What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar. They built a tower “with its top in the heavens” to “make a name” for themselves. God was offended by the hubris of humanity and said:
Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.
The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular renderings of the story he does, so let’s hold that dramatic image in our minds: people wandering amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension.
The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.
It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?
The Rise of the Modern Tower
There is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales. We see this trend in biological evolution, in the series of “major transitions” through which multicellular organisms first appeared and then developed new symbiotic relationships. We see it in cultural evolution too, as Robert Wright explained in his 1999 book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright showed that history involves a series of transitions, driven by rising population density plus new technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) that created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning. Zero-sum conflicts—such as the wars of religion that arose as the printing press spread heretical ideas across Europe—were better thought of as temporary setbacks, and sometimes even integral to progress. (Those wars of religion, he argued, made possible the transition to modern nation-states with better-informed citizens.) President Bill Clinton praised Nonzero’s optimistic portrayal of a more cooperative future thanks to continued technological advance.
The early internet of the 1990s, with its chat rooms, message boards, and email, exemplified the Nonzero thesis, as did the first wave of social-media platforms, which launched around 2003. Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable. By 2008, Facebook had emerged as the dominant platform, with more than 100 million monthly users, on its way to roughly 3 billion today. In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely believed to be a boon to democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizenry? What regime could build a wall to keep out the internet?
The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.
In February 2012, as he prepared to take Facebook public, Mark Zuckerberg reflected on those extraordinary times and set forth his plans. “Today, our society has reached another tipping point,” he wrote in a letter to investors. Facebook hoped “to rewire the way people spread and consume information.” By giving them “the power to share,” it would help them to “once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.”
In the 10 years since then, Zuckerberg did exactly what he said he would do. He did rewire the way we spread and consume information; he did transform our institutions, and he pushed us past the tipping point. It has not worked out as he expected.
Things Fall Apart
Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?
Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009.
In their early incarnations, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages on which to post photos, family updates, and links to the mostly static pages of their friends and favorite bands. In this way, early social media can be seen as just another step in the long progression of technological improvements—from the Postal Service through the telephone to email and texting—that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their social ties.
But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will.
Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.
Babel is not a story about tribalism. It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything.
Before 2009, Facebook had given users a simple timeline––a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom. This was often overwhelming in its volume, but it was an accurate reflection of what others were posting. That began to change in 2009, when Facebook offered users a way to publicly “like” posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the “Retweet” button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own “Share” button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.
Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.
By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.
This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”
As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
It was just this kind of twitchy and explosive spread of anger that James Madison had tried to protect us from as he was drafting the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.
The tech companies that enhanced virality from 2009 to 2012 brought us deep into Madison’s nightmare. Many authors quote his comments in “Federalist No. 10” on the innate human proclivity toward “faction,” by which he meant our tendency to divide ourselves into teams or parties that are so inflamed with “mutual animosity” that they are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
But that essay continues on to a less quoted yet equally important insight, about democracy’s vulnerability to triviality. Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s tax the rich dress at the annual Met Gala, and Melania Trump’s dress at a 9/11 memorial event, which had stitching that kind of looked like a skyscraper? How about Senator Ted Cruz’s tweet criticizing Big Bird for tweeting about getting his COVID vaccine?
It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side. The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia).
Recent academic studies suggest that social media is indeed corrosive to trust in governments, news media, and people and institutions in general. A working paper that offers the most comprehensive review of the research, led by the social scientists Philipp Lorenz-Spreen and Lisa Oswald, concludes that “the large majority of reported associations between digital media use and trust appear to be detrimental for democracy.” The literature is complex—some studies show benefits, particularly in less developed democracies—but the review found that, on balance, social media amplifies political polarization; foments populism, especially right-wing populism; and is associated with the spread of misinformation.
When people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions. That’s particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. History curricula have often caused political controversy, but Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons––and math lessons and literature selections, and any new pedagogical shifts anywhere in the country. The motives of teachers and administrators come into question, and overreaching laws or curricular reforms sometimes follow, dumbing down education and reducing trust in it further. One result is that young people educated in the post-Babel era are less likely to arrive at a coherent story of who we are as a people, and less likely to share any such story with those who attended different schools or who were educated in a different decade.
The former CIA analyst Martin Gurri predicted these fracturing effects in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. Gurri’s analysis focused on the authority-subverting effects of information’s exponential growth, beginning with the internet in the 1990s. Writing nearly a decade ago, Gurri could already see the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere it reached. He noted that distributed networks “can protest and overthrow, but never govern.” He described the nihilism of the many protest movements of 2011 that organized mostly online and that, like Occupy Wall Street, demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision of the future or an organization that could bring it about.
Gurri is no fan of elites or of centralized authority, but he notes a constructive feature of the pre-digital era: a single “mass audience,” all consuming the same content, as if they were all looking into the same gigantic mirror at the reflection of their own society. In a comment to Vox that recalls the first post-Babel diaspora, he said:
The digital revolution has shattered that mirror, and now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass. So the public isn’t one thing; it’s highly fragmented, and it’s basically mutually hostile. It’s mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.
Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.
I think we can date the fall of the tower to the years between 2011 (Gurri’s focal year of “nihilistic” protests) and 2015, a year marked by the “great awokening” on the left and the ascendancy of Donald Trump on the right. Trump did not destroy the tower; he merely exploited its fall. He was the first politician to master the new dynamics of the post-Babel era, in which outrage is the key to virality, stage performance crushes competence, Twitter can overpower all the newspapers in the country, and stories cannot be shared (or at least trusted) across more than a few adjacent fragments—so truth cannot achieve widespread adherence.
The many analysts, including me, who had argued that Trump could not win the general election were relying on pre-Babel intuitions, which said that scandals such as the Access Hollywood tape (in which Trump boasted about committing sexual assault) are fatal to a presidential campaign. But after Babel, nothing really means anything anymore––at least not in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.
Politics After Babel
“Politics is the art of the possible,” the German statesman Otto von Bismarck said in 1867. In a post-Babel democracy, not much may be possible.
Of course, the American culture war and the decline of cross-party cooperation predates social media’s arrival. The mid-20th century was a time of unusually low polarization in Congress, which began reverting back to historical levels in the 1970s and ’80s. The ideological distance between the two parties began increasing faster in the 1990s. Fox News and the 1994 “Republican Revolution” converted the GOP into a more combative party. For example, House Speaker Newt Gingrich discouraged new Republican members of Congress from moving their families to Washington, D.C., where they were likely to form social ties with Democrats and their families.
So cross-party relationships were already strained before 2009. But the enhanced virality of social media thereafter made it more hazardous to be seen fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was superseded in 2015 by the more contemptuous term cuckservative, popularized on Twitter by Trump supporters. On the left, social media launched callout culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture throughout the English-speaking world.
What changed in the 2010s? Let’s revisit that Twitter engineer’s metaphor of handing a loaded gun to a 4-year-old. A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.
Social media has given voice to some people who had little previously, and it has made it easier to hold powerful people accountable for their misdeeds, not just in politics but in business, the arts, academia, and elsewhere. Sexual harassers could have been called out in anonymous blog posts before Twitter, but it’s hard to imagine that the #MeToo movement would have been nearly so successful without the viral enhancement that the major platforms offered. However, the warped “accountability” of social media has also brought injustice—and political dysfunction—in three ways.
First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens. Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social-media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so. They admit that in their online discussions they often curse, make fun of their opponents, and get blocked by other users or reported for inappropriate comments. Across eight studies, Bor and Petersen found that being online did not make most people more aggressive or hostile; rather, it allowed a small number of aggressive people to attack a much larger set of victims. Even a small number of jerks were able to dominate discussion forums, Bor and Petersen found, because nonjerks are easily turned off from online discussions of politics. Additional research finds that women and Black people are harassed disproportionately, so the digital public square is less welcoming to their voices.
Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority. The “Hidden Tribes” study, by the pro-democracy group More in Common, surveyed 8,000 Americans in 2017 and 2018 and identified seven groups that shared beliefs and behaviors. The one furthest to the right, known as the “devoted conservatives,” comprised 6 percent of the U.S. population. The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.
These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.
Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process. Platforms like Twitter devolve into the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes. A successful attack attracts a barrage of likes and follow-on strikes. Enhanced-virality platforms thereby facilitate massive collective punishment for small or imagined offenses, with real-world consequences, including innocent people losing their jobs and being shamed into suicide. When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.
Since the tower fell, debates of all kinds have grown more and more confused. The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse.
The most reliable cure for confirmation bias is interaction with people who don’t share your beliefs. They confront you with counterevidence and counterargument. John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,” and he urged us to seek out conflicting views “from persons who actually believe them.” People who think differently and are willing to speak up if they disagree with you make you smarter, almost as if they are extensions of your own brain. People who try to silence or intimidate their critics make themselves stupider, almost as if they are shooting darts into their own brain.In the 20th century, America built the most capable knowledge-producing institutions in human history. In the past decade, they got stupider en masse.
In his book The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch describes the historical breakthrough in which Western societies developed an “epistemic operating system”—that is, a set of institutions for generating knowledge from the interactions of biased and cognitively flawed individuals. English law developed the adversarial system so that biased advocates could present both sides of a case to an impartial jury. Newspapers full of lies evolved into professional journalistic enterprises, with norms that required seeking out multiple sides of a story, followed by editorial review, followed by fact-checking. Universities evolved from cloistered medieval institutions into research powerhouses, creating a structure in which scholars put forth evidence-backed claims with the knowledge that other scholars around the world would be motivated to gain prestige by finding contrary evidence.
Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century came from having developed the most capable, vibrant, and productive network of knowledge-producing institutions in all of human history, linking together the world’s best universities, private companies that turned scientific advances into life-changing consumer products, and government agencies that supported scientific research and led the collaboration that put people on the moon.
But this arrangement, Rauch notes, “is not self-maintaining; it relies on an array of sometimes delicate social settings and understandings, and those need to be understood, affirmed, and protected.” So what happens when an institution is not well maintained and internal disagreement ceases, either because its people have become ideologically uniform or because they have become afraid to dissent?
This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. The shift was most pronounced in universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local), and it was so pervasive that it established new behavioral norms backed by new policies seemingly overnight. The new omnipresence of enhanced-virality social media meant that a single word uttered by a professor, leader, or journalist, even if spoken with positive intent, could lead to a social-media firestorm, triggering an immediate dismissal or a drawn-out investigation by the institution. Participants in our key institutions began self-censoring to an unhealthy degree, holding back critiques of policies and ideas—even those presented in class by their students—that they believed to be ill-supported or wrong.
But when an institution punishes internal dissent, it shoots darts into its own brain.
The stupefying process plays out differently on the right and the left because their activist wings subscribe to different narratives with different sacred values. The “Hidden Tribes” study tells us that the “devoted conservatives” score highest on beliefs related to authoritarianism. They share a narrative in which America is eternally under threat from enemies outside and subversives within; they see life as a battle between patriots and traitors. According to the political scientist Karen Stenner, whose work the “Hidden Tribes” study drew upon, they are psychologically different from the larger group of “traditional conservatives” (19 percent of the population), who emphasize order, decorum, and slow rather than radical change.
Only within the devoted conservatives’ narratives do Donald Trump’s speeches make sense, from his campaign’s ominous opening diatribe about Mexican “rapists” to his warning on January 6, 2021: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”
The traditional punishment for treason is death, hence the battle cry on January 6: “Hang Mike Pence.” Right-wing death threats, many delivered by anonymous accounts, are proving effective in cowing traditional conservatives, for example in driving out local election officials who failed to “stop the steal.” The wave of threats delivered to dissenting Republican members of Congress has similarly pushed many of the remaining moderates to quit or go silent, giving us a party ever more divorced from the conservative tradition, constitutional responsibility, and reality. We now have a Republican Party that describes a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol as “legitimate political discourse,” supported—or at least not contradicted—by an array of right-wing think tanks and media organizations.
The stupidity on the right is most visible in the many conspiracy theories spreading across right-wing media and now into Congress. “Pizzagate,” QAnon, the belief that vaccines contain microchips, the conviction that Donald Trump won reelection—it’s hard to imagine any of these ideas or belief systems reaching the levels that they have without Facebook and Twitter.
The Democrats have also been hit hard by structural stupidity, though in a different way. In the Democratic Party, the struggle between the progressive wing and the more moderate factions is open and ongoing, and often the moderates win. The problem is that the left controls the commanding heights of the culture: universities, news organizations, Hollywood, art museums, advertising, much of Silicon Valley, and the teachers’ unions and teaching colleges that shape K–12 education. And in many of those institutions, dissent has been stifled: When everyone was issued a dart gun in the early 2010s, many left-leaning institutions began shooting themselves in the brain. And unfortunately, those were the brains that inform, instruct, and entertain most of the country.
Liberals in the late 20th century shared a belief that the sociologist Christian Smith called the “liberal progress” narrative, in which America used to be horrifically unjust and repressive, but, thanks to the struggles of activists and heroes, has made (and continues to make) progress toward realizing the noble promise of its founding. This story easily supports liberal patriotism, and it was the animating narrative of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is also the view of the “traditional liberals” in the “Hidden Tribes” study (11 percent of the population), who have strong humanitarian values, are older than average, and are largely the people leading America’s cultural and intellectual institutions.
