Roger Cohen wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times lamenting what he referred to in the title of his column as “The Great Unraveling.” Mr. Cohen’s language conveyed an even more dire tone as he verged into the dystopian, structuring his column as a retrospective on the current time period from “the ruins” of the world, ruins presumably wrought by The Great Unraveling. Cohen makes vague references towards the recent referendum on Scottish independence, the conflict with the Islamic State, the Ebola health crisis, Putinist territorial expansion and the lack of robust American intervention as evidence of “The Great Unraveling,” a destruction of the existing world order at an exceptionally rapid pace.
Cohen’s argument originates from a rebirth of classic neoconservative thought after that ideology’s relative withdrawal from the political conversation after the war in Iraq. The essence of this ideology is that American retrenchment in the world is the only path to peace and prosperity; no matter the nature of a conflict, American involvement can secure its resolution. David Brooks offers a fine example of this ideology at work in an op-ed only a few days before Mr. Cohen in the pages of the same newspaper that used the Ebola health crisis in West Africa to lament the lack of confidence and faith in “big, stolid agencies – the health ministries, the infrastructure builders, the procurement agencies” which are, according to Brooks, “bulwarks of the civil and global order.”
Like all narratives of decline, this story originates in a belief in a golden age, an ideal time period in which all was right with the world and to which we must return. For neoconservatives like Mr. Cohen and Mr. Brooks, the post-WWII liberal order is that golden age. International organizations were formed that helped undergird liberal democracy across continents with the entire project being backed up by American military muscle. This makes for an endearing picture, and indeed, for a few decades it must have been nice and secure. That is, of course, neglecting to recall the threat of a nuclear holocaust or if the fear that if you lived in one of the numerous countries in Latin America, Africa, or Asia run by ruthless dictators backed by the United States, you would be subjected to whims of some of the most violent regimes in human history.
This, then, is the core of the problem with the neoconservative argument. Not only have the neoconservatives based their imagined golden age on a superficial understanding of history, but they also treat the current situation as the product of irrational, inexplicable occurrences; as deviating from the norm. In reality, if they merely consulted the most basic of histories they would understand the roots of these issues go far deeper than any American involvement could hope to address and far from being an unprecedented development, it was, in fact, the post-WWII liberal order that was a deviation from the norm.
As Andrew Sullivan points out in a column responding to Cohen, in all of the crises that Cohen mentions, there is nothing particularly new going on. Sectarian tensions have existed in Iraq since its founding. As Sullivan wisely notes, “The entire construct of Iraq in the first place was designed on the premise of permanent Sunni rule over the majority.” Undoubtedly, American involvement has complicated the situation in Iraq and accelerated certain trends and tendencies, but the rebirth of sectarian conflict in Iraq should be of no surprise, especially not to Mr. Cohen and his neoconservative colleagues who, in their beloved “surge,” played upon those very tensions to forge a shaky peace.
History can also shed light upon the crisis in Ukraine. Not only, as Sullivan notes, is Ukraine a complicated patchwork of land that has no inherent unity which is merely the surface of an even more intricate and convoluted history, but even more deeply, the expansionist impulse is an endemic and highly persistent element of Russian foreign policy, dating back to the conquests of Ivan IV in his establishment of the Tsardom of Russia in 1547, preceding the formal establishment of an empire by Peter I in 1721. Rod Dreher notes that “There is clear continuity between Tsarism, Bolshevism, and Putinism, in that in each case, Russia is governed by a strong state led by a strong man.” Russian expansion, then, should not be surprising, for it is not a new phenomenon and thereby emblematic of a renewed decay in world order. Especially with regards to Ukraine, Russian expansion has a deep history built into the bones of both nations.
The Scottish independence referendum offers a distillation of all the previously discussed themes. Despite the fact that it failed, devolution has progressed to such a point in the United Kingdom that for all but the most symbolic of purposes, the Union is dead. Indeed, English politicians from across the political spectrum are new seeking devolution for England. Cohen sees Scottish independence referendum as inherently indicative of the fracturing of global order for the fragmentation of a strong Union into smaller entities increases chaos. While that may be true, Noah Millman makes the more salient point that when compared to destructive, anarchic nationalisms of past, namely in Japan, Italy, and Germany, “Scottish nationalism doesn’t look much like nationalism at all.” Far from being representative of chaos or the destruction of world order, the Scottish independence referendum was a flexible response to changing realities just as the Act of Union of 1707 was a flexible response to changing realities.
The Act of Union of 1707 enabled an expansion of commercial power that England desired along with the settling of economic problems in Scotland. It served both nations and existed to enable this commercial expansion. It was incredibly successful in doing so, eventually forging the largest empire in human history. But the Empire is gone now and the sun now sets upon Great Britain every day. The needs of each nation have changed as a result and so it is not surprising that their responses have changed as well. It should not be a surprise that Scottish patriotism, a powerful, centuries-old force, is reasserting itself in the vacuum of the Empire. If the people of Scotland want to dispose of a structure that they feel no longer serves them 300 years later, then they should be able to, and this is not representative of a crumbling of world order. It is a realistic response to the order of the present day, which both differs from that of 300 years ago in that its origins possess an internal and coherent logic that is elucidated by the light of history.
Neoconservatives live in a rigid world in which anything that does not resemble the post-WWII consensus is chaotic and unacceptable. What they don’t seem to grasp is that while political and cultural realities are in constant upheaval, men and states are driven by fairly identical processes that a deep view of history would illuminate and thereby dismiss their panic of decline. Thousands of years ago the original political scientist, Thucydides, wrote in his masterpiece, The Peloponnesian War, that what drove men to war was a combination of honor, interest, and fear. It seems that if he were to look at the world today he would come to the same conclusion.