In a year-end summary, one of our nation’s major weekly news publications recently tweeted that one of its most-read articles featured former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev saying that it appeared that the world is preparing for war. This apparently came as a shock to the man who once controlled about half of the world’s nuclear arsenal, but of course it shouldn’t be a shock. Entropy, the gradual decline into disorder, is the natural state of both man and universes. Every nation, as part of its daily life, spends some portion of its time preparing to shore up order within its boundaries while defending itself from external entropy and existential threats. The only reason that it seems odd that the topic of war is so much in the news is that we have gone through such an abnormally long period of stability and international peace.
“What ‘peace’?” some might say, pointing at Iraq and Afghanistan or even Yemen and Syria. Surely there has been no “peace” in the world for some time. Such observations are both true and false.
True that peace has not reigned throughout the world for some time, but false in that the broader international environment has been largely at peace since the end of World War II, the last worldwide conflagration, the last civilizational war. Both world wars, and many other wars before them, brought about the extinction of nations and empires and the deaths of thousands or millions, depending on the time in which they were waged. In each of these historic cases, the cause of civilization was set back, with literacy, per capita income, and life expectancies dropping while entropy and chaos rose.
Somehow mankind has convinced itself that the introduction of nuclear weapons and the implications of their use has removed the potential for civilizational war. This, of course, is a false belief, and one that such enemies as China, Russia, and North Korea take full advantage of. China, which advances the argument that its billion-plus citizens are simply sacrificial pawns of the all-important Communist Party; Russia, which threatens to “escalate to de-escalate” through the use of nuclear weapons; and North Korea, which plays the irrational actor with near rationality — all play on the moral decency of the West its certainty that no one would really risk nuclear war in order to extract land, money, and power through nuclear coercion. All play on the idea that to some, war, with its potential to escalate into nuclear war, is “unimaginable,” but those who study the history of mankind understand that “only the dead have seen the end of war.”
So it is that North Korea has put the possibility of war back on the agenda, and so have China and Russia. Not wanting to accept the status quo that, since the end of the Cold War, locks them into permanent second-place status or requires them to become “responsible actors” within the liberal international order of the West, they have rebelled. This initiative accelerated during the eight years of the administration of Barack Obama. Its constant aspiration for “peace,” its desire to eschew the “exceptionalist” aspects of U.S. foreign policy, its withdrawal of U.S. forces from troubled regions, its recognition of Iran and Cuba, and its general “lead from behind” policies contributed to a national declinist despondency, and the great civilizational power that is China, and would-be great powers including Russia and Iran, were given hope that their time, a time of authoritarian control or religious supremacy, might be at hand.
At home, within their own domestic body politic, American citizens are also coming to grips with internal challenges of entropy and are experiencing a great spinning apart. The vital core of American politics seems to have dissolved over the past generation, with each major political party moving off to its ideological wing. President Trump, for all of his tweeting, actually appears to sit astride the center, advancing arguments from each party, but no one seems capable of recognizing that. As W. B. Yeats once wrote, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” There is no end in sight of the great political divide. Instead, the chasm appears to grow wider with each passing day. Conservatives and liberals, and realists and progressives, step farther from consensus. “Red” states and “blue” states separate from each other, and Lincoln’s words, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” come ringing down to us across the 15 decades that have passed. It is a terrifying spectacle to historians.
Anyone who simply assumes that the United States will always be united has never read history.
Rome, the Ottomans, China, Great Britain — all once were great in their size and complexity but slowly fractured and drifted apart, riven by political division and internal decay. Today they are shadows of their former selves, but few today believe that such a fate could ever befall this country.
Countering entropy takes focused effort. As a nation, the United States must rededicate itself to shoring up and strengthening the global international systems that so many lives and so many resources have been expended to build and establish. As individuals, the citizens of the United States must get beyond the issues that divide and find the shared values that can unite them. Whether they are the values of a global governance or of a more perfect domestic union, all must contribute positively to a strategy of sustainment, across the globe and here at home as well. Nuclear wars and social dissolution can be avoided through purposeful actions. Americans should live their lives through acts of commission rather than accept continued division and entropy through acts of omission.
Perhaps this is an appropriate resolution for the new year.