But when the newly viralized social-media platforms gave everyone a dart gun, it was younger progressive activists who did the most shooting, and they aimed a disproportionate number of their darts at these older liberal leaders. Confused and fearful, the leaders rarely challenged the activists or their nonliberal narrative in which life at every institution is an eternal battle among identity groups over a zero-sum pie, and the people on top got there by oppressing the people on the bottom. This new narrative is rigidly egalitarian––focused on equality of outcomes, not of rights or opportunities. It is unconcerned with individual rights.
The universal charge against people who disagree with this narrative is not “traitor”; it is “racist,” “transphobe,” “Karen,” or some related scarlet letter marking the perpetrator as one who hates or harms a marginalized group. The punishment that feels right for such crimes is not execution; it is public shaming and social death.
You can see the stupefaction process most clearly when a person on the left merely points to research that questions or contradicts a favored belief among progressive activists. Someone on Twitter will find a way to associate the dissenter with racism, and others will pile on. For example, in the first week of protests after the killing of George Floyd, some of which included violence, the progressive policy analyst David Shor, then employed by Civis Analytics, tweeted a link to a study showing that violent protests back in the 1960s led to electoral setbacks for the Democrats in nearby counties. Shor was clearly trying to be helpful, but in the ensuing outrage he was accused of “anti-Blackness” and was soon dismissed from his job. (Civis Analytics has denied that the tweet led to Shor’s firing.)
The Shor case became famous, but anyone on Twitter had already seen dozens of examples teaching the basic lesson: Don’t question your own side’s beliefs, policies, or actions. And when traditional liberals go silent, as so many did in the summer of 2020, the progressive activists’ more radical narrative takes over as the governing narrative of an organization. This is why so many epistemic institutions seemed to “go woke” in rapid succession that year and the next, beginning with a wave of controversies and resignations at The New York Times and other newspapers, and continuing on to social-justice pronouncements by groups of doctors and medical associations (one publication by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, for instance, advised medical professionals to refer to neighborhoods and communities as “oppressed” or “systematically divested” instead of “vulnerable” or “poor”), and the hurried transformation of curricula at New York City’s most expensive private schools.
Tragically, we see stupefaction playing out on both sides in the COVID wars. The right has been so committed to minimizing the risks of COVID that it has turned the disease into one that preferentially kills Republicans. The progressive left is so committed to maximizing the dangers of COVID that it often embraces an equally maximalist, one-size-fits-all strategy for vaccines, masks, and social distancing—even as they pertain to children. Such policies are not as deadly as spreading fears and lies about vaccines, but many of them have been devastating for the mental health and education of children, who desperately need to play with one another and go to school; we have little clear evidence that school closures and masks for young children reduce deaths from COVID. Most notably for the story I’m telling here, progressive parents who argued against school closures were frequently savaged on social media and met with the ubiquitous leftist accusations of racism and white supremacy. Others in blue cities learned to keep quiet.
American politics is getting ever more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are getting less intelligent. The problem is structural. Thanks to enhanced-virality social media, dissent is punished within many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas get elevated into official policy.
It’s Going to Get Much Worse
In a 2018 interview, Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, said that the way to deal with the media is “to flood the zone with shit.” He was describing the “firehose of falsehood” tactic pioneered by Russian disinformation programs to keep Americans confused, disoriented, and angry. But back then, in 2018, there was an upper limit to the amount of shit available, because all of it had to be created by a person (other than some low-quality stuff produced by bots).
Now, however, artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become far more capable. In a 2020 essay titled “The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite,” Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods—whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos—will quickly become inconceivably easy. (She co-wrote the essay with GPT-3.)
American factions won’t be the only ones using AI and social media to generate attack content; our adversaries will too. In a haunting 2018 essay titled “The Digital Maginot Line,” DiResta described the state of affairs bluntly. “We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality,” she wrote. The Soviets used to have to send over agents or cultivate Americans willing to do their bidding. But social media made it cheap and easy for Russia’s Internet Research Agency to invent fake events or distort real ones to stoke rage on both the left and the right, often over race. Later research showed that an intensive campaign began on Twitter in 2013 but soon spread to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, among other platforms. One of the major goals was to polarize the American public and spread distrust—to split us apart at the exact weak point that Madison had identified.If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse.
We now know that it’s not just the Russians attacking American democracy. Before the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, China had mostly focused on domestic platforms such as WeChat. But now China is discovering how much it can do with Twitter and Facebook, for so little money, in its escalating conflict with the U.S. Given China’s own advances in AI, we can expect it to become more skillful over the next few years at further dividing America and further uniting China.
In the 20th century, America’s shared identity as the country leading the fight to make the world safe for democracy was a strong force that helped keep the culture and the polity together. In the 21st century, America’s tech companies have rewired the world and created products that now appear to be corrosive to democracy, obstacles to shared understanding, and destroyers of the modern tower.
Democracy After Babel
We can never return to the way things were in the pre-digital age. The norms, institutions, and forms of political participation that developed during the long era of mass communication are not going to work well now that technology has made everything so much faster and more multidirectional, and when bypassing professional gatekeepers is so easy. And yet American democracy is now operating outside the bounds of sustainability. If we do not make major changes soon, then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.
What changes are needed? Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my abilities, but I can suggest three categories of reforms––three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.
Harden Democratic Institutions
Political polarization is likely to increase for the foreseeable future. Thus, whatever else we do, we must reform key institutions so that they can continue to function even if levels of anger, misinformation, and violence increase far above those we have today.
For instance, the legislative branch was designed to require compromise, yet Congress, social media, and partisan cable news channels have co-evolved such that any legislator who reaches across the aisle may face outrage within hours from the extreme wing of her party, damaging her fundraising prospects and raising her risk of being primaried in the next election cycle.
Reforms should reduce the outsize influence of angry extremists and make legislators more responsive to the average voter in their district. One example of such a reform is to end closed party primaries, replacing them with a single, nonpartisan, open primary from which the top several candidates advance to a general election that also uses ranked-choice voting. A version of this voting system has already been implemented in Alaska, and it seems to have given Senator Lisa Murkowski more latitude to oppose former President Trump, whose favored candidate would be a threat to Murkowski in a closed Republican primary but is not in an open one.
A second way to harden democratic institutions is to reduce the power of either political party to game the system in its favor, for example by drawing its preferred electoral districts or selecting the officials who will supervise elections. These jobs should all be done in a nonpartisan way. Research on procedural justice shows that when people perceive that a process is fair, they are more likely to accept the legitimacy of a decision that goes against their interests. Just think of the damage already done to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy by the Senate’s Republican leadership when it blocked consideration of Merrick Garland for a seat that opened up nine months before the 2016 election, and then rushed through the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett in 2020. A widely discussed reform would end this political gamesmanship by having justices serve staggered 18-year terms so that each president makes one appointment every two years.
Reform Social Media
A democracy cannot survive if its public squares are places where people fear speaking up and where no stable consensus can be reached. Social media’s empowerment of the far left, the far right, domestic trolls, and foreign agents is creating a system that looks less like democracy and more like rule by the most aggressive.
But it is within our power to reduce social media’s ability to dissolve trust and foment structural stupidity. Reforms should limit the platforms’ amplification of the aggressive fringes while giving more voice to what More in Common calls “the exhausted majority.”
Those who oppose regulation of social media generally focus on the legitimate concern that government-mandated content restrictions will, in practice, devolve into censorship. But the main problem with social media is not that some people post fake or toxic stuff; it’s that fake and outrage-inducing content can now attain a level of reach and influence that was not possible before 2009. The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen advocates for simple changes to the architecture of the platforms, rather than for massive and ultimately futile efforts to police all content. For example, she has suggested modifying the “Share” function on Facebook so that after any content has been shared twice, the third person in the chain must take the time to copy and paste the content into a new post. Reforms like this are not censorship; they are viewpoint-neutral and content-neutral, and they work equally well in all languages. They don’t stop anyone from saying anything; they just slow the spread of content that is, on average, less likely to be true.
Perhaps the biggest single change that would reduce the toxicity of existing platforms would be user verification as a precondition for gaining the algorithmic amplification that social media offers.
Banks and other industries have “know your customer” rules so that they can’t do business with anonymous clients laundering money from criminal enterprises. Large social-media platforms should be required to do the same. That does not mean users would have to post under their real names; they could still use a pseudonym. It just means that before a platform spreads your words to millions of people, it has an obligation to verify (perhaps through a third party or nonprofit) that you are a real human being, in a particular country, and are old enough to be using the platform. This one change would wipe out most of the hundreds of millions of bots and fake accounts that currently pollute the major platforms. It would also likely reduce the frequency of death threats, rape threats, racist nastiness, and trolling more generally. Research shows that antisocial behavior becomes more common online when people feel that their identity is unknown and untraceable.
In any case, the growing evidence that social media is damaging democracy is sufficient to warrant greater oversight by a regulatory body, such as the Federal Communications Commission or the Federal Trade Commission. One of the first orders of business should be compelling the platforms to share their data and their algorithms with academic researchers.
Prepare the Next Generation
The members of Gen Z––those born in and after 1997––bear none of the blame for the mess we are in, but they are going to inherit it, and the preliminary signs are that older generations have prevented them from learning how to handle it.
Childhood has become more tightly circumscribed in recent generations––with less opportunity for free, unstructured play; less unsupervised time outside; more time online. Whatever else the effects of these shifts, they have likely impeded the development of abilities needed for effective self-governance for many young adults. Unsupervised free play is nature’s way of teaching young mammals the skills they’ll need as adults, which for humans include the ability to cooperate, make and enforce rules, compromise, adjudicate conflicts, and accept defeat. A brilliant 2015 essay by the economist Steven Horwitz argued that free play prepares children for the “art of association” that Alexis de Tocqueville said was the key to the vibrancy of American democracy; he also argued that its loss posed “a serious threat to liberal societies.” A generation prevented from learning these social skills, Horwitz warned, would habitually appeal to authorities to resolve disputes and would suffer from a “coarsening of social interaction” that would “create a world of more conflict and violence.”
And while social media has eroded the art of association throughout society, it may be leaving its deepest and most enduring marks on adolescents. A surge in rates of anxiety, depression, and self-harm among American teens began suddenly in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens, at the same time.) The cause is not known, but the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor—the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the major platforms. Correlational and experimental studies back up the connection to depression and anxiety, as do reports from young people themselves, and from Facebook’s own research, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Depression makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas, and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening. As these conditions have risen and as the lessons on nuanced social behavior learned through free play have been delayed, tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes have diminished among many young people. For example, university communities that could tolerate a range of speakers as recently as 2010 arguably began to lose that ability in subsequent years, as Gen Z began to arrive on campus. Attempts to disinvite visiting speakers rose. Students did not just say that they disagreed with visiting speakers; some said that those lectures would be dangerous, emotionally devastating, a form of violence. Because rates of teen depression and anxiety have continued to rise into the 2020s, we should expect these views to continue in the generations to follow, and indeed to become more severe.
The most important change we can make to reduce the damaging effects of social media on children is to delay entry until they have passed through puberty. Congress should update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which unwisely set the age of so-called internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 back in 1998, while making little provision for effective enforcement. The age should be raised to at least 16, and companies should be held responsible for enforcing it.
More generally, to prepare the members of the next generation for post-Babel democracy, perhaps the most important thing we can do is let them out to play. Stop starving children of the experiences they most need to become good citizens: free play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision. Every state should follow the lead of Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas and pass a version of the Free-Range Parenting Law that helps assure parents that they will not be investigated for neglect if their 8- or 9-year-old children are spotted playing in a park. With such laws in place, schools, educators, and public-health authorities should then encourage parents to let their kids walk to school and play in groups outside, just as more kids used to do.
Hope After Babel
The story i have told is bleak, and there is little evidence to suggest that America will return to some semblance of normalcy and stability in the next five or 10 years. Which side is going to become conciliatory? What is the likelihood that Congress will enact major reforms that strengthen democratic institutions or detoxify social media?
Yet when we look away from our dysfunctional federal government, disconnect from social media, and talk with our neighbors directly, things seem more hopeful. Most Americans in the More in Common report are members of the “exhausted majority,” which is tired of the fighting and is willing to listen to the other side and compromise. Most Americans now see that social media is having a negative impact on the country, and are becoming more aware of its damaging effects on children.
Will we do anything about it?
When Tocqueville toured the United States in the 1830s, he was impressed by the American habit of forming voluntary associations to fix local problems, rather than waiting for kings or nobles to act, as Europeans would do. That habit is still with us today. In recent years, Americans have started hundreds of groups and organizations dedicated to building trust and friendship across the political divide, including BridgeUSA, Braver Angels (on whose board I serve), and many others listed at BridgeAlliance.us. We cannot expect Congress and the tech companies to save us. We must change ourselves and our communities.
What would it be like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? We know. It is a time of confusion and loss. But it is also a time to reflect, listen, and build.
