Freddie Mercury and The Problem of Global Order

September 16, 2014

I read Roger Cohen’s article, “The Great Unraveling” this morning in the New York Times before I kayaked over to my office. Incidentally, I really want to do one of those “People of the Northwest” commercials that PEMCO insurance put out, “Kayaks to work guy – you’re one us.” If you are unfamiliar:

But I digress …

Cohen’s piece gave me something to reflect on throughout the day other than my present work related obsession with FDI and legal/industrial change in post-socialist states. He rather well encapsulates the zeitgeist of global fear. And, to be fair, he has a point – Ebola, the Islamic State, Russian aggression in Ukraine, etc. None of these are (Martha) Stewartian “good things.” But an “unraveling?” An unraveling from what? I’ll avoid belaboring the yarn based analogy and simply state that it is time we take a step back and place this in historical perspective.

Granted, if you are working under the assumption that there is such a thing as an “arc of history” and that it always bends towards justice or the idea that the path of history is one of teleological progress towards human betterment – you are probably rather panicked. I’m sad to be the one to have to tell you this, but there is no pre-determined outcome of history. Yeah, I know, it’s a hard pill to swallow and no one’s making a Flintstone’s chewable version of this one.

Civilizational stability and improvement is remarkably contingent. Hegel was wrong. Marx was wrong. Fukuyama was wrong. In reality, there are simply different equilibria at different points in time owing to the strength of various institutions (both formal and informal) and how individual actors and organizations make decisions within the confines set by those institutions. Sometimes the outcomes are positive when judged by various subjective measures, sometimes they are not so good. In layman’s terms: shit happens.

Recall Argentina in the early 20th century – a top ranked global economy and the recipient of millions of European migrants. Today – an economic joke and large out-migration. Sweden in the early 20th century was termed by one scholar “the impoverished sophisticate” owing to its economic problems. Today – a darn nice place to live, despite the recent election results. More recently – Zimbabwe. At the time of its establishment the best education and health scores of any country in Africa. Today – total collapse. The evidence is even greater if you know a bit about Chinese history – not to get too Daoist about it – but the rise and fall pattern is pretty darn consistent. And while it pains me as a conservative to say it: Nothing is permanent. I teach a course on the history of western civilization – the historical normalcy (hat tip to Warren G. Harding for coining that word) of constant, painful change is one of the themes I try to get across to my undergraduates. It saves tears later.

So I am here to tell you – let’s all calm down a bit. To illustrate this fact, let’s jump back 35 years to 1979 – the year after my glorious birth. What was the world like in 1979? Today the trend seems to be to recall the Cold War period as one of relative peace and order without the violent chaos which afflicts the globe today. Personally, I blame John Lewis Gaddis for inadvertently helping to create this myth. To those who hold such a position I say: Really? It’s time to claw back some of that college tuition money. You sound like you have a case for it.

Let’s take a look at ten of the defining events of that year:

1. The American ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped and eventually killed. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December.
2. The Khmer Rouge after engaging in mass genocide which took the lives of 2 million Cambodians were finally overthrown by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. A low level civil war would continue for the next decade. China invaded Vietnam – hundreds of thousands die.
3. The Iranian government was overthrown and supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the government creating the Islamic Republic. The US Embassy hostage crisis would begin in November.
4. The United Nations was led by Kurt Waldheim – if you are unfamiliar with his earlier work it involved rounding up the Jews of Southeastern Europe for eventual extermination at Auschwitz.
5. Scotland voted for home rule (although it was not implemented)
6. IRA terrorism was commonplace in London – notable deaths that year included Lord Mountbatten and Airey Nieve.
7. Jean-Bédel Bokassa, dictator of the Central African Republic, massacres 100 students who protested compulsory school uniforms – he is then overthrown by the French.
8. The civil war in El Salvador began.
9. Saddam Hussein took office as president of Iraq.
10. Mecca’s Grand Mosque was seized by radical militants – 250 dead, 600 wounded.

And let’s remember that all of this took place while the perpetual threat of Global Thermonuclear War between the United States and the Soviet Union hung over everyone.

My point here is not in any way to downplay the severity and horror of the current state of the world. Rather, it is to simply point out that none of this is new. In fact, placing 2014 and 1979 in comparison – things are in fact quite a bit better. The institutional structure of global consumer capitalism has actually done remarkably well. Democracy is much more widespread than it was 35 year ago (see Chile, Uruguay – well most of Latin America). The number of people living in poverty has plummeted (note China, India, Southeast Asia). However, “better” does not mean “perfect.” And it never will. Utopia is a fool’s errand.

We are simply in a period of flux. The Cold War ended. The US had a decade long victory lap of unipolarity. This period is coming to a close and owing to shifts in relative military/economic power and changes in technology new conflicts arise and old conflicts are unfrozen. The problem isn’t the seeming chaos. The problem is the absence of a workable model to respond to it and an informed vision for where to go and how to get there. By assuming that post-Cold War unipolarity was the norm and once that unfortunate business in the Middle East was taken care of everything could push forward nicely or move on to an ideologically and strategically familiar “Cold War II: This Time, It’s China,” the OECD states abrogated their responsibility to actually develop a long term foreign policy and institutional strategy to maintain global stability.

Building supra-national institutions is hard (see the current state of the EU), building national institutions is harder (see Iraq and Afghanistan). It is the height of intellectual arrogance to assume that these can simply be created, be sufficiently embedded, and facilitate a glorious world of Pareto optimality. Not gonna happen. The evidence against it is overwhelming. Moreover our knowledge as to how to actually do this is still at a very early and very raw stage. We stopped and rested on our laurels and thought everything was going to be just fine. Madness.

So, if as you read the news you react with grim despair (and there is nothing wrong with that on occasion, see Kierkegaard) – don’t sigh and get depressed. Keep asking – “What’s the plan?” Demand a plan. Demand something beyond a reactive set of policy decisions. If you happen to be a social scientist or political theorist – develop a plan. Someone has to – and I’m not seeing much out there which is very realistic or historically informed. And if your respective national government can’t present one – perhaps its time for them to leave office. Things are bad, but things have been worse and there is no reason to assume that things today should automatically be better. The sooner we accept the anarchy and chaos and grasp that this is the reality we have to confront – and that it’s a pretty messy reality – the faster things will improve.

I’ll conclude by noting that while 1979 was a rather bad year (surely a hangover after the global celebrations of my 1978 birth was to be expected), it was also the year Queen came out with one of the best songs ever recorded. Freddie Mercury provides, per usual, salient advice for those working on new understandings of global order: “Don’t Stop Me Now.” Things are not unsolvable. So get to work – there’s a lot of catching up to do and a lot of dead wood to clear from the road. If you are content with current global leadership and the current global models as to how to confront global problems – you should be depressed. And you only have yourself to blame.

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