Another end to history? I think not

Another end to history? I think not
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In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx declared that a specter was haunting Europe — the specter of communism. Today, another specter is making the rounds. This time it is the so-called end of the liberal international order.  

While that assertion is certainly attracting a great deal of debate and attention, a much more dangerous specter is haunting not only Europe but the entire West. So far, this latest specter is hidden in clear view.

Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West” was, as the early reports of Mark Twain’s demise, greatly exaggerated — so far. But international orders and systems change.  Over the past decades, the Westphalian system of state dominated international politics dating back to 1648 has been overtaken and even superseded by the consequences of globalization and the diffusion of power.


While some believe, wrongly in my view, that great power competition is the new strategic center of gravity for global politics, the reality is that the traditional states have lost power and influence to non-governmental organizations, groups and individuals in a digitally integrated age. Yes, Gavrilo Princips could start a world war with a handful of bullets in June 1914. But that capacity for disruption and chaos has grown asymmetrically. Globalization and the diffusion of power, while lifting standards of living to historically unprecedented levels, created many new societal vulnerabilities subject to highly disruptive acts of man and nature.

Pandemics are not new. But the combination of COVID-19 and the massive cyberattacks and hacks across the U.S. government are harbingers of worse to come. Climate change is, if not existential, certainly dangerously disruptive as extreme fires, floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters are increasing in intensity and frequency. And what should worry us most is perhaps the most critical disruptor — the specter of failed and failing government.

Readers of The Hill need not look further than both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for conclusive proof of the damage done by this specter. The question is not whether this failure is driven by personalities.  The question is whether or not a political system created by the best minds of the 19th century can withstand the rigors and realities of the 21st century. So far, the answers are not reassuring.

How did this happen? The U.S. system is predicated on checks and balances of the federal government and with the states. America is a republic not a democracy in which the public does not directly elect a president. For such a system to function, at least one of three conditions must be present. First, one party can have veto-proof control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. This was true during Franklin Roosevelt’s four elected terms except for a highly conservative Supreme Court that declared several of FDR’s most important programs unconstitutional.

Second, a crisis such as the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 could unify a nation deeply divided over entering the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Third, civility and compromise can reconcile deeply divided political differences that produced equal rights and voting legislation


Even in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, none of those conditions is present in America. Nor is it likely that any one of these three conditions will return soon. In part, three interrelated factors have produced this failure of government. 

The first was the end of trust and confidence in government. Prior to the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964 that led to the Vietnam disaster, over three-fourths of Americans trusted the federal government to govern. For many reasons, more than half a century later, that figure is reversed. Americans simply do not trust their government, one of the  major reasons for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Illinois House passes bill that would mandate Asian-American history lessons in schools Overnight Defense: Administration says 'low to moderate confidence' Russia behind Afghanistan troop bounties | 'Low to medium risk' of Russia invading Ukraine in next few weeks | Intelligence leaders face sharp questions during House worldwide threats he MORE’s election. 

Second, disparities in income, wealth, gender and race have intensified, generating anger and resentment directed at government and weaponized by both parties for different reasons. And third, in this process and accelerated at the speed of light by the outgoing administration, truth and fact are no longer relevant to governing or to public discourse.

Will President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden administration still seizing land near border despite plans to stop building wall: report Olympics, climate on the agenda for Biden meeting with Japanese PM Boehner on Afghanistan: 'It's time to pull out the troops' MORE be able to deal with the dismal state of politics and society in America today? This is not due to the end of the liberal order. It is due, however, to the failure of the U.S. government to govern and to the public to hold that government accountable.

If these conditions do not change, a rereading of Spengler may be relevant.

Dr. Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His next book, due out later this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New Mad:  The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting A 51% Nation.”