The Race to Consolidate Power and Stave Off Disaster
Xi Jinping is a man on a mission. After coming to power in late 2012, he moved rapidly to consolidate his political authority, purge the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of rampant corruption, sideline his enemies, tame China’s once highflying technology and financial conglomerates, crush internal dissent, and forcefully assert China’s influence on the international stage. In the name of protecting China’s “core interests,” Xi has picked fights with many of his neighbors and antagonized countries farther away—especially the United States. Whereas his immediate predecessors believed China must continue to bide its time by overseeing rapid economic growth and the steady expansion of China’s influence through tactical integration into the existing global order, Xi is impatient with the status quo, possesses a high tolerance for risk, and seems to feel a pronounced sense of urgency in challenging the international order.
Why is he in such a rush? Most observers have settled on one of two diametrically opposite hypotheses. The first holds that Xi is driving a wide range of policy initiatives aimed at nothing less than the remaking of the global order on terms favorable to the CCP. The other view asserts that he is the anxious overseer of a creaky and outdated Leninist political system that is struggling to keep its grip on power. Both narratives contain elements of truth, but neither satisfactorily explains the source of Xi’s sense of urgency.
A more accurate explanation is that Xi’s calculations are determined not by his aspirations or fears but by his timeline. Put simply, Xi has consolidated so much power and upset the status quo with such force because he sees a narrow window of ten to 15 years during which Beijing can take advantage of a set of important technological and geopolitical transformations, which will also help it overcome significant internal challenges. Xi sees the convergence of strong demographic headwinds, a structural economic slowdown, rapid advances in digital technologies, and a perceived shift in the global balance of power away from the United States as what he has called “profound changes unseen in a century,” demanding a bold set of immediate responses.
By narrowing his vision to the coming ten to 15 years, Xi has instilled a sense of focus and determination in the Chinese political system that may well enable China to overcome long-standing domestic challenges and achieve a new level of global centrality. If Xi succeeds, China will position itself as an architect of an emerging era of multipolarity, its economy will escape the so-called middle-income trap, and the technological capabilities of its manufacturing sector and military will rival those of more developed countries.
Yet ambition and execution are not the same thing, and Xi has now placed China on a risky trajectory, one that threatens the achievements his predecessors secured in the post-Mao era. His belief that the CCP must guide the economy and that Beijing should rein in the private sector will constrain the country’s future economic growth. His demand that party cadres adhere to ideological orthodoxy and demonstrate personal loyalty to him will undermine the governance system’s flexibility and competency. His emphasis on an expansive definition of national security will steer the country in a more inward and paranoid direction. His unleashing of “Wolf Warrior” nationalism will produce a more aggressive and isolated China. Finally, Xi’s increasingly singular position within China’s political system will forestall policy alternatives and course corrections, a problem made worse by his removal of term limits and the prospect of his indefinite rule.
Xi believes he can mold China’s future as did the emperors of the country’s storied past. He mistakes this hubris for confidence—and no one dares tell him otherwise. An environment in which an all-powerful leader with a single-minded focus cannot hear uncomfortable truths is a recipe for disaster, as China’s modern history has demonstrated all too well.
A MAN IN A HURRY
In retrospect, Xi’s compressed timeline was clear from the start of his tenure. China had become accustomed to the pace of his predecessor, the slow and staid Hu Jintao, and many expected Xi to follow suit, albeit with a greater emphasis on economic reform. Yet within months of taking the reins in 2012, Xi began to reorder the domestic political and economic landscape. First came a top-to-bottom housecleaning of the CCP. The party had repeatedly demonstrated its ability to weather domestic storms, but pressures were building within the system. Corruption had become endemic, leading to popular dissatisfaction and the breakdown of organizational discipline. The party’s ranks were growing rapidly but were increasingly filled with individuals who didn’t share Xi’s belief in the CCP’s exceptionalism. Party cells in state-owned enterprises, private companies, and nongovernmental organizations were dormant and disorganized. Senior-level decision-making had become uncoordinated and siloed. The party’s propaganda organs struggled to project their messages to an increasingly cynical and tech-savvy citizenry.
Xi took on all these problems simultaneously. In 2013 alone, he initiated a sweeping anticorruption drive, launched a “mass line” campaign to eliminate political pluralism and liberal ideologies from public discourse, announced new guidelines restricting the growth of the party’s membership, and added new ideological requirements for would-be party members. The size of the party mattered little, he believed, if it was not made up of true believers. After all, he noted, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse in the early 1990s, “proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than [the CCP], but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”
Next on Xi’s agenda was the need to assert China’s interests on the global stage. Xi quickly began land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, established an air defense identification zone over disputed territory in the East China Sea, helped launch the New Development Bank (sometimes called the BRICS Bank), unveiled the massive international infrastructure project that came to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative, and proposed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Xi continued to slash his way through the status quo for the remainder of his first term and shows no signs of abating as he approaches the end of his second. His consolidation of power continues uninterrupted: he faces no genuine political rivals, has removed term limits on his tenure in office, and has installed allies and loyalists in key positions. New research centers are dedicated to studying his writings and speeches, party officials publicly extol his wisdom and virtue, and party regulations and government planning documents increasingly claim to be based on “Xi Jinping Thought.” He has asserted the CCP’s dominance over vast swaths of Chinese society and economic life, even forcing influential business and technology titans to beg forgiveness for their insufficient loyalty to the party. Meanwhile, he continues to expand China’s international sphere of influence through the exercise of hard power, economic coercion, and deep integration into international and multilateral bodies.
Many outside observers, myself included, initially believed that the party’s inability to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 highlighted the weaknesses of China’s system. By the summer of 2020, however, Xi was able to extol the virtues of centralized control in checking the pandemic’s domestic spread. Far from undermining his political authority, Beijing’s iron-fisted approach to combating the virus has now become a point of national pride.
A UNIQUE MOMENT
Xi’s fast pace was provoked by a convergence of geopolitical, demographic, economic, environmental, and technological changes. The risks they pose are daunting, but not yet existential; Beijing has a window of opportunity to address them before they become fatal. And the potential rewards they offer are considerable.
The first major change is Beijing’s assessment that the power and influence of the West have entered a phase of accelerated decline, and as a result, a new era of multipolarity has begun, one that China could shape more to its liking. This view took hold as the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became quagmires, and it solidified in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which the Chinese leadership saw as the death knell for U.S. global prestige. In 2016, the British vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States fortified the consensus view that the United States, and the West more generally, was in decline. This might suggest that China could opt for strategic patience and simply allow American power to wane. But the possibility of a renewal of U.S. leadership brought about by the advent of the Biden administration—and concerns about Xi’s mortality (he will be 82 in 2035)—means that Beijing is unwilling to wait and see how long this phase of Western decline will last.
The second important force confronting Xi is China’s deteriorating demographic and economic outlook. By the time he assumed office, China’s population was simultaneously aging and shrinking, and the country was facing an imminent surge of retirees that would stress the country’s relatively weak health-care and pension systems. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences now expects China’s population to peak in 2029, and a recent study in The Lancet forecast that it will shrink by nearly 50 percent by the end of the century. Although Beijing ended its draconian one-child policy in 2016, the country has still recorded a 15 percent decline in births during the past 12 months. Meanwhile, the government estimates that by 2033, nearly one-third of the population will be over the age of 60.
Contributing to these woes is China’s shrinking workforce and rising wages, which have increased by ten percent, on average, since 2005. Larger paychecks are good for workers, but global manufacturers are increasingly moving their operations out of China and to lower-cost countries, leaving a rising number of low-skilled workers in China unemployed or underemployed. And because only 12.5 percent of China’s labor force has graduated from college (compared with 24 percent in the United States), positioning the bulk of the country’s workforce to compete for the high-skilled jobs of the future will be an uphill battle.
Directly related to this worrying demographic picture is the slowdown of China’s economy. With annual GDP growth having dropped from a high of 14 percent in 2007 to the mid-single digits today, many of the long-standing problems Beijing had been able to sweep under the rug now require attention and a willingness to accept economic and political pain, from unwinding the vast sea of indebted companies to demanding that firms and individuals pay more into the country’s tax coffers. At the heart of China’s growth woes is flagging productivity. Throughout the first several decades of the post-Mao reform period, realizing productivity gains was relatively straightforward, as the planned economy was dissolved in favor of market forces and droves of citizens voluntarily fled the countryside for urban and coastal areas and the promise of higher-wage jobs. Later, as foreign companies brought investment, technology, and know-how to the country, industrial efficiency continued to improve. Finally, the massive amounts spent on infrastructure, especially roads and rail, boosted connectivity and thus productivity. All of this helped a poor and primarily agricultural economy rapidly catch up with more advanced economies.
Yet by the time Xi assumed power, policymakers were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain momentum without creating unsustainable levels of debt, just as they had done in response to the 2008 global financial crisis. What is more, the country was already saturated with transportation infrastructure, so an additional mile of road or high-speed rail wasn’t going to add much to growth. And because almost all able-bodied workers had already moved from the countryside to urban areas, relocating labor wouldn’t arrest the decline in productivity, either. Finally, the social and environmental costs of China’s previous growth paradigm had become both unsustainable and destabilizing, as staggering air pollution and environmental devastation provoked acute anger among Chinese citizens.
Perhaps the most consequential shifts to have occurred on Xi’s watch are advances in new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, and biomedical engineering, among others. Xi believes that dominating the “commanding heights” of these new tools will play a critical role in China’s economic, military, and geopolitical fate, and he has mobilized the party to transform the country into a high-tech powerhouse. This includes expending vast sums to develop the country’s R & D and production capabilities in technologies deemed critical to national security, from semiconductors to batteries. As Xi stated in 2014, first-mover advantage will go to “whoever holds the nose of the ox of science and technology innovation.”
Xi also hopes that new technologies can help the CCP overcome, or at least circumvent, nearly all of China’s domestic challenges. The negative impacts of a shrinking workforce, he believes, can be blunted by an aggressive push toward automation, and job losses in traditional industries can be offset by opportunities in newer, high-tech sectors. “Whether we can stiffen our back in the international arena and cross the ‘middle-income trap’ depends to a large extent on the improvement of science and technology innovation capability,” Xi said in 2014.
New technologies serve other purposes, as well. Facial recognition tools and artificial intelligence give China’s internal security organs new ways to surveil citizens and suppress dissent. The party’s “military-civil fusion” strategy strives to harness these new technologies to significantly bolster the Chinese military’s warfighting capabilities. And advances in green technology offer the prospect of simultaneously pursuing economic growth and pollution abatement, two goals Beijing has generally seen as being in tension.
THE PARANOID STYLE IN CHINESE POLITICS
This convergence of changes and developments would have occurred regardless of who assumed power in China in 2012. Perhaps another leader would have undertaken a similarly bold agenda. Yet among contemporary Chinese political figures, Xi has demonstrated an unrivaled skill for bureaucratic infighting. And he clearly believes that he is a figure of historical significance, on whom the CCP’s fate rests.
In order to push forward significant change, Xi has overseen the construction of a new political order, one underpinned by a massive increase in the power and authority of the CCP. Yet beyond this elevation of party power, perhaps Xi’s most critical legacy will be his expansive redefinition of national security. His advocacy of a “comprehensive national security concept” emerged in early 2014, and in a speech that April, he announced that China faced “the most complicated internal and external factors in its history.” Although this was clearly hyperbole—war with the United States in Korea and the nationwide famine of the late 1950s were more complicated—Xi’s message to the political system was clear: a new era of risk and uncertainty confronts the party.
The CCP’s long experience of defections, attempted coups, and subversion by outside actors predisposes it to acute paranoia, something that reached a fever pitch in the Mao era. Xi risks institutionalizing this paranoid style. One result of blurring the line between internal and external security has been threat inflation: party cadres in low-crime, low-risk areas now issue warnings of terrorism, “color revolutions,” and “Christian infiltration.” In Xinjiang, fears of separatism have been used to justify turning the entire region into a dystopian high-tech prison. And in Hong Kong, Xi has established a “national security” bureaucracy that can ignore local laws and operate in total secrecy as it weeds out perceived threats to Beijing’s iron-fisted rule. In both places, Xi has demonstrated that he is willing to accept international opprobrium when he feels that the party’s core interests are at stake.
At home, Xi stokes nationalist sentiment by framing China as surrounded and besieged by enemies, exploiting a deeply emotional (and highly distorted) view of the past, and romanticizing China’s battles against the Japanese in World War II and its “victory” over the United States in the Korean War. By warning that China has entered a period of heightened risk from “hostile foreign forces,” Xi is attempting to accommodate Chinese citizens to the idea of more difficult times ahead and ensure that the party and he himself are viewed as stabilizing forces.
Xi has placed China on a risky trajectory, one that threatens the achievements his predecessors secured.
Meanwhile, to exploit a perceived window of opportunity during an American retreat from global affairs, Beijing has advanced aggressively on multiple foreign policy fronts. These include the use of “gray zone” tactics, such as employing commercial fishing boats to assert territorial interests in the South China Sea and establishing China’s first overseas military base, in Djibouti. China’s vast domestic market has allowed Xi to threaten countries that don’t demonstrate political and diplomatic obedience, as evidenced by Beijing’s recent campaign of economic coercion against Australia in response to Canberra’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. Similarly, Xi has encouraged Chinese “Wolf Warrior” diplomats to intimidate and harass host countries that criticize or otherwise antagonize China. Earlier this year, Beijing levied sanctions against Jo Smith Finley, a British anthropologist and political scientist who studies Xinjiang, and the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank, whose work the CCP claimed had “severely harm[ed] China’s sovereignty and interests.”
Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping demonstrated strategic patience in asserting China’s interests on the global stage. Indeed, Mao told U.S. President Richard Nixon that China could wait 100 years to reclaim Taiwan, and Deng negotiated the return of Hong Kong under the promise (since broken by Xi) of a 50-year period of local autonomy. Both leaders had a profound sense of China’s relative fragility and the importance of careful, nuanced statesmanship. Xi does not share their equanimity, or their confidence in long-term solutions.
That has sparked concerns that Xi will attempt an extraordinarily risky gambit to take Taiwan by force by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. It seems doubtful, however, that he would invite a possible military conflict with the United States just 110 miles from China’s shoreline. Assuming the PLA were successful in overcoming Taiwan’s defenses, to say nothing of surmounting possible U.S. involvement, Xi would then have to carry out a military occupation against sustained resistance for an indeterminate length of time. An attempted takeover of Taiwan would undermine nearly all of Xi’s other global and domestic ambitions. Nevertheless, although the more extreme scenarios might remain unlikely for the time being, Xi will continue to have China flaunt its strength in its neighborhood and push outward in pursuit of its interests. On many issues, he appears to want final resolution on his watch.
THE MAN OF THE SYSTEM
Xi’s tendency to believe he can shape the precise course of China’s trajectory calls to mind the economist Adam Smith’s description of “the man of system”: a leader “so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” In order to realize his near-term goals, Xi has abandoned the invisible hand of the market and forged an economic system that relies on state actors to reach predetermined objectives.
Critical to this shift has been Xi’s reliance on industrial policy, a tool of economic statecraft that had fallen out of favor until near the end of the tenure of Xi’s predecessor, Hu, when it began to shape Beijing’s approach to technological innovation. The year 2015 marked an important inflection point, with the introduction of supersized industrial policy programs that sought not just to advance a given technology or industry but also to remake the entire structure of the economy. These included the Made in China 2025 plan, which aims to upgrade China’s manufacturing capabilities in a number of important sectors; the Internet Plus strategy, a scheme to integrate information technology into more traditional industries; and the 14th Five-Year Plan, which outlines an ambitious agenda to decrease China’s reliance on foreign technology inputs. Through such policies, Beijing channels tens of trillions of yuan into companies, technologies, and sectors it considers strategically significant. It does this by means of direct subsidies, tax rebates, and quasi-market “government guidance funds,” which resemble state-controlled venture capital firms.
Thus far, Beijing’s track record in this area is decidedly mixed: in many cases, vast sums of investment have produced meager returns. But as the economist Barry Naughton has cautioned, “Chinese industrial policies are so large, and so new, that we are not yet in a position to evaluate them. They may turn out to be successful, but it is also possible that they will turn out to be disastrous.”
Xi believes he can mold China’s future as did the emperors of the country’s storied past.
Related to this industrial policy is Xi’s approach to China’s private-sector companies, including many of the technological and financial giants that just a few years ago observers viewed as possible agents of political and social change. Technological innovation put firms such as Ant Group and Tencent in control of critical new data flows and financial technology. Xi clearly perceived this as an unacceptable threat, as demonstrated by the CCP’s recent spiking of Ant Group’s initial public offering in the wake of comments made by its founder, Jack Ma, that many perceived as critical of the party.
Xi is willing to forgo a boost in China’s international financial prestige to protect the party’s interests and send a signal to business elites: the party comes first. This is no David and Goliath story, however. It’s more akin to a family feud, given the close and enduring connections between China’s nominally private firms and its political system. Indeed, nearly all of China’s most successful entrepreneurs are members of the CCP, and for many companies, success depends on favors granted by the party, including protection from foreign competition. But whereas previous Chinese leaders granted wide latitude to the private sector, Xi has forcefully drawn a line. Doing so has further restricted the country’s ability to innovate. No matter how sophisticated Beijing’s regulators and state investors may be, sustained innovation and gains in productivity cannot occur without a vibrant private sector.
GRAND STRATEGY OR GRAND TRAGEDY?
In order to seize temporary advantages and forestall domestic challenges, Xi has positioned himself for a 15-year race, one for which he has mobilized the awesome capabilities of a system that he now commands unchallenged. Xi’s truncated time frame compels a sense of urgency that will define Beijing’s policy agenda, risk tolerance, and willingness to compromise as it sprints ahead. This will narrow the options available to countries hoping to shape China’s behavior or hoping that the “Wolf Warrior” attitude will naturally recede.
The United States can disprove Beijing’s contention that its democracy has atrophied and that Washington’s star is dimming by strengthening the resilience of American society and improving the competence of the U.S. government. If the United States and its allies invest in innovation and human capital, they can forestall Xi’s efforts to gain first-mover advantage in emerging and critical technologies. Likewise, a more active and forward-looking U.S. role in shaping the global order would limit Beijing’s ability to spread illiberal ideas beyond China’s borders.
Unwittingly, Xi has put China into competition with itself, in a race to determine if its many strengths can outstrip the pathologies that Xi himself has introduced to the system. By the time he assumed power, the CCP had established a fairly predictable process for the regular and peaceful transition of power. Next fall, the 20th Party Congress will be held, and normally, a leader who has been in charge as long as Xi has would step aside. To date, however, there is no expectation that Xi will do so. This is an extraordinarily risky move, not just for the CCP itself but also for the future of China. With no successor in sight, if Xi dies unexpectedly in the next decade, the country could be thrown into chaos.
Even assuming that Xi remains healthy while in power, the longer his tenure persists, the more the CCP will resemble a cult of personality, as it did under Mao. Elements of this are already evident, with visible sycophancy among China’s political class now the norm. Paeans to the greatness of “Xi Jinping Thought” may strike outsiders as merely curious or even comical, but they have a genuinely deleterious effect on the quality of decision-making and information flows within the party.
It would be ironic, and tragic, if Xi, a leader with a mission to save the party and the country, instead imperiled both. His current course threatens to undo the great progress China has made over the past four decades. In the end, Xi may be correct that the next decade will determine China’s long-term success. What he likely does not understand is that he himself may be the biggest obstacle.
China Is Maneuvering for International Leadership as the United States Falters
By Kurt M. Campbell and Rush Doshi, March 18, 2020
With hundreds of millions of people now isolating themselves around the world, the novel coronavirus pandemic has become a truly global event. And while its geopolitical implications should be considered secondary to matters of health and safety, those implications may, in the long term, prove just as consequential—especially when it comes to the United States’ global position. Global orders have a tendency to change gradually at first and then all at once. In 1956, a botched intervention in the Suez laid bare the decay in British power and marked the end of the United Kingdom’s reign as a global power. Today, U.S. policymakers should recognize that if the United States does not rise to meet the moment, the coronavirus pandemic could mark another “Suez moment.”
It is now clear to all but the most blinkered partisans that Washington has botched its initial response. Missteps by key institutions, from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have undermined confidence in the capacity and competence of U.S. governance. Public statements by President Donald Trump, whether Oval Office addresses or early-morning tweets, have largely served to sow confusion and spread uncertainty. Both public and private sectors have proved ill-prepared to produce and distribute the tools necessary for testing and response. And internationally, the pandemic has amplified Trump’s instincts to go it alone and exposed just how unprepared Washington is to lead a global response.
The status of the United States as a global leader over the past seven decades has been built not just on wealth and power but also, and just as important, on the legitimacy that flows from the United States’ domestic governance, provision of global public goods, and ability and willingness to muster and coordinate a global response to crises. The coronavirus pandemic is testing all three elements of U.S. leadership. So far, Washington is failing the test.
As Washington falters, Beijing is moving quickly and adeptly to take advantage of the opening created by U.S. mistakes, filling the vacuum to position itself as the global leader in pandemic response. It is working to tout its own system, provide material assistance to other countries, and even organize other governments. The sheer chutzpah of China’s move is hard to overstate. After all, it was Beijing’s own missteps—especially its efforts at first to cover up the severity and spread of the outbreak—that helped create the very crisis now afflicting much of the world. Yet Beijing understands that if it is seen as leading, and Washington is seen as unable or unwilling to do so, this perception could fundamentally alter the United States’ position in global politics and the contest for leadership in the twenty-first century.
MISTAKES WERE MADE
In the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease now referred to as COVID-19, the missteps of Chinese leaders cast a pall on their country’s global standing. The virus was first detected in November 2019 in the city of Wuhan, but officials didn’t disclose it for months and even punished the doctors who first reported it, squandering precious time and delaying by at least five weeks measures that would educate the public, halt travel, and enable widespread testing. Even as the full scale of the crisis emerged, Beijing tightly controlled information, shunned assistance from the CDC, limited World Health Organization travel to Wuhan, likely undercounted infections and deaths, and repeatedly altered the criteria for registering new COVID-19 cases—perhaps in a deliberate effort to manipulate the official number of cases.
As the crisis worsened through January and February, some observers speculated that the coronavirus might even undermine the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. It was called China’s “Chernobyl”; Dr. Li Wenliang—the young whistleblower silenced by the government who later succumbed to complications from the COVID-19—was likened to the Tiananmen Square “tank man.”
Yet by early March, China was claiming victory. Mass quarantines, a halt to travel, and a complete shutdown of most daily life nationwide were credited with having stemmed the tide; official statistics, such as they are, reported that daily new cases had fallen into the single digits in mid-March from the hundreds in early February. In a surprise to most observers, Chinese leader Xi Jinping—who had been uncharacteristically quiet in the first weeks—began to put himself squarely at the center of the response. This month, he personally visited Wuhan.
Even though life in China has yet to return to normal (and despite continuing questions over the accuracy of China’s statistics), Beijing is working to turn these early signs of success into a larger narrative to broadcast to the rest of the world—one that makes China the essential player in a coming global recovery while airbrushing away its earlier mismanagement of the crisis.
Beijing is working to turn early signs of success into a larger narrative to broadcast to the rest of the world.
A critical part of this narrative is Beijing’s supposed success in battling the virus. A steady stream of propaganda articles, tweets, and public messaging, in a wide variety of languages, touts China’s achievements and highlights the effectiveness of its model of domestic governance. “China’s signature strength, efficiency and speed in this fight has been widely acclaimed,” declared Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian. China, he added, set “a new standard for the global efforts against the epidemic.” Central authorities have instituted tight informational control and discipline at state organs to snuff out contradictory narratives.
These messages are helped by the implicit contrast with efforts to battle the virus in the West, particularly in the United States—Washington’s failure to produce adequate numbers of testing kits, which means the United States has tested relatively few people per capita, or the Trump administration’s ongoing disassembly of the U.S. government’s pandemic-response infrastructure. Beijing has seized the narrative opportunity provided by American disarray, its state media and diplomats regularly reminding a global audience of the superiority of Chinese efforts and criticizing the “irresponsibility and incompetence” of the “so-called political elite in Washington,” as the state-run Xinhua news agency put it in an editorial.
Chinese officials and state media have even insisted that the coronavirus did not in fact emerge from China—despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—in order to reduce China’s blame for the global pandemic. This effort has elements of a full-blown Russian-style disinformation campaign, with China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman and over a dozen diplomats sharing poorly sourced articles accusing the U.S. military of spreading the coronavirus in Wuhan. These actions, combined with China’s unprecedented mass expulsion of journalists from three leading American papers, damage China’s pretensions to leadership.
CHINA MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES
Xi understands that providing global goods can burnish a rising power’s leadership credentials. He has spent the last several years pushing China’s foreign policy apparatus to think harder about leading reforms to “global governance,” and the coronavirus offers an opportunity to put that theory into action. Consider China’s increasingly well-publicized displays of material assistance—including masks, respirators, ventilators, and medicine. At the outset of the crisis, China purchased and produced (and received as aid) vast quantities of these goods. Now it is in a position to hand them out to others.
When no European state answered Italy’s urgent appeal for medical equipment and protective gear, China publicly committed to sending 1,000 ventilators, two million masks, 100,000 respirators, 20,000 protective suits, and 50,000 test kits. China has also dispatched medical teams and 250,000 masks to Iran and sent supplies to Serbia, whose president dismissed European solidarity as “a fairy tale” and proclaimed that “the only country that can help us is China.” Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma has promised to send large quantities of testing kits and masks to the United States, as well as 20,000 test kits and 100,000 masks to each of Africa’s 54 countries.
Beijing’s edge in material assistance is enhanced by the simple fact that much of what the world depends on to fight the coronavirus is made in China. It was already the major producer of surgical masks; now, through wartime-like industrial mobilization, it has boosted production of masks more than tenfold, giving it the capacity to provide them to the world. China also produces roughly half of the N95 respirators critical for protecting health workers (it has forced foreign factories in China to make them and then sell them directly to the government), giving it another foreign policy tool in the form of medical equipment. Meanwhile, antibiotics are critical for addressing emerging secondary infections from COVID-19, and China produces the vast majority of active pharmaceutical ingredients necessary to make them.
Beijing’s edge in material assistance is enhanced by the fact that much of what the world depends on to fight the coronavirus is made in China.
