A Note to the Reader: This is the second of two articles published at Hong Kong’s Asia Times in late 2002.
Looking forward with more than fear
By Robert L. Adams
Living for more than half a century has had its benefits. I got to see a lot of action, good and bad. In the US, I lived through the McCarthy hearings, the election of the first Catholic President, the civil rights movement, the rise of the “Third World”, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of the first Catholic president, the Vietnam War, the OPEC oil “crisis”, and Watergate, among many others. And let’s not talk about changes in technology. I come from a day when the mimeograph, the ditto machine, and the telex were top of the line.
But of all the events of the last half of the 20th century, one stands out: the self-dissolution of the Soviet Union and its empire. If I had to choose two photos of 20th century events that I felt were the most “global” in impact, one would surely be the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima. The other would be a 1991 photo of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet political elite standing at attention as the flag of the Soviet Union was lowered for the last time. It was a stunning shift, but it took years of change before such a photo could be taken.
I’m not going to waste time explaining why that shift was so important. You know already, some of you more personally than I do. It was something else associated with it that drew a great deal of attention, at least in the US and Europe at the time. How could it have happened and no Western government or intelligence agency realize it was happening? How could we have been taken by surprise? The Soviet Union may have been extremely secretive, but it was the primary subject of interest to thousands of politicians, intelligence agents, researchers, media commentators, and a whole little industry of “Soviet-watchers”. Certainly, there was considerable talent out there trying to judge what direction the Soviets were going to take, but they missed predicting the single most dramatic event in its history. Why?
I suspect the explanation is simpler than we might think. Once a particular set of circumstances has been true for a number of years, even the best-informed people begin to accept it as a “status quo” that will change slowly, if at all. Even when it’s a situation that they would like to see change quickly, they assume it will not happen and that assumption becomes the dependable status quo. If it’s a situation they would like to see continue, I think it’s obvious that they would cling to that status-quo concept ever more firmly. Their devotion to the idea of a status quo blinds them to its disappearance. No matter how unpleasant the status quo may be, it is predictable, or so they think, and they find security in that.
So they predicted and their predictions were predictable, but wrong. What of today’s predictions? I read analysis after analysis after analysis after analysis – ad nauseum – on the war on terror and the likely war in Iraq. The core problem? It’s fascist American foreign policy. It’s spineless Europeans. It’s Israel. It’s Arafat. It’s Saddam. It’s Osama. It’s always the same old tired talk we heard in the last century. The 20th century is dead and it took its “status-quo” with it. No one wants to confront what replaced it head-on.
Here’s the issue. In a world where a single vial of virus that you can easily carry in your shirt pocket can indiscriminately kill hundreds of millions of us and where the facilities and technical expertise to handle these viruses can be found in too many places, what do we do to protect ourselves from a tyrant or a fanatic with money using them for his own ugly purposes? It is a threat today and it will continue to be a threat for the rest of our lives.
Nuclear and chemical weapons are terrible. I live in Washington, DC and if Osama gets his hands on one or the other, maybe with Saddam’s help, and can get it to the US, I may find out just how terrible they are. But it’s the biological weapons I detest the most. Viruses are so much worse than bombs or chemicals. They are alive and their sole purpose is to stay that way. Unfortunately, a lot of us have to die for them to live. Bioengineering will eventually create one that will kill us all, except perhaps the creator and his chosen cronies.
How can anyone argue that this threat will stay the same or recede over time if we do nothing? How can any analysis ignore this threat? I have yet to read one that deals with it beyond the immediate future.
As I wrote in an earlier article here at the Asia Times Online, neither an “American Empire” nor a UN-style “international agency” is going to do what needs to be done. They are trickles of the past, not waves of the future. I also rejected a world government for the simple reason that it would be rejected by nearly everyone, everywhere. There is no use wasting time on something whose day has not yet come or may never come, but certainly is not here now. Yet, to confront a global problem as dangerous as bioterror or biowar, we need some kind of new global institution.
Let the UN continue as a forum where all nations, good and bad, are members and let UN agencies continue to do their best to encourage global activity in matters where all or nearly all nations are willing to cooperate to some extent: health, education, the environment, weather, and so forth. But let us give up the myth that the UN can handle issues that are highly political and where no consensus can be expected given the differences among the member states.
We must create something new. Let us set some simple goals for human society: freedom of speech, freedom of the press in all its forms, freedom of religion (including the freedom to not be religious), and the right of an equal vote to all adults in any nation to choose their leaders and their policies as they see fit, commonly known as democracy.
There’s nothing radically new here, but these are radically different than the current experience of many in the global community. Yes, there are many other freedoms that could be listed, but let’s begin with a few basic freedoms and add to them as we can. We would not require perfection, as no nation provides that, but we would expect a high degree of compliance. Despite that, the membership could be very large and diverse, ranging from Brazil to Australia, from India to the US, from France to Mexico. Let this new group’s members pledge to strengthen each other and to reach out to non-members, offering them membership if they can meet the requirements. Let membership be clearly more valuable than non-membership in terms of trade and, where needed, development assistance. If, as the saying goes, crime pays, then let freedom and democracy pay better.
This is the group that must deal with the issue of tyranny combined with weapons of mass destruction. I can’t tell you how, that is for them to decide, but these are the nations who will pay dearly if that issue is ignored. They will not be of one mind. This will not be an “American empire” or even a “Western empire”. It will not be an empire at all. If that sounds too idealistic, you are looking backwards. If we are to be both realistic and free, we must look forward. We have to get out of the 20th century mindset before we get blown out of it. The old status quo is gone and our analyses must begin to reflect that.
Of course, we can always continue what we have been doing: arguing policies of the last 50 years, focusing on the next three months and, beyond that, hoping for the best. If we wait long enough, we’ll have our global catastrophe and then we’ll get our global institution, but I’ll lay odds that it will be a military institution and in the hands of very few nations.
In January of 1940, Time magazine named Joseph Stalin as its “Man of the Year”, not because they approved of him, but because they believed he had been the most influential man in 1939. They argued that Stalin’s “non-aggression” pact with Hitler had allowed the Nazis to launch World War Two. Thus his action had precipitated the end of an era for Europe and the opening of a new one whose nature rested on the outcome of the war. A single sentence from their analysis caught my attention.
“Whether Europe’s new era will end in nationalist chaos, good or bad internationalism, or what not, the era will be new – and the end of the old era will have been finally precipitated by a man whose domain lies mostly outside Europe.”
Then it was Europe. Today it’s the “free world”, a term that is relevant once again. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Now it’s our turn to shape a new era or have it shaped for us. Either way, it’s upon us.
Of the past, present and future, the future is the only one of the three that we can still change. And we have to get beyond the next 90 days; we have to think in longer terms or we’ll go on doing what we’ve been doing for months now: repeating ourselves without effect, pretending we are commentators on the sidelines when we are all standing on the playing field. If we stand here long enough, we’ll eventually get hit by the ball, but that’s not how you play the game if you want to win. That’s how you get hurt.