By Richard Falk
No lines of poetry are more resonant with our time than the celebrated lines of William Butler Yeats’ famous poem ‘The Second Coming’:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
This is especially true here in the United States, as it was in post-World War I Germany’s nurturing the rise of Naziism and its demonic voice, Adolph Hitler, the consummate outsider who managed to crawl up the mountain to ascend its peak. The core disabling affliction of the United States in the 21st Century is an energized and armed extreme right-wing and a listless, passive center, a development lamented by liberals who would sell their souls long before parting with their stocks and bonds, all for a non-voting seat at various illiberal tables of power. This lack of humane passion at the political center serves as a reinforcing complement to the violent forces of alienation waiting around the country for their marching orders, as the January 6th insurrectionary foray foretells. Together these contrasting modes of ‘citizenship’ signal the death of constitutional democracy as it has functioned, with ups and downs, flawed by slavery, genocide, and patriarchy at birth, indeed ever since the republic was established in 1787 as ‘a more perfect union.’ In 2022 a fascist alternative is assuming institutional, ideological, and populist prominence with active support of many American oligarchs who fund by night what they disavow when the sun shines (again recalling the behavior of German industrialists who thought of Hitler as their vehicle, whereas it turned out the other war around).
This contemporary political ordeal is systemic, and not only the sad tale of American moral, economic, and political decline, temporarily hidden from public awareness by an orgy of excess military spending that has lasted for decades, a corporatized, compliant media, diversionary exploits abroad, and a greedy private sector that grows bloated by arms sales and a regressive tax structure, Pentagon plunder, and its profit-driven regimen. What may be most negatively revealing is the failure to take account of geopolitical failure or sanctified domestic outrages (mass shootings in schools and elsewhere with legally acquired weapons suitable only for organized military combat). It is time to link the inability to mount any serious challenge to the tyranny of the Second Amendment as interpreted by the IRA in cahoots with Congress and the Supreme Court, cowing much of the public to sullen sense of silent hopelessness. Even before these hallowed institutions acquired their Trumpist edge, they shied away from constructing rights as if they were aware of the violent societal and ecological fissures tearing up the roots of bipartisan civility. The moral rot is less the work of the sociopaths among us than it the outcome of a two-party plutocratic dynamic that is controlled by infidels and their bureaucratic minions who either actually like the way things are working out or feel impotent to mount a challenge with any chance of enacting benevolent change.
These same patterns of stasis are evident among the centrist elites who have been educated at the most esteemed universities. Perhaps the brightest, but surely not the best. Refusing to learn from Vietnam where military dominance, widespread devastation of a distant country, much bloodshed, resulted in a political defeat that should have induced some learning about the limits of military agency in the face pf colonial collapse. Instead of learning from the failure brought about by a changing post-colonial political balance in the countries of the Global South, anointed foreign policy experts whined about the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ that allegedly hampered a pragmatic recourse to military instruments to advance U.S. national and strategic interests because of a feared repetition of Vietnam. It was George H.W. Bush who reveled in the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the desert war fought against Iraq in 1991, not primarily because it restored Kuwaiti sovereignty but because of a restored confidence that the U.S. could win wars of its choice at acceptable costs. In his words, “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.” (March 1991)
In plainer language, that American military power had efficiently vanquished its Iraqi enemy without enduring many casualties, and thereby could feel free again to rely on its threats and weapons as a decisive geopolitical policy tool to get its way throughout the world. But had it? Better understood, this First Iraq War in 1991 was a strictly battlefield encounter between asymmetric military forces, and as earlier, the stronger side won this time quickly and without body bags alerting Americans to the sacrificial costs of warfare unrelated to the security of the homeland. The lessons of Vietnam for the foreign policy establishment were to the extent possible substitute machines for troops, and adopt tactics that shortened the military phase of political undertakings designed to nullify forms of self-determination that seemed to go against American post-Cold War resolve to run the world to serve the interests of its upper 1%..