The United States, by contrast, lacks the supply and capacity to meet many of its own demands, let alone to provide aid in crisis zones elsewhere. The picture is grim. The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile, the nation’s reserve of critical medical supplies, is believed to have only one percent of the masks and respirators and perhaps ten percent of the ventilators needed to deal with the pandemic. The rest will have to be made up with imports from China or rapidly increased domestic manufacturing. Similarly, China’s share of the U.S. antibiotics market is more than 95 percent, and most of the ingredients cannot be manufactured domestically. Although Washington offered assistance to China and others at the outset of the crisis, it is less able to do so now, as its own needs grow; Beijing, in contrast, is offering aid precisely when the global need is greatest.
Crisis response, however, is not only about material goods. During the 2014–15 Ebola crisis, the United States assembled and led a coalition of dozens of countries to counter the spread of the disease. The Trump administration has so far shunned a similar leadership effort to respond to the coronavirus. Even coordination with allies has been lacking. Washington appears, for example, not to have given its European allies any prior notice before instituting a ban on travel from Europe.
China, by contrast, has undertaken a robust diplomatic campaign to convene dozens of countries and hundreds of officials, generally by videoconference, to share information about the pandemic and lessons from China’s own experience battling the disease. Like much of China’s diplomacy, these convening efforts are largely conducted at the regional level or through regional bodies. They include calls with central and eastern European states through the “17 + 1” mechanism, with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s secretariat, with ten Pacific Island states, and with other groupings across Africa, Europe, and Asia. And China is working hard to publicize such initiatives. Virtually every story on the front page of its foreign-facing propaganda organs advertises China’s efforts to help different countries with goods and information while underscoring the superiority of Beijing’s approach.
HOW TO LEAD
China’s chief asset in its pursuit of global leadership—in the face of the coronavirus and more broadly—is the perceived inadequacy and inward focus of U.S. policy. The ultimate success of China’s pursuit, therefore, will depend as much on what happens in Washington as on what happens in Beijing. In the current crisis, Washington can still turn the tide if it proves capable of doing what is expected of a leader: managing the problem at home, supplying global public goods, and coordinating a global response.
The first of those tasks—stopping the spread of the disease and protecting vulnerable populations in the United States—is most urgent and largely a question of domestic governance rather than geopolitics. But how Washington goes about it will have geopolitical implications, and not just insofar as it does or does not reestablish confidence in the U.S. response. For example, if the federal government immediately supports and subsidizes expansion of domestic production of masks, respirators, and ventilators—a response befitting the wartime urgency of this pandemic—it would both save American lives and help others around the world by reducing the scarcity of global supplies.
While the United States isn’t currently able to meet the urgent material demands of the pandemic, its continuing global edge in the life sciences and biotechnology can be instrumental in finding a real solution to the crisis: a vaccine. The U.S. government can help by providing incentives to U.S. labs and companies to undertake a medical “Manhattan Project” to devise, rapidly test in clinical trials, and mass-produce a vaccine. Because these efforts are costly and require dauntingly high upfront investments, generous government financing and bonuses for successful vaccine production could make a difference. And it is worth noting that despite Washington’s mismanagement, state and local governments, nonprofit and religious organizations, universities, and companies are not waiting for the federal government to get its act together before taking action. U.S.-funded companies and researchers are already making progress toward a vaccine—though even in the best-case scenario, it will be some time before one is ready for widespread use.
Yet even as it focuses on efforts at home, Washington cannot simply ignore the need for a coordinated global response. Only strong leadership can solve global coordination problems related to travel restrictions, information sharing, and the flow of critical goods. The United States has successfully provided such leadership for decades, and it must do so again.
That leadership will also require effectively cooperating with China, rather than getting consumed by a war of narratives about who responded better. Little is gained by repeatedly emphasizing the origins of the coronavirus—which are already widely known despite China’s propaganda—or engaging in petty tit-for-tat rhetorical exchanges with Beijing. As Chinese officials accuse the U.S. military of spreading the virus and lambaste U.S. efforts, Washington should respond when necessary but generally resist the temptation to put China at the center of its coronavirus messaging. Most countries coping with the challenge would rather see a public message that stresses the seriousness of a shared global challenge and possible paths forward (including successful examples of coronavirus response in democratic societies such as Taiwan and South Korea). And there is much Washington and Beijing could do together for the world’s benefit: coordinating vaccine research and clinical trials as well as fiscal stimulus; sharing information; cooperating on industrial mobilization (on machines for producing critical respirator components or ventilator parts, for instance); and offering joint assistance to others.
Ultimately, the coronavirus might even serve as a wake-up call, spurring progress on other global challenges requiring U.S.-Chinese cooperation, such as climate change. Such a step should not be seen—and would not be seen by the rest of the world—as a concession to Chinese power. Rather, it would go some way toward restoring faith in the future of U.S. leadership. In the current crisis, as in geopolitics today more generally, the United States can do well by doing good.
by Steven Pinker
As “9” on the calendar rolls over to a fresh “0”, many people are desperate for a ray of optimism to pierce the gloom of the daily headlines. Having published a hundred graphs documenting human progress, I’m often asked for reassurance that we will overcome our problems and that the coming decade will not just bring intensifying crises and declines.
Progress is a historical fact. The numbers show that over the past seven decades humans have become (on average) longer-lived, healthier, safer, richer, freer, fairer, happier and smarter, not just in the west but worldwide.
Progress is not, however, a natural force. The laws of the universe are indifferent to our wellbeing, with vastly more things that can go wrong than go right. And our species evolved for advantages in the struggle to reproduce, not for happiness or wisdom. The first step in thinking about the future is to reconcile human progress with human nature.
The progress we have enjoyed has come from empowering the better angels of our nature. We are a cognitive species, with the wherewithal to solve problems and the linguistic means to pool solutions. We are a co-operative species, joining forces to achieve outcomes we cannot achieve individually. And we are an intermittently empathetic species, capable of concern with the wellbeing of others.
These gifts were amplified by ideas and institutions advocated during the Enlightenment and entrenched after the second world war: reason, science, liberal democracy, declarations of rights, a free press, regulated markets, institutions of international co-operation.
But this progress is invisible to most people because they don’t get their understanding of the world from numbers; they get it from headlines. Journalism by its very nature conceals progress, because it presents sudden events rather than gradual trends. Most things that happen suddenly are bad: a war, a shooting, an epidemic, a scandal, a financial collapse. Most things that are good consist either of nothing happening — like a nation that is free of war or famine — or things that happen gradually but compound over the years, such as declines in poverty, illiteracy and disease.
On top of this built-in pessimism, market forces add layers of glumness. People dread losses more than they appreciate gains, so prophets can stoke their vigilance by warning them about looming disasters they may have overlooked. Popular forecasters are not actuaries who extrapolate and adjust medium-term trends but playwrights who titillate our imaginations with high-concept tragedies and horror stories.
So for every Age of Aquarius with electricity too cheap to meter, there are a dozen dystopias. In my lifetime I have survived a thermonuclear third world war, a population bomb, depletion of oil and minerals, a civilisation-ending Y2K bug, weekly 9/11-scale terrorist attacks, and a mushroom cloud from Saddam Hussein. Those who recall the fall of the Berlin Wall as opening a window of optimism have bad memories. Experts at the time warned of revanchism in a unified Germany, a rising sun in Japan and a longing for the stability of a bipolar world. A 1994 Atlantic cover story foretold a “coming anarchy” of world wars, spiralling crime, exploding Aids and the break-up of Nigeria, China, India and the US.
So how can we think about the 2020s without melodrama? Progress does not literally have momentum, but many of its drivers are not going away. Science and medicine continue to explore their endless frontiers and should keep delivering increments of understanding that lengthen and enrich our lives. It’s true that the parent ideal of reason is under assault by fundamentalism, fake news and conspiracy theories, as it always has been. But the reach of reason is also expanding through online resources for education and fact-checking, and in movements for evidence-based medicine, policy and philanthropy.
In the moral sphere, the concept of human rights is self-expanding, since mistreatment of arbitrary categories of people withers under scrutiny. Successive generations have applied the ideal to ending religious persecution, despotism, sadistic punishments, legal slavery, callousness towards workers and discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and gay people. Recently it has been extended to sexual harassment, mistreatment of transgender people and oppressive laws in illiberal regions. (In the past decade 13 countries decriminalised homosexuality.) Even the most backward will face pressure to abandon archaic practices that keep girls out of school and women from driving.
By adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, the 193 countries of the UN committed themselves to audacious targets for slashing poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, gender inequality, war and other scourges. Progress toward these goals (other than climate) is continuing and can be tracked on sites like Our World in Data, Gapminder, Human Progress, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Future Crunch. It is unlikely to do a sudden U-turn.
But — as the sustainable goalkeepers emphasise — “progress is possible, but it is not inevitable”. Poverty, disease and conflict are natural, not unnatural, parts of the human condition, and only the concerted application of reason, science and humanism can push back against their creep.
Progress can be threatened not just by complacency but by tribalism, authoritarianism and science denial. Populists such as Donald Trump embody these threats; he treats public discourse not as a means of collectively pursuing an objective reality but as a weapon with which to project dominance. He has blown off the scientific consensus on climate change and suppressed dissemination of data on public health and the environment. He has sown ethnic hostility at home while rejecting international co-operation in favour of zero-sum economic or political combat. These insults to Enlightenment ideals are not just philosophical; they undermine concrete measures that have driven progress in the past, including democratic checks, free trade, environmental regulation and international agreements.
Though we cannot know how much damage authoritarian populism will do, there are reasons to think it is not the face of the future. Its support is greatest among rural, less-educated, ethnic-majority and older cohorts, all in demographic decline. And even countries that try to hide in a nationalist fortress will increasingly be besieged by crises that are inherently global and cannot be solved without international co-operation, including climate change, ocean degradation, pandemics, migrants, cyber crime, terrorism, piracy, dark money and nuclear proliferation.
Democracy, repeatedly declared moribund by schadenfreudian pundits, may be more resilient than they acknowledge. Everyone has read about backsliding in countries such as Turkey, Russia and Venezuela — but fewer have read about the gains in countries such as Georgia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, Armenia, Malaysia and Ethiopia. According to the Varieties of Democracy scorecard, during the past decade the number of democracies in the world has hovered in a record-high range, with 99 (55 per cent) in 2018, compared to 87 in 1998, 51 in 1988, 40 in 1978, 36 in 1968 and 10 in 1918. And in the past year, pressure for democratisation has heated up in protests in Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia, Algeria, Sudan and Hong Kong.
Peace, too, may have staying power. Despite recent scares from Putinism and the Arab Spring, the long peace since the second world war keeps lengthening. Wars between great powers, once chronic, have vanished: the last one pitted the US against China more than 65 years ago. Wars between states continue their slide toward obsolescence, with no more than three in any year since 1945 and none since 2003. Though civil wars persist, the overall rate of deaths in wars of all kinds plunged a hundredfold between 1950 and 2005, from 22 per 100,000 people per year to 0.2. After rising to 1.5 in 2014 during the horrific Syrian civil war, it halved to 0.7 in 2018. And for all the warnings of a rising China that will inevitably fight its rival hegemon, that country has rested its fortunes on trade, contributed to UN peacekeeping, joined global and regional organisations, kept North Korea on a leash, assisted poor countries with infrastructure rather than weaponry, and not fought a war in 32 years.
Past performance is, of course, no guarantee of future results. Though history is not cyclical, it can be knocked backwards by nasty surprises. It’s happened before: the two world wars, the Spanish flu, the outbreak of Aids in Africa, surges in crime and civil war from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s, 9/11. The coming decade will surely bring more, though by definition we cannot know what they are. Of course, we know what some of the catastrophic threats to gradual progress are. As the bumper sticker notes, one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day. Contrary to almost 75 years in which doomsday has supposedly been minutes away, no nuclear weapon has been detonated in war since Nagasaki. This suggests that the norms and safeguards against accidental and impulsive launches have done their job.
Still, the possible destruction is so horrific that we would be foolish to push our luck indefinitely. The low but disconcerting odds can be pushed still lower by putting the weapons on a longer fuse, and by reducing their number below the threshold of a nuclear winter and eventually to zero. Today’s leaders of nuclear states are not exactly moving in this direction, and it’s inexcusable that the future of civilisation is a non-issue in an electoral arena obsessed with minor gaffes and scandals.
Also possibly calamitous are pandemics that could hop continents and cybersabotage that could bring down the internet. Here too the safeguards have worked so far, but experts say they must be strengthened.
In a category of its own is climate change, which is more of an approaching asteroid than a spinning roulette wheel. It would be irresponsible to predict either that everything will turn out OK or that we’re cooked. Climate salvation, if it comes at all, will not primarily come from shaming oil companies or making personal sacrifices. It will require breakthroughs in policy and technology.
The atmosphere is a global commons, where no individual or country has an incentive to stint on emissions because it would suffer all the cost but no benefit unless everyone else makes the same sacrifice. Policies that put a price on carbon are necessary to avert this tragedy, but we have learnt that people react to them not by weatherstripping their windows but by donning yellow vests and setting cars on fire. Such policies must be sweetened with rebates or hidden in dark layers of the economy.
