In early August 1914, as the world rushed pell-mell towards war, then British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey remarked to a friend that, “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Grey’s tragic prophecy heralded the collapse of the extant international order, the deaths of some half dozen empires, two world wars, a Cold War and politically-motivated violence within states on a scale not seen since the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries. Some political scientists saw the period that followed the end of the Cold War as the end of history, in essence a period in which the lamps of reason, enlightened self-interest and global collaboration were again lit.
Yet, 22 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the lamps lit a mere two decades ago are flickering and could even go out again. Many of the same conditions that led to the outbreak of the First World War – great power competition, nationalism, religious and political extremism, rapid technological progress that altered the character of economic and military power and the struggle for resources – are at work today. More important, the nations that were primarily responsible for the establishment and maintenance of the current international order, the United States and Europe, are increasingly focused inward leaving no one to preserve the international system.
The list of lamp dousing events in recent months alone is sufficient to cause any reasonable observer to fear for the fate of the world.
- For the first time in seventy years, military force, however ill-disguised was employed to alter the borders of European states. That this move was taken by Russia, a nation whose leader laments the collapse of the Soviet Union and has built his regime on nationalism and religious zealotry, should be all the more alarming.
- The People’s Republic of China has laid claim to portions of the seas and airspace around itself in contravention of international law and with total disregard for the interests of its neighbors. Like Kaiser Wilhelm’s German Empire, Beijing displays a self-centeredness and political arrogance that has put it at odds with virtually every nation in the region. China’s behavior also is fueling a regional arms race that is likely only to intensify in coming years.
- The always fragile political map of the Middle East is coming apart. In today’s Washington Post, David Ignatius rightly observes about events in Iraq and Syria that “in the current, chaotic moment, we see two post-imperial systems collapsing at once: The state boundaries drawn by the Versailles Treaty in 1919 to replace the Ottoman Empire can’t hold the fractious peoples together. And a U.S.-led system that kept the region in a rough balance has been shattered by America’s failed intervention in Iraq.” The Sunni-Shia divide is becoming the front line for a new religious war on a continental scale. Add to these data points political instability in Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Pakistan and many states in northern Africa and there exists the makings of a massive geo-political meltdown.
- The power and reach of terrorist groups is approaching levels on a par with some nation states. Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram and now ISIS are, in essence, operating as states within states or even creating new ones. This phenomenon also reflects an inconsistent and even contradictory international strategy for combatting terrorism (e.g., the Obama Administration capturing one terrorist in Libya while releasing five others).
- Unhappily, religiously-motivated hatred and violence are not limited to the Middle East or even the Islamic world. Europe is displaying a level of anti-Semitic violence unseen since the 1930s. But it is not just limited to Europe. Last year, according to FBI reports, more than 62 percent of religiously-directed hate crimes in the U.S were against Jews (the second most targeted group was Muslims at 12 percent).
- A radical decline in Western military power and a concomitant rise in that of hostile powers and even terrorist organizations is threatening to destabilize the world militarily. According to the prestigious IISS, even as U.S. and European defense spending is shrinking, that of Russia and China has risen by more than 30 percent and 40 percent respectively in just the past six years. Regional actors are acquiring advanced weapons, communications systems and even unmanned systems. If nuclear talks with Iran fail, this will inevitably trigger a regional race to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, the Pentagon is trying to figure out how to save one aircraft carrier in the face of sequestration.
- The next world war may already have begun. The recent indictment of five Chinese military officers by the Department of Justice reflects an ongoing war in cyberspace that is intensifying each day. Critical U.S. infrastructure, most notably the electric power grid, is extraordinarily vulnerable to cyber attack.
The question one has to ask at this point is whether this is the time for the United States to be cutting its defense budget and gutting its military? Any reasonable index of military power would show that the U.S. is getting weaker even as threats to America’s security are increasing and adversaries are getting stronger.
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