Defining Ideas

The End of Modernity

Thursday, January 7, 2016
Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

The era called “modern” inexorably began to come to its end when, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a concatenation of foretold events unraveled the so-called modern world order. 

As always, the foreordained collapse was generated from internal weakness. We need to look no further than Europe to understand why. It has become evident that the European Union, a contrivance designed to do away with the structural elements of that international order—the state as its basic unit and the sovereign borders of its various nations—created nothing in its place capable of coping with an economic crisis, fending off threats to its security, or absorbing history’s Great Migration.

Long before this, however, the modern international system, which had welcomed into its ranks Muslims in more than a score of delineated “states,” had begun to feel the rise of believers dedicated to overthrowing the military, monarchical, and autocratic regimes of those very state entities formed in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate after the First World War.

The dynamism of this cause would, by the twenty-first century, produce two massive Muslim powers: The Islamic Republic of Iran which, by its 1979 Revolution, won recognition as a state in the modern world order while at the same time vowing to destroy that very system; and, a generation later, the fearsome rise of the Islamic State, which by its title proclaimed the goal of all the faithful: a new world order ruled by one, and only one, Order. Thus eventuated the fulfillment of American speculation that the only serious challenge to the modern international state system could come if events such as the 9/11 attacks were, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, “driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede liberalism.” Precisely so: Islam claimed to be advancing a political and social model that rivaled and would replace Western modernity.

With this entire region of the globe, “its hour come round at last” as Yeats put it, moving to cast out the international system, the four other world power centers, each in its own way, headed toward a similar outcome.

Europe had disabled itself. As “the West,” its Westphalian state system had been accepted during the five modern centuries as the world order, an achievement owing to this system’s procedural character—until then, history’s only example of a dispensation open to all the world’s peoples. But, with the EU, Europe had vacated its own concept and the Muslim world’s eruption in the Middle East poured displaced populations into that once-dominating small peninsula in the volkerwanderung foreseen by historians as the harbinger of cultural and spiritual disaster.

China, which in the early post-Mao period, assiduously had portrayed its empire actually to be a state and had behaved as an ideal citizen of the established system, began in the early twenty-first century to turn assertive. China had not been present, it declared, at the creation of the Westphalian order which, in any event, made no sense, particularly in its bizarre doctrine of the juridical “equality of states.” China therefore merged its heritage of Maoist ideology as an enemy of the state system with its Confucian tradition that all human relations properly are hierarchical, to be obeyed from the top down. Thus Asia’s natural leader would be the People’s Republic of China and, over time, all the world would recognize this superior system and fall in line within it.

Russia too, having failed in the post-Soviet period to install itself as a liberal political and economic state in world affairs, undertook a re-definition of itself in the new century as the avatar of Russian Tsars and commissars who would “smash” the state or exhaust its powers until it would “wither away.” The new Russia would be inspired by Dostoevsky and Orthodoxy as it carved away lands of the state of Georgia, seized Crimea, and dismembered half of Ukraine; breaking up NATO—the pre-eminent democratic alliance of states—now could be possible.

Strikingly consequential has been President Putin’s military move into Syria and personal association with Ayatollah Khamenei to support Iran’s neo-imperialist archipelago of influence stretching from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean via Iraq, Assad’s Syria, and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon—and potentially an additional arc of influence from Bahrain to the Shia Eastern Saudi province to Yemen and beyond. This welded together two major anti-world order powers.

As other major power centers moved into opposition to the international state system, the United States was edging away from its century-long leadership role within it, soon handing legitimacy, resources, and nuclear weapons potential to the Islamic Republic of Iran. America’s strategic withdrawal was conducted under the cover of a presidential rhetoric of support and an asymptotic military policy managing always to fall just short of tactics conducted to make a lasting difference on any war-fighting front. All political and analytical efforts to persuade the American presidency to change strategic direction were rebuffed. Many operationally specific alternatives were offered; what was not understood was that the significant factors were psychological and matters of national character. The U.S. failed to understand that:

Fear was the primal force in the Middle East; people would attach themselves to whichever party possessed the momentum for victory. As American leadership wavered, victory was predicted for the most radical elements.

Resolve and reliability were essential but scarce. Once the U.S. revealed itself as lacking staying power, little that it said or did was credited.

A comprehensive grasp of the scale and scope of the challenge appeared only briefly as the new century opened and was never regained. Interconnected dimensions of the problem invariably were disaggregated into “removing Assad” and “defeating ISIL.”

And turning points were not recognized or taken, most notably the moment in late 2015 when the U.S. could have inventoried the region to determine those states and parties in or on the side of world order and those who would destroy and replace it so as to firmly support the former and resolutely oppose the latter.

It was not to be. The collapse of the Westphalian state system meant that the foundations for the values they upheld—open trade, open expression, consent of the governed, and universal human rights—crumbled as well, and the remaining states of the core region of the world withered away.

As the historian Edward Gibbon mused when writing about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, perhaps the time would come when the interpretation of the Koran would “be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed.”

It has come to pass.