But I suspect that it will be more effective to make clean energy cheap than dirty energy expensive. In the short term this could involve a rapid buildout of nuclear power, as France and Sweden did in the past. In the longer term it will require breakthroughs in storing the intermittent energy from wind and sun, in bioenergy, and in a new generation of small modular fission or fusion reactors. Technological advances will also be needed to electrify industry, reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture, and capture the CO2 already in the atmosphere.
You can’t worry about everything, and my appreciation of the complexity of human nature leaves me sceptical about another common fear: that the 2020s will see a brave new world of high-tech mind-hacking.
Predictions from the 1990s that yuppie parents would soon implant genes for intelligence or musical talent in their unborn children seemed plausible in a decade filled with discoveries of the gene for X. But these findings were destined for the Journal of Irreproducible Results, and today we know that heritable skills are the products of hundreds of genes, each with a minuscule effect, and many with deleterious side-effects. Micromanaging an embryo’s genome will always be complex and risky. Given that most parents are squeamish about genetically modified applesauce, it’s unlikely they would roll the dice for genetically modified children.
Brain-computer interfaces, except as treatments for paralysis or other disabilities, also strike me as dubious, like trying to adjust your iPhone settings with a soldering gun. Our thoughts are embodied in intricate patterns of connectivity in networks of millions of neurons, using a code that neuroscientists have not cracked. Since we already come equipped with pinpoint interfaces to our neural networks — eyes, ears, fingers, tongues — I doubt that healthy people will see the need for another hole in their head or for a foreign object lodged in their brain.
Some tech prophets sow fear about an advanced artificial intelligence subduing its creators. Others warn of an AI laying waste to the world while single-mindedly pursuing a goal, like inducing tumours in human guinea pigs to find a cure for cancer or asphyxiating us all to de-acidify the oceans. But the first fear projects human sins like greed and dominance on to the concept of intelligence. A human-made intelligent system is a problem-solving tool, not a rival primate. And the second refutes itself. It assumes that engineers are so smart that they could invent a system that can cure cancer and undo pollution but so stupid they would forget to give it any other conditions or test how it works before granting it omnipotence over the planet. Moreover, a system that monomaniacally pursued a single goal may be A, but it’s hardly I.
And then there’s the prospect that fake news and targeted political ads will hijack people’s minds and obliterate democracy. Though the spread of disinformation must be combated, research on political messaging shows that it’s not so easy to change people’s minds. Even traditional TV and direct-mail ads are surprisingly ineffective, and in the 2016 American election fake news and bot-generated tweets made up a tiny fraction of online political traffic and were mostly consumed by zealots. (Few swing voters made up their minds upon reading that Hillary Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizzeria.) For that matter online advertising, for all its claims to data-driven microtargeting, is dubiously effective, serving readers with ads for products they have already bought and ads for products they would never buy (like the trunnion tables and high-tech dreidels regularly interpolated into my daily news).
Prudence and experience compel me to hedge these reflections on the next decade. Like soothsayers before me, I will surely be wrong in some of my expectations about continuing progress and the threats it does and does not face. But I am confident in one thing: the 2020s will be filled with problems, crises and discord, just like the decades before and after. Some people are surprised to hear this champion of progress abjure any hope for a future free of trouble and strife. Why can’t we build on our accomplishments and aspire to utopia?
The reason is that we are not blank slates. The hard-won knowledge that has allowed us to marginalise our superstitions and biases must be relearned every generation in a Sisyphean struggle, never perfectly.
Also, human nature imposes permanent trade-offs among the things we value. People differ in talent and temperament, so even in a fair system they will end up unequal, and what pleases some will inevitably anger others. People are not infinitely wise, so when they are given their freedom, some will use it to screw up their lives, and when they are empowered in a democracy, they may choose leaders and policies that are bad for them. And people are not infinitely selfless. Any policy that makes most people better off will make some people worse off (say, coal executives), and they will not sacrifice their interests for the good of the group.
Yet the fact of progress shows that these trade-offs do not pin us to a constant level of suffering. Knowledge and technology can bend the trade-offs to give us more of each good. Education, a free press and civil society can remind us that the compromises of democracy are better than the alternatives. And (as physicist David Deutsch has noted) problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and solutions create new problems that can be solved in their turn.
Think of two significant trend lines in the world today. One is the increasing ambition and activism of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China. The other is the declining confidence, capacity, and will of the democratic world, and especially of the United States, to maintain the dominant position it has held in the international system since 1945. As those two lines move closer, as the declining will and capacity of the United States and its allies to maintain the present world order meet the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers to change it, we will reach the moment at which the existing order collapses and the world descends into a phase of brutal anarchy, as it has three times in the past two centuries. The cost of that descent, in lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope, will be staggering.
Where exactly we are in this classic scenario today, how close the trend lines are to that intersection point is, as always, impossible to know. Are we three years away from a global crisis, or 15?
Americans tend to take the fundamental stability of the international order for granted, even while complaining about the burden the United States carries in preserving that stability. History shows that world orders do collapse, however, and when they do it is often unexpected, rapid, and violent. The late 18th century was the high point of the Enlightenment in Europe, before the continent fell suddenly into the abyss of the Napoleonic Wars. In the first decade of the 20th century, the world’s smartest minds predicted an end to great-power conflict as revolutions in communication and transportation knit economies and people closer together. The most devastating war in history came four years later. The apparent calm of the postwar 1920s became the crisis-ridden 1930s and then another world war. Where exactly we are in this classic scenario today, how close the trend lines are to that intersection point is, as always, impossible to know. Are we three years away from a global crisis, or 15? That we are somewhere on that path, however, is unmistakable.
And while it is too soon to know what effect Donald Trump’s presidency will have on these trends, early signs suggest that the new administration is more likely to hasten us toward crisis than slow or reverse these trends. The further accommodation of Russia can only embolden Vladimir Putin, and the tough talk with China will likely lead Beijing to test the new administration’s resolve militarily. Whether the president is ready for such a confrontation is entirely unclear. For the moment, he seems not to have thought much about the future ramifications of his rhetoric and his actions.
China and Russia are classic revisionist powers. Although both have never enjoyed greater security from foreign powers than they do today — Russia from its traditional enemies to the west, China from its traditional enemy in the east — they are dissatisfied with the current global configuration of power. Both seek to restore the hegemonic dominance they once enjoyed in their respective regions. For China, that means dominance of East Asia, with countries like Japan, South Korea, and the nations of Southeast Asia both acquiescing to Beijing’s will and acting in conformity with China’s strategic, economic, and political preferences. That includes American influence withdrawn to the eastern Pacific, behind the Hawaiian Islands. For Russia, it means hegemonic influence in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, which Moscow has traditionally regarded as either part of its empire or part of its sphere of influence. Both Beijing and Moscow seek to redress what they regard as an unfair distribution of power, influence, and honor in the U.S.-led postwar global order. As autocracies, both feel threatened by the dominant democratic powers in the international system and by the democracies on their borders. Both regard the United States as the principal obstacle to their ambitions, and therefore both seek to weaken the American-led international security order that stands in the way of their achieving what they regard as their rightful destinies.
It was good while it lasted
Until fairly recently, Russia and China have faced considerable, almost insuperable, obstacles in achieving their objectives. The chief obstacle has been the power and coherence of the international order itself and its principal promoter and defender. The American-led system of political and military alliances, especially in the two critical regions of Europe and East Asia, has presented China and Russia with what Dean Acheson once referred to as “situations of strength” that have required them to pursue their ambitions cautiously and, since the end of the Cold War, to defer serious efforts to disrupt the international system.
During the era of American primacy, China and Russia have participated in and for the most part been beneficiaries of the open international economic system the United States created and helps sustain; so long as that system functions, they have had more to gain by playing in it than by challenging and overturning it.
The system has checked their ambitions in both positive and negative ways. During the era of American primacy, China and Russia have participated in and for the most part been beneficiaries of the open international economic system the United States created and helps sustain; so long as that system functions, they have had more to gain by playing in it than by challenging and overturning it. The political and strategic aspects of the order, however, have worked to their detriment. The growth and vibrancy of democratic government in the two decades following the collapse of Soviet communism posed a continual threat to the ability of rulers in Beijing and Moscow to maintain control, and since the end of the Cold War they have regarded every advance of democratic institutions — especially the geographical advance of liberal democracies close to their borders — as an existential threat. That’s for good reason: Autocratic powers since the days of Klemens von Metternich have always feared the contagion of liberalism. The mere existence of democracies on their borders, the global free flow of information they cannot control, the dangerous connection between free market capitalism and political freedom — all pose a threat to rulers who depend on keeping restive forces in their own countries in check. The continual challenge to the legitimacy of their rule posed by the U.S.-supported democratic order has therefore naturally made them hostile both to that order and to the United States. But, until recently, a preponderance of domestic and international forces has dissuaded them from confronting the order directly. Chinese rulers have had to worry about what an unsuccessful confrontation with the United States might do to their legitimacy at home. Even Putin has pushed only against open doors, as in Syria, where the United States responded passively to his probes. He has been more cautious when confronted by even marginal U.S. and European opposition, as in Ukraine.
The greatest check on Chinese and Russian ambitions has been the military and economic power of the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. China, although increasingly powerful, has had to contemplate facing the combined military and economic strength of the world’s superpower and some very formidable regional powers linked by alliance or common strategic interest — including Japan, India, and South Korea, as well as smaller but still potent nations like Vietnam and Australia. Russia has had to face the United States and its NATO allies. When united, these U.S.-led alliances present a daunting challenge to a revisionist power that can call on few allies of its own for assistance. Even were the Chinese to score an early victory in a conflict, such as the military subjection of Taiwan or a naval battle in the South or East China Sea, they would have to contend over time with the combined industrial productive capacities of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations and the likely cutoff of access to foreign markets on which their own economy depends. A weaker Russia, with its depleted population and oil- and gas-dependent economy, would face an even greater challenge.
For decades, the strong global position enjoyed by the United States and its allies has discouraged any serious challenge. So long as the United States was perceived as a dependable ally, Chinese and Russian leaders feared that aggressive moves would backfire and possibly bring their regimes down. This is what the political scientist William Wohlforth once described as the inherent stability of the unipolar order: As dissatisfied regional powers sought to challenge the status quo, their alarmed neighbors turned to the distant American superpower to contain their ambitions. And it worked. The United States stepped up, and Russia and China largely backed down — or were preempted before acting at all.
Faced with these obstacles, the best option for the two revisionist great powers has always been to hope for or, if possible, engineer a weakening of the U.S.-supported world order from within, either by separating the United States from its allies or by raising doubts about the U.S. commitment and thereby encouraging would-be allies and partners to forgo the strategic protection of the liberal world order and seek accommodation with its challengers.
The present system has therefore depended not only on American power but on coherence and unity at the heart of the democratic world. The United States has had to play its part as the principal guarantor of the order, especially in the military and strategic realm, but the order’s ideological and economic core — the democracies of Europe and East Asia and the Pacific — has also had to remain relatively healthy and confident.
In recent years, both pillars have been shaken. The democratic order has weakened and fractured at its core. Difficult economic conditions, the recrudescence of nationalism and tribalism, weak and uncertain political leadership and unresponsive mainstream political parties, and a new era of communications that seems to strengthen rather than weaken tribalism have together produced a crisis of confidence not only in the democracies but in what might be called the liberal enlightenment project. That project elevated universal principles of individual rights and common humanity over ethnic, racial, religious, national, or tribal differences. It looked to a growing economic interdependence to create common interests across boundaries and to the establishment of international institutions to smooth differences and facilitate cooperation among nations. Instead, the past decade has seen the rise of tribalism and nationalism, an increasing focus on the Other in all societies, and a loss of confidence in government, in the capitalist system, and in democracy. We are witnessing the opposite of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” History is returning with a vengeance and with it all the darker aspects of the human soul, including, for many, the perennial human yearning for a strong leader to provide firm guidance in a time of confusion and incoherence.
The Dark Ages 2.0
This crisis of the enlightenment project may have been inevitable, a recurring phenomenon produced by inherent flaws in both capitalism and democracy. In the 1930s, economic crisis and rising nationalism led many to doubt whether either democracy or capitalism was preferable to alternatives such as fascism and communism. And it is no coincidence that the crisis of confidence in liberalism accompanied a simultaneous breakdown of the strategic order. Then, the question was whether the United States as the outside power would step in and save or remake an order that Britain and France were no longer able or willing to sustain. Now, the question is whether the United States is willing to continue upholding the order that it created and which depends entirely on American power or whether Americans are prepared to take the risk — if they even understand the risk — of letting the order collapse into chaos and conflict.
That willingness has been in doubt for some time, well before the election of Trump and even before the election of Barack Obama. Increasingly in the quarter century after the end of the Cold War, Americans have been wondering why they bear such an unusual and outsized responsibility for preserving global order when their own interests are not always clearly served — and when the United States seems to be making all the sacrifices while others benefit. Few remember the reasons why the United States took on this abnormal role after the calamitous two world wars of the 20th century. The millennial generation born after the end of the Cold War can hardly be expected to understand the lasting significance of the political, economic, and security structures established after World War II. Nor are they likely to learn much about it in high school and college textbooks obsessed with noting the evils and follies of American “imperialism.” Both the crises of the first half of the 20th century and its solution in 1945 have been forgotten. As a consequence, the American public’s patience with the difficulties and costs inherent in playing that global role have worn thin. Whereas previous unsuccessful and costly wars, in Korea in 1950 and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and previous economic downturns, such as with the energy crisis and crippling “stagflation” of the mid- to late 1970s, did not have the effect of turning Americans against global involvement, the unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis of 2008 have.
