The World Turned
Upside Down — Again

Will the strains in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe resolve themselves — or are we on the brink of epochal change?


Victor Davis Hanson

Every once in a while, the world is turned upside down in just a few years, whether by ideological ferment or force of arms. We may be entering such a phase now — unsure whether the unrest in the Middle East, the rise of China, and the crisis in the EU will sputter and dissipate like the upheavals of 1848 or make the world unrecognizable in the way that Alexander the Great’s ten-year romp, the fall of Constantinople, World War I, World War II, and the collapse of Soviet Communism changed the very map of Europe and Asia.

The question is not whether Greece will default on its massive debt, but, rather, when it does, whether the inevitable default will spread to Spain, Portugal, or even Italy and unravel the European Union, or simply be confined to Greece, returning it to its genteel poverty of the 1970s. Either way, a much weakened Greece will watch an ascendant and Islamist Turkey exercise, in Ottoman fashion, its newfound influence in the Aegean, Cyprus, and the Eastern Mediterranean.

But in geopolitical terms, these are small potatoes compared with the position of Germany, which for fourth time in 140 years is beginning to feel, fairly or not, that it is put upon by its neighbors. Again, the key is not whether EU countries to the south and the east are living beyond their means by virtue of German capital, but whether Germans believe that they are — and feel that they are doing so willing and knowingly. If the latter, then we will began to appreciate why the original architects of both the EU and NATO were not utopians like their grandchildren, but hard-bitten realists who were desperate to find a solution to the “German problem” of a dynamic but often aggrieved culture, by making its foreign policy indistinguishable from that of the rest of Europe and the United States. A united, economically dominant Germany that feels it is being conned is a very dangerous thing indeed.

In many ways, China resembles the Japan of the late 1920s — singular economic growth, modernization, and defense ascendancy by virtue of cherry-picking the Western paradigm: embracing capitalist modes of production and Western science and technology, while rejecting Western notions of individual freedom and institutionalized constitutional government.

Just as the Philippines, China, and the regional colonial powers felt apprehensive in 1930, so now do the Philippines, Indochina, and Japan — especially since the United States’ current stance seems to resemble the role it played in the 1930s more than its omnipresence between 1945 and 2008. Both imperial Japan and present-day China first sought to reshape the economy of the western Pacific as a prelude to an overt expression of their increasing military power. Even more disturbing, the United States in 2011, as in the 1930s, is judged in the region to be a spent financial power whose lackluster economy reflects supposed deep-seated, insurmountable pathologies.

Yet on the plus side, China, also like imperial Japan, may belatedly find that consensual government and individual freedom are essential lubricants to free-market capitalism, which at some point either sputters or self-destructs when liberty is denied. In any case, the Chinese have a rendezvous with unionism, class strife, environmental cleanup on a massive scale, and the 19th-century-style disorientation that follows the sudden shift from farm to factory. The only enigma is whether that impending social unrest will be expressed only internally or will vent itself through foreign adventurism.

The unrest in the Middle East resembles the liberation movements in Africa and Asia of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as independent nations sprung up to replace the old colonial powers. In both cases, optimism about a new world clouded reasoned judgment about the chances of consensual government without continued Western dominance in these regions. Yes, neoconservatives are delighted that monarchs, theocrats, military dictatorships, and authoritarian psychopaths are all threatened by popular unrest that proclaims a democratic yearning; and, yes, realists are not unhappy that the chaos and turmoil seems to be weakening many regimes that are anti-American, while diminishing the old unified Arab Street’s pathetic cheerleading for radical Islam.

#pageBut so far, the commonality in all these cases of unrest is a singular absence of reflection and introspection. Just as Asian and African strongmen six decades ago assured their people that British and French colonialists were the source of all their problems as they wrecked their new nations, so today protesters blame a Qaddafi, Assad, Mubarak, or Ben Ali on “them” (fill in the blank with Jews, Europeans, Americans, or all three), never on themselves. Nonetheless, one would have to invent an Assad or a Mubarak had they not existed — given the endemic gender apartheid, tribalism in lieu of meritocracy, suspicion of science and modernism, religious fundamentalism and intolerance, and conspiracy theories in place of reason. So far we hear few Middle East reformers brave enough to say that Muslim Middle Easterners’ problems are not in the stars but in themselves — or that their almost uniformly wretched leaders were not foreign impositions, but tragic reifications of collective values and unquestioned mindsets.

Then we come to America. This administration, or so we are told, now believes we must “lead from behind” given our supposed inevitable decline and persistent unpopularity. But this is surely a crackpot theory extrapolated from the faculty lounge. In truth, viewed against most of the world, the United States remains a bastion of sanity, stability, and tolerance, where dozens of races, religions, and factions adjudicate differences as peacefully as they do it by violence abroad.

In terms of energy, never have America’s fossil-fuel reserves been known to be more vast. For the first time in a half-century, inspired leadership really could make America “energy independent” by full use of natural gas and methane, combined with increased oil, nuclear, and coal production. As the world totters on the brink of famine, American farms have never been more productive — or strategically important. The U.S. military has never been more tried, more experienced, or more lethal. Global brands like Apple, Microsoft, and Google are not flukes but natural expressions of the world’s most innovative and open-minded society. Our great crisis — astronomical debt — is one of will, not resources. We have the capital but not yet the sense of urgency to pay down our trillions, something we could do in a mere four or five years, without a traumatic loss of lifestyle, should the country find the courage to.

Of course, in the short term we may conclude that it is strategically advantageous to “lead from behind,” or we may wish to do so out of an aggrieved and warranted sense of Schadenfreude, but again, such a new global stance is a matter of choice, not of fated decline.

America has never had greater strength or potential — and we should remember that as the rest of the world around us seems about to be turned upside down.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institutionthe editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.