In a multipolar world, conflicts and volatility at the top are reflected in the confusion and volatility of the public’s allegiances. Such anomie is magnified by the media. In 1917 a Spanish poet put my argument in succinct verse, which I repeat:
De cada diez cabezas,
Y una piensa
Of each ten heads,
And only one thinks
In an era of confused de-globalization, there is little wonder that large swaths of the populace receive and send mixed messages. The minds of citizens and subjects are truly scrambled. They distrust ideologies and institutions, and seek refuge in the tribes of the like minded. But the likeminded are equally scrambled in their thoughts, if we can call them thoughts. In short, there is no safety even in echo chambers. Only those with the privilege of distance, objective knowledge, and a preference for dispassion survive the onslaught.
But even among sages, how many can say today that they think and act with calm and application about an issue that is presented to them —sine ira ac studio, as the old Latin motto recommends? Tweets are fired across cyberspace like missiles. They have replaced dialogue with haikus of unchecked emotion. When respect gives way to vituperation, sentiments of love and hate are intense. They too are scrambled and unrefined.
The situation is not new. It was expressed in Machado’s verse 93 years ago. In classical antiquity the best expression –also in cultivated verse—of this condition, is the well known poem by Catullus, titled Odi et amo (65 BCE):
Odi et amo. Quare id faciam, fortasse requiris. Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love. Why would I do this, maybe you’re asking? I don’t know, but I feel it happening and am tortured.
What has this to do with geopolitics, maybe you’re asking?
(to follow the cadence of Catullus’ verse). And the answer is: a lot.
Geopolitics is the analysis of the power shifts between nations and blocs of nations, as seen from the outside and from above: social and political geography at 30,000 feet, so to speak. But this top-down view is supplemented by a view from the bottom up, namely: how people experience and react to these shifts.
Seen from above, recent shifts are enormous. Like the melting of the ice caps due to global warming, some are immediately visible, like the cracks and falls of glaciers and idebergs. Others are slower and visible only in a longer run.
The world of power has shifted from bipolar, to unipolar, to multi-polar. Everybody knows that. At present we witness –and suffer—the increasing rivalry between two ascending big powers –China and Russia—and a retreating superpower (the United States).
Middle-size powers oscillate among this tryad with a whole new set of opportunities and risks, some of them major. One example: in the combustible geopolitical region of the Middle East, the massive military intervention of the United States at the beginning of the century has backfired and morphed into permanent war.
The prolonged wars of attrition in Afghanistan and Iraq allowed the rise in power of Iran, making it a major regional player –the very opposite of what was intended. The long-legged upshot of a serious strategic mistake (the botched occupation of those two countries) has created an impasse for the United States: damned if it leaves, and damned if it stays. Its attempts at retreating have opened opportunities not only for Iran, but also for other middle powers like Turkey, it is changing the equation for Israel, and has provided a foothold in the region for another big power: Russia.
Europe –a potential big power that cannot coalesce—also oscillates in its dealings with the principal actors. A revealing anecdote is this: during the recent escalation of hostilities between the US and Iran, the German Chancellor did not fly to Washington trying to mediate, but to Moscow.
Between East and West, North and South, open and closed regimes, friends and foes, the messages are mixed, the relations are transactional and unstable, and as a result, people become disoriented. They “express” themselves before they think. Trump publicly declared that he and the North Korean hermit tyrant Kim “fell in love.” How can citizens have clear roadmaps in searcning for goals and in negotiating their allegiances? The power of non state actors also adds a new dimension to the mix. In sociology we call this situation anomie.
Imagine you are a farmer in Arkansas who grows soybeans and your principal market is China. President Trump gets involved in a full fledged trade war with China, slaps tariffs on China imports, and China responds by imposing punitive tariffs on American agricultural produce. This hits the very heartland of Trump’s support a year before he needs that support to win re-election. The upshot? –A truce in the trade war that includes certain exemption on tariffs for some goods. The farmer hates China for taking away jobs in America and for –so he hears—“stealing” our secrets. But then he learns, from TV news that “As part of the deal, China has committed to spend at least $200 billion on US agricultural products. US farmers have been among those hardest hit domestically by the trade war.” Now he loves China again.
The farmer in Arkansas has long felt that he belongs to a “fly over state” where people have suffered from the migration of jobs (mostly industrial jobs) and for not being able to catch up with new skills. He is a staunch support of the President who has promised not to forget those people whom he paints as victims of the globalist policies of self-serving educated elites. From his standpoint, a technocratic, arrogant, liberal elite is the culprit, the main political enemy. To make matters worse, that very elite embraces values that support the transformation of American society into a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, immigrant-prone society where there is no place for people like him (white, mostly male, middle-aged, under-educated, high-tech challenged, pious, suspicious of outsiders, and fearful of going under the juggernaut of ‘progress’). His choice is to do anything in his power to prevent such fate, seen as an existential threat. He will strongly support Trump –and also China, why not? –Because that is where his bread is buttered!
So China is and enemy and a friend, and the president of China is an admirable model of perpetual rule, almost celestial –never mind communism; it’s an old fig leaf. Our own president would love that: ruling like an emperor. China is both loved and hated, and the Chinese reciprocate the same contradictory feelings.
The Russian president seems to be a friend also, as our president says –even though he bullies his neighbors and interferes in Western elections. The farmer does not wish to believe that Vladimir Putin uses Donald Trump as an errand boy. Yet he sees that Trump does everything for the Russian dictator that Vlad can’t do for himself: hurts European unity, tramples on human rights, dismisses NATO, thinks that the entire Middle East should belong to Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to hell with the world order. Why –the Russian strongman asks– interrupt an enemy when he makes mistakes? Support him! Is this good or bad? The farmer doesn’t know.
For such farmer Trump is a friend of the people. He refuses to accept that the president, as his counterparts in Hungary, the UK, or in many other countries that wish to be “great again,” is a rich elitist carpetbagger posing as man of the people.
And what about Great Britain –mother of parliamentary democracy– with a royalty that is all over the tabloids in the supermarket checkout lane? He sees in tweeters and TV an American special relationship with an England that has left Europe, takes black money from Russians, sells them half of London, and invites them to tea, sometimes with the Queen. Isn’t this what countries do? Is it good or bad?
And our own “dear leader”? Should we love or hate him? Perhaps we should be proud, he thinks, and if he makes new friends and dumps old ones, so be it. In Middle America, our farmer’s anomie is posted on the back of his truck, for anyone to see:
Driving behind such truck, one is tempted to bemoan the sorry state of politics in the very home of Western democracy. Unique? Unprecedented? Not really. One may recall instead the old sarcasm of journalists and of some smart politicians.
H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was an outspoken conservative US editor, quick with quips, who famously wrote:
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
And a popular story is told about Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) when he was running for president in 1952 (or in 1956) as a liberal centrist. Someone heard one of Stevenson’s impressive speeches and said, “Every thinking person in America will be voting for you.” Stevenson replied, “I’m afraid that won’t do—I need a majority.”
Sounds familiar? Yes, but the stakes are both different and higher today, and global, “democratic” social media only makes it worse. The question remains: will we ever get thinking majorities in so many countries where democracy is at risk?
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