Back in April, when the BBC talked to Thomas Homer-Dixon, chair of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada, about the prospects for the collapse of Western Civilization, they were told that things do not look good.
The Syrian case aside, another sign that we’re entering into a danger zone, Homer-Dixon says, is the increasing occurrence of what experts call nonlinearities, or sudden, unexpected changes in the world’s order, such as the 2008 economic crisis, the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or Donald Trump’s election.
I guess you can call that an updated version of the four signs of the Apocalypse. These nonlinearities aren’t so much causes of our current problems as they are consequences of them. Many have noted how the invasion of Iraq cascaded into the Syrian civil war, and also how a drought brought on by climate change contributed to the disintegration of Syria’s political consensus. The financial collapse of 2008 was foreseen by relatively few experts (including the Washington Monthly’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells), but came about as a natural consequence of a failure to adequately regulate financial instruments. And both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are widely regarded as hard to foresee consequences of growing income inequality and anxiety about immigration and refugee patterns.
For Homer-Dixon, there are echoes in all of this of the end state of the Western Roman Empire:
Also paralleling Rome, Homer-Dixon predicts that Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands. As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states. Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing. “It’s almost an immunological attempt by countries to sustain a periphery and push pressure back,” Homer-Dixon says.
Maybe this is the very definition of alarmist, but it doesn’t feel like something we can afford to be complacent about. It seems more like an invitation to awaken from the dream-state most progressives (including myself) were living in during the Obama years when things appeared to be stressed by moving methodically in a generally positive direction. Of course, there was a lot of concern about all of these issues and whether we were reacting with enough coordination and urgency to meet our challenges. Efforts to mitigate Climate Change were criticized as inadequate, and the same could be said for regulating Wall Street. The Occupy Movement was a visible expression that income inequality was not improving. And the Middle East continued to disintegrate causing a massive refugee crisis that Europe was struggling to manage. Nonetheless, we had leadership that understood these challenges and was working on them with varying degrees of success. We weren’t ready for the nonlinearities that were hidden just off the horizon. Perhaps the clouds looked ominous, but almost no one forecast how quickly the storm would arrive.
Of course, there were exceptions and we can now point to a few individuals who were especially prescient. I liken these people to the folks who were early in seeing the direction Europe was headed in the 1930’s. Back then, the progressive view was shaped by the experience of the First World War which looked in retrospect like a lot of death and expense for what was ultimately a spat among elite royal families, rapacious imperialists, and nationalist shit-stirrers. The default position in the United States was of isolationism and non-intervention.
Franklin Roosevelt had an appropriate level of foresight and alarm but he didn’t have unity within his own party. Once he decided that the challenge required him to run for an unprecedented third term in office, he began to move beyond traditional partisanship in an effort to rally the country to the challenge. To give one example, he asked for the resignation of his Secretary of War, Harry Hines Woodring, because he opposed helping supply the United Kingdom for their fight against the Nazis.
A strict non-interventionist, Woodring came under pressure from other cabinet members to resign in the first year of World War II. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes met with Roosevelt at least twice to call for Woodring’s firing, but FDR was at first unwilling to do so, instead appointing outspoken interventionist Louis A. Johnson as Woodring’s assistant secretary of war. Woodring and Johnson were immediately at odds, and quickly reached the point where they refused to speak to each other. On June 20, 1940, Roosevelt ended the struggle by finally firing Woodring, replacing him with long-time Republican politician Henry Stimson.
Even more strikingly, FDR hired Frank Knox to serve as the Secretary of the Navy. This was remarkable because Knox had been Alf Landon’s running mate four years earlier. To put this in today’s terms, imagine if Barack Obama had been sufficiently alarmed about the foreign policy myopia in his own party and the need to unify the country for a coming struggle that he had put Sarah Palin in charge of our naval fleets.
On one level, this comparison is ludicrous. Frank Knox was a capable person. Sarah Palin is not a capable person. Still, on another level, it is a one-to-one comparison.
It might be more useful to imagine what a newly-minted President Mike Pence might do to reunify the country. If he tapped Joe Biden or Tim Kaine to serve in his cabinet we’d begin to see a more appropriate parallel.
I’m fully aware that Mike Pence is no more Franklin Roosevelt than Sarah Palin is Frank Knox, but that shouldn’t prevent me from pointing out how a previous president responded to a situation where the country wasn’t prepared for the coming storm and elements of his party were living in denial.
If this country still has enough of a pulse to rid itself of Donald Trump before it is too late, it will be Mike Pence’s job to try to patch something together from what is left. If he acts like everyone expects him to, he’ll only be a modest improvement. If he’s smart, he’ll realize that he needs to unify the country. He’ll see how climate change and income inequality are contributing to disintegration and conflict and resource wars.
I know it’s more likely that he’ll do none of this. Gerald Ford tried to bring the country together by putting people like Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld in charge of his administration. That’s about what I’d expect from Pence, with retrograde attitudes about human sexuality thrown in to make things maximally divisive.
Still, we’re in a deep hole and our commander in chief is clearly insane. We can’t go on like this, and we have to take one small step after another to climb out. If he gets the chance, and I hope he soon does, Pence should look back at FDR to find a role model for how to act in a situation of similar national and civilizational peril.