The Obama administration responded to the George W. Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan not by restoring American power and influence but by further reducing them.
Obama pursued an ambivalent approach to global involvement, but his core strategy was retrenchment. In his actions and his statements, he critiqued and repudiated previous American strategy and reinforced a national mood favoring a much less active role in the world and much narrower definition of American interests. The Obama administration responded to the George W. Bush administration’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan not by restoring American power and influence but by further reducing them. Although the administration promised to “rebalance” American foreign policy to Asia and the Pacific, in practice that meant reducing global commitments and accommodating revisionist powers at the expense of allies’ security.
The administration’s early attempt to “reset” relations with Russia struck the first blow to America’s reputation as a reliable ally. Coming just after the Russian invasion of Georgia, it appeared to reward Moscow’s aggression. The reset also came at the expense of U.S. allies in Central Europe, as programs of military cooperation with Poland and the Czech Republic were jettisoned to appease the Kremlin. This attempt at accommodation, moreover, came just as Russian policy toward the West — not to mention Putin’s repressive policies toward his own people — was hardening. Far from eliciting better behavior by Russia, the reset emboldened Putin to push harder. Then, in 2014, the West’s inadequate response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea, though better than the Bush administration’s anemic response to the invasion of Georgia (Europe and the United States at least imposed sanctions after the invasion of Ukraine), still indicated reluctance on the part of the U.S. administration to force Russia back in its declared sphere of interest. Obama, in fact, publicly acknowledged Russia’s privileged position in Ukraine even as the United States and Europe sought to protect that country’s sovereignty. In Syria, the administration practically invited Russian intervention through Washington’s passivity, and certainly did nothing to discourage it, thus reinforcing the growing impression of an America in retreat across the Middle East (an impression initially created by the unnecessary and unwise withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq). Subsequent Russian actions that increased the refugee flow from Syria into Europe also brought no American response, despite the evident damage of those refugee flows to European democratic institutions. The signal sent by the Obama administration was that none of this was really America’s problem.
In East Asia, the Obama administration undermined its otherwise commendable efforts to assert America’s continuing interest and influence. The so-called “pivot” proved to be mostly rhetoric. Inadequate overall defense spending precluded the necessary increases in America’s regional military presence in a meaningful way, and the administration allowed a critical economic component, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to die in Congress, chiefly a victim of its own party’s opposition. The pivot also suffered from the general perception of American retreat and retrenchment, encouraged both by presidential rhetoric and by administration policies, especially in the Middle East. The premature, unnecessary, and strategically costly withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, followed by the accommodating agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, and then by the failure to hold the line on threats to use force against Syria’s president, was noticed around the world. Despite the Obama administration’s insistence that American strategy should be geared toward Asia, U.S. allies have been left wondering how reliable the U.S. commitment might be when facing the challenge posed by China. The Obama administration erred in imagining that it could retrench globally while reassuring allies in Asia that the United States remained a reliable partner.
Nature abhors a vacuum
The effect on the two great revisionist powers, meanwhile, has been to encourage greater efforts at revision. In recent years, both powers have been more active in challenging the order, and one reason has been the growing perception that the United States is losing both the will and the capacity to sustain it. The psychological and political effect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the United States, which has been to weaken support for American global engagement across the board, has provided an opening.
It is a myth, prevalent among liberal democracies, that revisionist powers can be pacified by acquiescence to their demands. American retrenchment, by this logic, ought to reduce tensions and competition. Unfortunately, the opposite is more often the case. The more secure revisionist powers feel, the more ambitious they are in seeking to change the system to their advantage because the resistance to change appears to be lessening. Just look at both China and Russia: Never in the past two centuries have they enjoyed greater security from external attack than they do today. Yet both remain dissatisfied and have become increasingly aggressive in pressing what they perceive to be their growing advantage in a system where the United States no longer puts up as much resistance as it used to.
The two great powers have differed, so far, chiefly in their methods. China has until now been the more careful, cautious, and patient of the two, seeking influence primarily through its great economic clout and using its growing military power chiefly as a source of deterrence and regional intimidation. It has not resorted to the outright use of force yet, although its actions in the South China Sea are military in nature, with strategic objectives. And while Beijing has been wary of using military force until now, it would be a mistake to assume it will continue show such restraint in the future — possibly the near future. Revisionist great powers with growing military capabilities invariably make use of those capabilities when they believe the possible gains outweigh the risks and costs. If the Chinese perceive America’s commitment to its allies and its position in the region to be weakening, or its capacity to make good on those commitments to be declining, then they will be more inclined to attempt to use the power they are acquiring in order to achieve their objectives. As the trend lines draw closer, this is where the first crisis is likely to take place.
Russia has been far more aggressive. It has invaded two neighboring states — Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 — and in both cases hived off significant portions of those two nations’ sovereign territory. Given the intensity with which the United States and its allies would have responded to such actions during the four decades of the Cold War, their relative lack of a response must have sent quite a signal to the Kremlin — and to others around the world. Moscow then followed by sending substantial forces into Syria. It has used its dominance of European energy markets as a weapon. It has used cyberwarfare against neighboring states. It has engaged in extensive information warfare on a global scale.
More recently, the Russian government has deployed a weapon that the Chinese either lack or have so far chosen not to deploy — the ability to interfere directly in Western electoral processes, both to influence their outcomes and more generally to discredit the democratic system. Russia funds right-wing populist parties across Europe, including in France; uses its media outlets to support favored candidates and attack others; has disseminated “fake news” to influence voters, most recently in Italy’s referendum; and has hacked private communications in order to embarrass those it wishes to defeat. This past year, Russia for the first time employed this powerful weapon against the United States, heavily interfering in the American electoral process.
Although Russia, by any measure, is the weaker of the two great powers, it has so far had more success than China in accomplishing its objective of dividing and disrupting the West.
Although Russia, by any measure, is the weaker of the two great powers, it has so far had more success than China in accomplishing its objective of dividing and disrupting the West. Its interference in Western democratic political systems, its information warfare, and its role in creating increased refugee flows from Syria into Europe have all contributed to the sapping of Europeans’ confidence in their political systems and established political parties. Its military intervention in Syria, contrasted with American passivity, has exacerbated existing doubts about American staying power in the region. Beijing, until recently, has succeeded mostly in driving American allies closer to the United States out of concern for growing Chinese power — but that could change quickly, especially if the United States continues on its present trajectory. There are signs that regional powers are already recalculating: East Asian countries are contemplating regional trade agreements that need not include the United States or, in the case of the Philippines, are actively courting China, while a number of nations in Eastern and Central Europe are moving closer to Russia, both strategically and ideologically. We could soon face a situation where both great revisionist powers are acting aggressively, including by military means, posing extreme challenges to American and global security in two regions at once.
The dispensable nation
All this comes as Americans continue to signal their reluctance to uphold the world order they created after World War II. Donald Trump was not the only major political figure in this past election season to call for a much narrower definition of American interests and a lessening of the burdens of American global leadership. President Obama and Bernie Sanders both expressed a version of “America First.” The candidate who spoke often of America’s “indispensable” global role lost, and even Hillary Clinton felt compelled to jettison her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. At the very least, there should be doubts about the American public’s willingness to continue supporting the international alliance structure, denying the revisionist powers their desired spheres of influence and regional hegemony, and upholding democratic and free market norms in the international system.
The weakness at the core of the democratic world and the shedding by the United States of global responsibilities have already encouraged a more aggressive revisionism by the dissatisfied powers.
Coming as it does at a time of growing great-power competition, this narrowing definition of American interests will likely hasten a return to the instability and clashes of previous eras. The weakness at the core of the democratic world and the shedding by the United States of global responsibilities have already encouraged a more aggressive revisionism by the dissatisfied powers. That, in turn, has further sapped the democratic world’s confidence and willingness to resist. History suggests that this is a downward spiral from which it will be difficult to recover, absent a rather dramatic shift of course by the United States.
That shift may come too late. It was in the 1920s, not the 1930s, that the democratic powers made the most important and ultimately fatal decisions. Americans’ disillusionment after World War I led them to reject playing a strategic role in preserving the peace in Europe and Asia, even though America was the only nation powerful enough to play that role. The withdrawal of the United States helped undermine the will of Britain and France and encouraged Germany in Europe and Japan in Asia to take increasingly aggressive actions to achieve regional dominance. Most Americans were convinced that nothing that happened in Europe or Asia could affect their security. It took World War II to convince them that was a mistake. The “return to normalcy” of the 1920 election seemed safe and innocent at the time, but the essentially selfish policies pursued by the world’s strongest power in the following decade helped set the stage for the calamities of the 1930s. By the time the crises began to erupt, it was already too late to avoid paying the high price of global conflict.
In such times, it has always been tempting to believe that geopolitical competition can be solved through efforts at cooperation and accommodation. The idea, recently proposed by Niall Ferguson, that the world can be ruled jointly by the United States, Russia, and China is not a new one. Such condominiums have been proposed and attempted in every era when the dominant power or powers in the international system sought to fend off challenges from the dissatisfied revisionist powers. It has rarely worked. Revisionist great powers are not easy to satisfy short of complete capitulation. Their sphere of influence is never quite large enough to satisfy their pride or their expanding need for security. In fact, their very expansion creates insecurity, by frightening neighbors and leading them to band together against the rising power. The satiated power that Otto von Bismarck spoke of is rare. The German leaders who succeeded him were not satisfied even with being the strongest power in Europe. In their efforts to grow still stronger, they produced coalitions against them, making their fear of “encirclement” a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile
This is a common trait of rising powers — their actions produce the very insecurity they claim to want to redress. They harbor grievances against the existing order (both Germany and Japan considered themselves the “have-not” nations), but their grievances cannot be satisfied so long as the existing order remains in place. Marginal concession is not enough, but the powers upholding the existing order will not make more than marginal concessions unless they are compelled to by superior strength. Japan, the aggrieved “have-not” nation of the 1930s, did not satisfy itself by taking Manchuria in 1931. Germany, the aggrieved victim of Versailles, did not satisfy itself by bringing the Germans of the Sudetenland back into the fold. They demanded much more, and they could not persuade the democratic powers to give them what they wanted without resorting to war.
Granting the revisionist powers spheres of influence is not a recipe for peace and tranquility but rather an invitation to inevitable conflict.
Granting the revisionist powers spheres of influence is not a recipe for peace and tranquility but rather an invitation to inevitable conflict. Russia’s historical sphere of influence does not end in Ukraine. It begins in Ukraine. It extends to the Baltic States, to the Balkans, and to the heart of Central Europe. And within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, other nations do not enjoy autonomy or even sovereignty. There was no independent Poland under the Russian Empire nor under the Soviet Union. For China to gain its desired sphere of influence in East Asia will mean that, when it chooses, it can close the region off to the United States — not only militarily but politically and economically, too.
China will, of course, inevitably exercise great sway in its own region, as will Russia. The United States cannot and should not prevent China from being an economic powerhouse. Nor should it wish for the collapse of Russia. The United States should even welcome competition of a certain kind. Great powers compete across multiple planes — economic, ideological, and political, as well as military. Competition in most spheres is necessary and even healthy. Within the liberal order, China can compete economically and successfully with the United States; Russia can thrive in the international economic order upheld by the democratic system, even if it is not itself democratic.
But military and strategic competition is different. The security situation undergirds everything else. It remains true today as it has since World War II that only the United States has the capacity and the unique geographical advantages to provide global security and relative stability. There is no stable balance of power in Europe or Asia without the United States. And while we can talk about “soft power” and “smart power,” they have been and always will be of limited value when confronting raw military power. Despite all of the loose talk of American decline, it is in the military realm where U.S. advantages remain clearest. Even in other great powers’ backyards, the United States retains the capacity, along with its powerful allies, to deter challenges to the security order. But without a U.S. willingness to maintain the balance in far-flung regions of the world, the system will buckle under the unrestrained military competition of regional powers. Part of that willingness entails defense spending commensurate with America’s continuing global role.
For the United States to accept a return to spheres of influence would not calm the international waters. It would merely return the world to the condition it was in at the end of the 19th century, with competing great powers clashing over inevitably intersecting and overlapping spheres. These unsettled, disordered conditions produced the fertile ground for the two destructive world wars of the first half of the 20th century. The collapse of the British-dominated world order on the oceans, the disruption of the uneasy balance of power on the European continent as a powerful unified Germany took shape, and the rise of Japanese power in East Asia all contributed to a highly competitive international environment in which dissatisfied great powers took the opportunity to pursue their ambitions in the absence of any power or group of powers to unite in checking them. The result was an unprecedented global calamity and death on an epic scale. It has been the great accomplishment of the U.S.-led world order in the 70 years since the end of World War II that this kind of competition has been held in check and great power conflicts have been avoided. It will be more than a shame if Americans were to destroy what they created — and not because it was no longer possible to sustain but simply because they chose to stop trying.
