Pour the Foundation, and Keep It Liquid
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Not in modern human history have those oft-quoted lines from Yeats “Second Coming” been more applicable to the world than they are today. The old order is crumbling before our eyes.
But what old order? The brief period of post-Cold War American triumphalism? The largely American-built international order, including the UN, WTO and the World Bank? Or the Westphalian nation-state system, dating from 1648?
I’ve maintained that all three are collapsing. But in slow motion enough to allow commentators in America’s most influential newspapers to write inane things like: “If America doesn’t underwrite global security, no one else will. The likely result will be a new global disorder where everyone pursues a ‘me first’ policy and no one looks out for the common good.”
That’s willfully naïve of course. America’s national interests always came first, even it looked like America’s political and economic model had completely prevailed over the communist model.
The problem is, we also lost the Cold War, just in a different way. The external collapse of the Soviet economic and political system was paralleled by the internal collapse of the American culture and people.
After being invited to the USSR on business in January of 1990, I wrote to the Robert Reich during the transition from Bush Senior to Bill Clinton, pleading the case for a modified, magnanimous Marshall Plan for the USSR.
To my surprise, Reich replied, saying the Clinton team had considered the option, but decided to take a multilateral approach with a focus on China.
So, instead of “the best with the best helping the Russians build an ecologically and ethically sound market” (the stated goal of my partners and I), we got the worst with the worst, Putin and Trump.
If American triumphalism under Clinton eroded the international order, Bush Junior’s invasion of Iraq took a wrecking ball to it. Barack Obama, as brilliant as he is, didn’t grasp what had happened at home and abroad. All in all, it paved the way for the Mussolini-like monster that now occupies the White House.
So the post-World War II international order is history. What about the Westphalian system itself?
Trump would find himself right at home in the 17th century with its core premises: “The principle of state sovereignty; the principle of legal equality of states; the principle of non-intervention of one state in the international affairs of another.”
When the Donald threatens to “close the border with Mexico,” he is affirming an archaic, even atavistic view of national sovereignty. It views hard borders and national competitiveness, specifically white nationalism, as the bedrock foundation of our “greatness” as a nation. That’s why to “Make America Great Again” he must appeal to his tribalistic base, no matter how base his base becomes.
Nationalists have to deny, with growing madness, the reality that they live in an interconnected, interdependent world. But despite the ‘globalist’ canard, progressives, and their newfound conservative friends who’ve abandoned the cult-of-Trump Republican Party, cannot envision a world beyond America’s sovereignty and superiority either.
The tribalism of nationalism, and tribalisms within nationalism (as we see in America between the Republicans and Democrats) are ascendant. Educated people know where this is leading, yet are powerless to prevent catastrophe. When prevention is impossible, preparation is imperative.
But what does preparation mean? Building a bomb shelter and becoming a survivalist? Or pouring the foundation for a new way of thinking and feeling within oneself, and keeping it liquid by continually questioning and non-accumulatively learning?
We know only accumulative learning, but there is a kind of learning that is best described as unlearning. In our present context, that means unlearning tribalism and nationalism.
To see how the world as it is can work well enough politically and economically, and how it threatens to go back to the bad old days, we have only to look at the farce of Brexit as it pertains to the division of the island of Ireland.
As has been recently reported, “Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants currently enjoy an uneasy truce, a process the European Union assisted by blurring the border to invisibility.” But if Britain insists on reverting to some dream of bygone sovereignty, a hard border could be restored in Northern Ireland, and ‘the Troubles’ could well return.
To see how the world as it is does not and will work, we need only reflect on Politico’s recent headline: “Trump To Recognized Israel’s Sovereignty Over Golan Heights.”
The root meaning of the word ‘sovereignty’ is: ‘supreme’–a first principle. For nearly four centuries, the basic organizing principle of the world has been national sovereignty. It produced tens of millions of deaths in the 20th century; does it have to produce millions of deaths in the 21st?
The true first principle now is humankind as a whole. When we feel that emotionally, we are no longer contributing to the fragmentation and destruction of the earth and humanity.