These lessons decidedly were not what should have been learned from a decade expensive failed efforts in Vietnam. The principal lesson of the Vietnam War was that the political mobilization of a people in the Global South behind a struggle for national self-determination can usually neutralize, and often eventually overcome, large margins of military superiority bv an outside power, especially if it hails from the West. The stubborn refusal by politicians and the most trusted advisors by their side to heed this lesson led to regime-change and state-building disasters in the Iraq War of 2003, Afghanistan (2001-2021), Libya (2011), and others less pronounced failures. No matter how many drones search and destroy mission or how much ‘shock and awe’ is staged for its spectacular traumatizing effects, the end result resembles Vietnam more than Iraq after the 1991 war. There is still no relevant learning evident, which would be meaningfully signaled by massive downsizings of the military budget and more prudently and productively using public monies at home and abroad. The bipartisan foreign policy, again evident in response to the Ukraine War, is locking the country into an expensive and lengthy dynamic of failure and frustration, somewhat disguised by dangerous deceptions about the true nature of the strategic mission. Instead of intervention and regime change, the dominant insider Ukraine rationale for heightening tensions, prolonging warfare devastating a distant country and bringing tragic losses of life, limb, and home to many of its people, is scoring a geopolitical victory, namely, inflicting defeat and heavy costs on Russia while sternly warning China that if it dares challenge the status quo in its own region it can expect to be confronted by the same sort of destructive response that Russia is facing. Long ago patriots of humanity should have been worried about the ‘Militarist Syndrome’ and paid thankful heed to the ‘Vietnam Syndrome,’ which could have led to a war prevention strategy rather than insisting on worldwide capabilities enabling a reactive military response to unwanted actions of others. Pre-2022 Ukraine diplomacy by the U.S. led NATO alliance rather than seeking a war prevention outcome seemed determined to induce a war dangerously overlapping an unstable unipolar geopolitical order disliked by most of the Global South as well as China and Russia.
Here at home with its embedded gun culture, homelessness, and cruelty to asylum seekers at the Mexican border, it is the underlying systemic malady that remains largely undiagnosed, and totally untreated—namely, a lame and unimaginative leadership that is alternatively passively toxic and overtly fascist in the domestic sphere, and geopolitically irresponsible and transactional when it ventures abroad for the sake of Special Relationships or insists that global security anywhere on the planet is of proper concerns only for Washington think tanks, lobbyists, and upper echelon foreign policy bureaucrats. It is not surprising that in such a quandary, those with energy, passion, and excitement on their side seem destined to control the future unless a surge of progressive energy erupts mysteriously, and enables a new social movement animated by strivings toward bio-ethical-ecological-political sanity.
This drift toward fascism is not the only plausible scenario for a highly uncertain American future. There is also Yeats’ assessment made long before the current world crisis emerged, but we should not be surprised that poets see further ahead than foreign policy gurus and politicians who remain fixated on electoral or other performance cycles even in autocracies:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
And then there is to be considered Barbara F. Walter’s carefully researched assessment that the United States is drifting toward a second civil war, and not a fascist sequel to republican democracy. [See Walter, How Civil Wars Start and how to stop them, 2022] It is relatively more optimistic although it fails to contextualize the political challenge in relation to the global systemic damage done by neoliberal economic globalization, an unsettling lingering COVID pandemic, and a general planetary condition of ecological entropy.
I find this prospect of civil wars less disheartening than the related drift toward fascism or the torments of anarchy. Civil wars end and can often be prevented, and the winners have a stake in restoring normalcy, that is, assuming the more humane side prevails, which under current conditions may seem utopian. At present, only respect for international law, responsible geopolitics, a UN more empowered to realize its Principles and Purposes (Articles 1 & 2), and ethically/spiritually engaged transnational activism can hope turn the tides now engulfing humanity toward peace, justice, species survival, and a more harmonious ecological coexistence. Miracles do happen! Now more than ever before struggle rather than resignation it is the only imperative worth heeding.
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.