Posted: October 19, 2017
oving steadily across the North Atlantic at the beginning of September, where west of 40 degrees longitude the water is warm enough for swimming and the sea is smooth, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 carries some 3,000 Americans, Filipinos, Britons, Germans, Russians, Eastern Europeans, and Japanese. Unlike in previous times, none of these groups is engaged in a death struggle with another. The passengers’ average age seems quite north of 70—men and women for whom dressing for dinner in tuxedos or gowns, as we do on this voyage, is not as strange as it might be for their grandchildren.
Exactly half a century ago, though it feels like yesterday, I was a 20-year-old deck hand on a British collier plying the same sea lanes. And only half a century before that, the Great War was raging, the fact of which—along with Cunard’s hints of Downton Abbey, and because half-centuries have for me lost their mystery—puts me in mind of the years before the war, which unfortunately have much in common with the present. Europe then was divided into the multiplicity of states and ethnic redoubts into which now, despite efforts to subjugate language, culture, history, and sovereignty to economics, it is reverting. Not only nations are reasserting their autonomy, but Catalans, Basques, Lombards, Scots, Welsh, Flemings, Bosnians, Kosovars, Corsicans, et al. Once again, an unstable Russian regime, smarting not from Japanese victory but its own internal collapse, looms to the east, backing ethnic irredentists in the Ukraine and the Baltic republics. Russia cannot but note, as once did Germany in two world wars, the lack of British (and now American) ground strength on the continent. And it looks on as a pacifistic, divided, ill-armed Europe is distracted and consumed by the invasion of an openly hostile culture and the rise of extremist politics.
Just as in the first years of the last century, a new power in Asia has risen with extraordinary rapidity, and, given distances in the Pacific, achieved near-regional parity (at least) with the United States, which retains a weakening fleet in close proximity to China as once it maintained the outmoded China Station proximate to Japan. And in a most malignant and inflammatory analogy to the rise of China, an unhinged North Korea presents a more immediate threat and conundrum.
Prior to the Great War, the rest of the world was a complex colonial board game with wagers guaranteed by threats of war in Europe. Then, we had Fashoda, and the Algeciras Conference, and now we have close encounters in Syria and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. One can hope that, as in the Cold War, proxy wars and maneuvers in the Third World do not spread to the First; but the Third World now includes many unstable, influential, and, in several cases, nuclear-armed (or soon-to-be) states run by fanatics and lunatics working like beavers on warheads and ICBMs.
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At the 20th Century’s beginnings, Europe’s long peace since the Congress of Vienna was fractured by the fast, disruptive changes of new times, an effect now applicable to the whole world after the long peace following the Second World War. Tsar, kaiser, and Japanese emperor needed little democratic consent, and the leaders of democracies, deeper in intellect, probity, and experience than their counterparts today, still were not even vaguely capable of riding the tiger.
Unlike then, the United States is now the cornerstone of the international system. Its formerly sober and properly resourced defense policies, and its formerly defense-oriented political party, have been seized by a president unmindful of, and inattentive to, the disconnect between bold and—in other, more favorable contexts—necessary statements, and the ability to back them up. More importantly, he appears to be totally, if innocently, unaware of the spreading and unforeseen consequences that war always brings. Certainly, he is unlike his predecessor, who surrendered on nearly every foreign front and brought comfort to nearly every foreign enemy. But he fails to understand that war, and more importantly, deterrence, require preparation and reserves in surplus and in spades. Now as then we have the rise of vengeful powers that look past one another, fundamental conflicts that easily overwhelm diplomacy, and no single nation sufficiently over-preponderant to discipline the disorder.
Perhaps, like the generations that stumbled into the Great War, we will stumble into the next. They were surprised and the world was changed forever by the effects of weaponry that—never employed on a mass scale—had increased in lethality by an order of magnitude. And if by deficiencies of culture, caution, and understanding we blunder as they did, we are likely to face the effects of weaponry that will have increased by multiple orders of magnitude.
As depressing as are historical analogies and current analysis, they are reinforced by something that eludes them both and yet is present and perceptible even on a luxurious ship in the middle of a tranquil ocean. That is, plain feeling, the subconscious sorting of uncountable facts, lessons, and impressions. And it does not feel right.
For the moment the sea is calm between the two continents, the light suppressed and defused by persistent haze. But it seems unnaturally so, like the charged dusk before a storm.