In 1989 I was getting my class notebook ready in my dorm room. I had an afternoon Spanish II class I was dreading, but it was a graduation requirement from the University of San Francisco, so I had no choice but to go. (That was true, and my foreign language skills were less than ideal. Some of my colleagues could easily miss a few classes and still end up with a passing grade. If I had any dreams of completing the class… my desire for fluency in the language had been abandoned long ago… I had to attend each and every class.) While I got ready, I had a small TV set on in the background. A “breaking story” came on and I glanced up. A news correspondent was in Berlin at the Berlin Wall, and it looked like a rave was taking place. Parts of the wall were already coming down.
Some people remember where they were when Kennedy or Reagan were shot. Most of us remember exactly what we were doing when we heard of the atrocities of 9/11. Seared into my mind are two additional moments: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the moment the Soviet tanks approached the barricaded White House at the Kremlin a few months later and turned their turrets around, a bold statement the Soviet Union had suddenly ceased to exist.
Freedom in the late eighties and early nineties was breaking out all over. Some of us were a tad concerned. As an international relations major (technically, a “politics” major at USF, but we had an IR track I was on), everything we had learned, the structural basis for our degree, had suddenly become irrelevant. This was a brave new world. Like the story arc in Aldous Huxley’s novel of the same name, that Brave New World was not necessarily destined to become a utopia.
During the denouement of John Le Carré’s book, The Little Drummer Girl, Martin, the Israeli spymaster, is having a post-operational discussion with Charlie, the protagonist. Together they had just put an end to a Palestinian terrorist cell that had been killing people with bombs throughout Europe. Kahlil, the chief antagonist, would place a wire “doll” in each of his bombs… a telegraph to the authorities that he was the one responsible. Charlie helps the Mossad hunt down and kill Kahlil, purportedly putting an end to the carnage. Martin pulls out a wire doll, shows it to Charlie, and explains it was recovered the previous week from a bomb that had been detonated in Amsterdam. All they had done, all the risk they had pushed through, had evidently been for naught. She stares at it, and is mortified. How could this be? How could the modus operandi live after Kahlil had been killed? Martin says something that was deeply impactful to me as a twenty-something student when I read The Little Drummer Girl: “The person can be killed, the devil finds another person.”
The outbreak of freedom threw human dynamics into chaos. It fundamentally altered the concept of regional powers, and ultimately has degraded American global hegemony. (Actually, scratch that…”it” did not degrade American hegemony… we did that ourselves for reasons that are still completely inexplicable to me.) Power does abhor a vacuum, though, so other nation-states have begun the process of filling the void. China, of course, is one of them, but we also see putative attempts by Russia, as well as Iran, and even North Korea has engaged in a bit of “temper tantrum diplomacy”. Though, truth be told, this is nothing new for them.
So, as in John Le Carré’s book, the “person” may have been killed with the fall of the Soviet Empire, but the devil has found another person (or persons) to work his mischief.
Chaos does not breed peace, nor does the imposition of authoritarianism. Both, on opposite ends of the spectrum, will yield the same devastating result: military adventurism. The only structural challenge to both world orders is robust political systems that protect minority rights (not necessarily “racial” or “sexual” minorities here… I’m actually speaking about “political minority rights” but, to be sure, they may mean the same thing depending on the location). People need to be heard and need to have reliance on the political machinery of their State or disaffection, usually leading to armed insurrection, begins to occur. This causes the existing regime to see the interlopers as an existential threat to their rule. The easiest way to deal with this is to deploy the military against foreign adversaries and claim the insurgents are in league with the foreign enemies (or at the least an unpatriotic distraction).
We saw this in WWI, we saw this in Korea, we saw this in Kenya, we have seen this in the Soviet Union, and we see it with China.
And, yes, we have seen it here too. I suspect we may actually be getting ready to see more of it. What is somewhat unique in our situation are the layers of the onion. Our political system is purportedly a federal one. 50 separate sovereign states relegating only some of the administrative control to the federal government. Since the Grant administration, this has become less of a reality and more of a fantasy.
And those who do not see the political benefits of radical centralization are left in a quandary: be victimized by their own state (California), or be victimized by the prevailing collectivist mindset in the federal government.
When California and New York were hit with the decision in NYRPA, they essentially abandoned all pretext towards constitutionally-constrained legislation. Knowing their new laws were patently unconstitutional, they plowed forward anyway. In a sense they were victims themselves who had found their vocal cords cut. Arrogant and agitated, they now had no voice, their only alternative: violence. Though theirs is a violence “once removed”. They simply mandate the executive branch (cops) use force or the threat of force to promulgate their agenda.
This might be the animating principles of the Mandarin class in California, but it is now becoming a full-throated response by “the others” who they fear so much. The devil does, indeed, have many “people” available to him to run his dark errands.