It seems increasingly doubtful. The potential consequences are the stuff of nightmares.