When visiting England,
pay attention to the signs and be aware of the circumstances.
The Islamic Emirates Project
is working to change your stay (and future)!
Quando visitarem a Inglaterra,
prestem atenção aos sinais e estejam cientes das circunstâncias.
O Projeto Emiratos Islâmicos
está a trabalhar para mudar a sua estadia (e futuro)!
Concerning Europe, this is what Putin and “entourage” desire:
Russians want to be in,
throw the Americans out
and keep the germans down.
Which they will only accomplish with NATO disbanding.
A Rússia está a fazer na Ucrânia, mais ou menos o que fez na Geórgia.
Alguém se lembra o que a comunidade internacional fez sobre Abcásia e da Ossétia do Sul?
Então, a pergunta é: desta vez, qual será a reacção da Comunidade Internacional?
Penso que devemos considerar a possibilidade de Putin se julgar como o herdeiro de Pedro, o Grande. É uma possibilidade. Sobre Putin ser corporativista, disso não tenho qualquer dúvida.
Já referenciei várias vezes o Testamento de Pedro, o Grande. Mas, como também já afirmei, apesar de ser um documento duvidoso, algo que não pode ser negligenciado, não é possível deixar de ver coincidências entre aquilo que nele consta e a actuação da política externa russa, independentemente dos regimes. Nem durante a União Soviética, os objectivos deixaram de ser território e influência.
Dito isto, não acredito que Putin fique por aqui.
Russia is doing in Ukraine more or less what it did in Georgia.
Does anyone remember what the international community did about Abkhazia and South Ossetia?
So, the question is: this time, what will be the international community reaction?
I think we should consider the possibility of Putin judging himself as the heir of Peter the Great. About Putin being a corporatist, of that I have no doubt.
I have referenced the Testament of Peter the Great several times. But, as I have also affirmed, despite being a dubious document, something that cannot be neglected, it is impossible not to see coincidences between what it contains and Russia’s foreign policy performance, regardless of the Russian regimes. Not even during the Soviet Union, the objectives ceased to be territory and influence.
That said, I do not believe that Putin will stop here.
No mundo financeiro actual, quando mais elevado for o risco da operação, maior será o lucro obtido.
Daí que não seja de admirar que os bancos pratiquem operações de elevado risco e que igualmente não seja difícil chegar à conclusão que a Direcção do JP Morgan estava ao corrente das operações realizadas pelo seu CIO (Chief Investment Officer), cujas acções encobriu até não poder mais (bastante pior seria admitir que não controlam a empresa que dirigem).
Infelizmente, este tipo de situações demonstra que os bancos não aprenderam nada com o passado recente. Principalmente depois de terem “garantido” o apoio público como resgate.
Infelizmente, as perdas do JP Morgan Chase ainda podem aumentar substancialmente devido às operações de investimento de risco em derivados.
O futuro da bolsa de derivados ou derivativos [ironicamente, futuros e opções mas também termos e swaps (a invenção de uma variação deste instrumento, o credit default swap, foi altamente negativa, pois o seu principal objectivo era a eliminação do risco)] é a destruição da economia.
Salvo erro, a nível global há mais de um trilião de dólares investido na bolsa de derivados.
Que efeitos terá, por exemplo, a queda da Chicago Board of Trade (ou o Chicago Mercantile Exchange, ou o New York Mercantile Exchange), na economia mundial?
Principalmente quando a bolsa de derivados é como um casino, com a particularidade de a casa só parcialmente controlar o jogo, onde apenas se joga roleta russa. Como tal, está sujeita a levar com um tiro na cabeça.
Não podia deixar de voltar a referir o perigo que advém do enorme desiquilíbrio verificado entre os âmbitos económico e financeiro.
Se um negócio é uma transacção que envolve um determinado risco, qualquer mecanismo que venha subtrair esse risco está a desvirtuar a essência da operação, pois dificilmente haverá só partes ganhadoras e havendo-as, o retorno será muito menor do que o investimento. Para além disso, várias questões podem ser consideradas quanto aos prazos já estabelecidos por estes mecanismos. Uma delas é se a continua diminuição de matérias-primas foi contemplada?
Repito o que já referi em vários posts e artigos. Os problemas que vivemos surgiram com a autonomização das finanças face à economia. E, na sua origem está a suspensão unilateral do sistema de Bretton Woods, decidida por Richard Nixon, que acabou com a conversão do dólar em ouro.
Crise? ainda não. Mas está à porta.
(E eu nem quero pensar no que pode ocorrer).
Por fim, à margem desta temática, existe ainda um factor a referir que é o conflito “surdo” entre o dólar e o euro. É notório que o excessivo défice dos Estados Unidos começa a colocar pressão sobre a sua própria moeda (note-se que parte significativa das perdas da JP Morgan derivam do não enfraquecimento do euro).
Declaração de interesses: Sou liberal. Mas nunca serei neoliberal!
O diferendo entre a NATO e a Rússia sobre o novo sistema de defesa antimissil, para a europa, relembra outros tempos.
E, a todos os níveis, outras circunstâncias!
Felizes dos países da UE que não aderiram ao euro.
P.S. – quem é que se está a rir?
Estamos prestes a entrar numa nova era!
Oficiosamente já a vivemos mas, quando o primeiro governo cair por causa da crise, entraremos oficialmente no tempo em que a economia subjuga a democracia.
Acredito na iniciativa privada e no mercado, ou seja, acredito no capitalismo.
Mas há coisas que não percebo.
Segundo Fernando Ulrich, o BPI manteve o rácio de lucros e reduziu a dependência do Banco Central Europeu.
No entanto, apesar desta performance, o banco vai reduzir a rede de balcões e diminuir o número de funcionários.
Ricardo Salgado, presidente do BES, manifestou a sua preocupação com uma intervenção do FMI no nosso país (aqui), pois esta, se for feita com a mesma metodologia que foi utilizada na Grécia e na Irlanda, será danosa para a banca portuguesa e consequentemente para Portugal.
Não é que não concorde com as afirmações feitas, mas não consigo deixar de pensar no significado desta frase: “uma diminuição dos depósitos nos bancos portugueses.”
A sociedade que desenvolvermos exige demasiado tempo de nós, tanto que estamos lentamente a morrer.
Cada vez temos menos filhos, cada vez somos menos, cada vez há mais espaço no nosso espaço
E a terra de ninguém será ocupada por alguém!
Aparentemente, já não basta o “capital” político de Portugal – momentâneamente acrescido pela presença, como membro não-permanente, no Conselho de Segurança da ONU.
A China, país amigo que está a comprar a nossa dívida, quer disseminar o seu poder económico na Europa.
Consequentemente, a “entrada” nos bancos portugueses é uma jogada estratégica.
Será Portugal uma 5ª coluna?
E até quando será útil como tal?
Ben Bernanke, o Presidente da Reserva Federal Norte-americana deu uma entrevista ao 60 Minutes (aqui).
Como é que é possível que este homem seja o responsável pela formulação e execução da política monetária dos Estados Unidos???
P.S. – foi pena não ter explicado em mais detalhe quais os mecanismos e instrumentos que utilizou para a compra da dívida pública norte-americana. O Ministro Teixeira dos Santos gostaria de perceber.
Os recursos naturais não são inesgotáveis. O ar, a água, os combustíveis fósseis, etc., são recursos naturais que, por acção directa e indirecta do homem e por necessidade de alimentação dos mecanismos de sustentação dos vários modelos de agregação social que civilização humana originou, tem um período de duração. Naturalmente, uns mais do que os outros. Isto não é novidade.
O que é novidade é o que nos diz o estudo “Metal Stocks and Sustainability” da autoria de Robert Gordon e Thomas Graedel da Universidade de Yale e Marlen Bertram da Organização Europeia dos Refinadores de Alumínio. Segundo este estudo, as reservas de cobre, zinco e de outros metais poderão não ser capazes de provir eternamente as necessidades da população global, mesmo tendo em conta intensos programas de reciclagem.
Actualmente, existe um “equilíbrio” que resulta da grande procura dos países desenvolvidos pelos recursos minerais face à fraca procura dos países do terceiro mundo. Mas adivinham-se tensões e disputas entre os países desenvolvidos para responderem às suas necessidades de recursos naturais e minerais, uma vez que a procura não dá mostras de abrandar. Antes pelo contrário, a tendência é de aumento.
Tendo em conta a escassez dos recursos energéticos e minerais, a fraca implementação, por parte dos países desenvolvidos, das orientações e práticas contidas na ideia do desenvolvimento sustentável e não esquecendo as consequências que o aumento do preço destes recursos têm nos orçamentos dos Estados e no nível de vida dos cidadãos, é conveniente ponderar os seguintes cenários:
1. Consciente que o ouro negro não é um recurso eterno e contrariamente às políticas estratégicas que outros países árabes, igualmente produtores de petróleo, implementaram, o Irão optou pelo desenvolvimento de um programa nuclear, alegando, entre outros argumentos, as insuficiências das suas infra-estruturas para o fornecimento de energia à sua população.
Considerando os recentes desenvolvimentos nas relações da comunidade internacional, as directrizes de política externa que a administração norte-americana pôs em pratica na sequência dos atentados de 11 de Setembro, acordos previamente estabelecidos e as realidades inerentes à teocracia iraniana é muito natural a preocupação que a comunidade internacional – encabeçados pelos Estados Unidos e pela União Europeia – manifestou pela possibilidade de o Irão usar esse programa não apenas para fins civis mas também para a criação de um arsenal nuclear.
Aquilo que me leva a referir este cenário é a possibilidade de as reservas de petróleo iraniano não serem tão grandes como se diz serem. Daqui podem-se tirar duas ilações: Se as reservas de petróleo que o Irão diz ter são reais e estão correctas, não devem restar dúvidas que o Irão tenciona dar um uso militar, para além de um uso civil, ao seu programa nuclear. Se, por outro lado, as reservas de petróleo iraniano não correspondem à realidade, então a principal utilização do seu programa nuclear visa o uso civil, não descartando o uso militar. Apesar de ambas as deduções não serem nada tranquilizadoras e de irem estimular o aumento do preço do crude, esta última possibilidade, caso seja confirmada, terá um efeito desproporcional no mercado mundial cuja primeira consequência será um desmesurado aumento no preço do barril de petróleo.
2. Nas duas últimas décadas, o desenvolvimento industrial à escala mundial tem sido continuamente crescente tendo-se vindo a notar o incremento da importância de dois países na economia mundial.
A Índia e a China são dois dos países com maior taxa de crescimento mundial e são os mercados mais atractivos do mundo. De entre os dois, destaca-se o caso da China pelo seu potencial em vários sectores de actividade económica e com taxas de crescimento sustentáveis bem acima da média global. Aliás, o mercado chinês é já o mercado que atrai mais investimento directo estrangeiro.
Para suportar as taxas de crescimento originadas pelo boom da sua economia interna, a China passou, em vinte anos, de maior exportador de petróleo da Ásia a segundo maior consumidor e terceiro maior importador mundial. Por sua vez, no que se refere à procura por recursos minerais, o consumo chinês aumentou, no período de quinze anos, de 7% para cerca de 20%, e este valor pode duplicar no fim desta década.
Esta necessidade de recursos levou o Governo chinês a estabelecer uma rede de posições estratégicas, principalmente através de acordos bilaterais, nos locais e trajectos das fontes mundiais destes recursos procurando apenas assegurar o seu fornecimento e consequentemente o continuar do seu crescimento económico. Este é o objectivo da diplomacia económica chinesa que, segundo Wang Jisi, reitor da Escola de Estudos Internacionais de Beijing, não pretende desafiar a ordem mundial, mas apenas aproveitar a conjuntura favorável que a imagem actual dos Estados Unidos permite.
Paralelamente a estes panoramas, a China tem vindo a desenvolver um programa espacial que recentemente lhe possibilitou ser o terceiro país do mundo a colocar um homem em órbita. Com o sucesso alcançado, os responsáveis chineses anunciaram uma missão tripulada à lua e a construção de uma estação espacial.
Ora, todos estes pormenores dão uma nova perspectiva ao programa espacial chinês pois, o exaurir das reservas dos recursos naturais e minerais terrestres vai acelerar a exploração do espaço. Talvez estejam alicerçados nas ideias de John S. Lewis (Mining the Sky: Untold Riches from the Asteroids, Comets and Planets). Quem é que nos diz que a China não pretende ser o primeiro país a explorar as fontes de minérios extra-planetárias?
Com as vantagens adquiridas nesta iniciativa, a China, para além de usufruir directamente dessas novas fontes de recursos minerais, pode vender, a terceiros países, o know-how e os produtos, obtendo lucros adicionais. Mas a principal relevância que advirá, ao ser o primeiro a utilizar este tipo de recursos e de novas tecnologias, é a posição dominante que terá na estratégia de desenvolvimento espacial.
Publicado: 26 de Abril de 2007 – O Primeiro de Janeiro
Há demasiados interesses a exigi-lo. Até o nacional!
Vai haver uma intervenção em Portugal.
Mas, de que tipo?
Este artigo, que analisa a estratégia comercial chinesa em África, é uma leitura muito interessante. Sinais dos tempos?