The Madness of Contingency

The other night, while watching Deutschland ’83, I found myself wondering what a 1990s-era Soviet Union – and Eastern Bloc, in general – might have looked like. What a world of possibility! To what extent would the same commercial energies in the west have been poured into monetizing the internet? What would growing digital interconnectivity in the world have looked like with half of it still cut off (and would that still have been the case)?

A Cold War contnuing into the 90s has ominous portents – in what new and exciting ways would have been coupling ever-advanced nuclear warheads (say, the never-built B90) with precision-enabling technologies? What shape would US infrastructure and the built environment have been in without the “Peace Dividend?” Would Martin Marietta still be around? Would a liberalized Soviet Union have helped drag the welfare state into the twenty-first century? Could it possibly have persisted as a nation, or were there insurmountable internal contradictions?

Still from the 2014 Russian TV-3 show “Chernobyl: Zone of Exclusion,” depicting a 21st-century Soviet Union.

But no, Gorbachev’s program of reform led to loosening Moscow’s control over the periphery led to velvet revolutions and Solidarność and the attempted coup and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Contemplating this sequence of events and all the other possibilities it forestalled leaves one with the same feeling of unease that follows a car crash or being on the receiving end of a chewing-out. Which isn’t to lament those lost presents, but one is left with the recognition that everything, in the end, is up to chance. Who predicted the end of the Soviet Union? Who saw these momentous events coming? And if all other alternative action was an attempt to preserve some version of the status quo, it engenders a kind of paralysis; change is coming so why do anything at all?

You could look at Hong Kong as well, and how its return to China was predicated on the fact that while Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula were ceded to the United Kingdom in perpetuity, the “New Territories” from southern Guangdong were only under a 99-year lease (99 years being thought “as good as forever” by the lead British negotiator), the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. That measure of the eternal expired in 1997 – hence the handover that year – after the Thatcher Government determined in the 1980s that continued British sovereignty over Hong Kong unviable without the New Territories. For want of an temporal imagination, the pearl was lost.

The number of branching possibilities, of an unending sequence of slightly different parallel universes is enough to drive anyone insane. And seizing on that one lost opportunity, that minor oversight that’s led to a present crisis… I’d never discourage the study of history – or alternate history –  but dwelling on some of those wanted nails can raise impossible questions. Contemplating the infinite can take us to the edge of madness.

But accompanying this is a reason for optimism: if anything at all is possible, that includes good outcomes, so prudence calls for us to prepare to make the most of opportunities. TO seize the moment. What’s possible right now might not be so tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean a different future isn’t worh imaging. But beyond a broad vision of possibility, it’s critical to imagine the details, the causality. How do we get from here to there? Everything is unsettled; no longer does the arc of history follow some predictable trajectory – for better or worse, our destiny is ours to affect, if not define.

What might have been? What could be?

In Which History Brushes the Dirt off its Shoulders and Starts Happening Again

england

Never before has the English Channel seemed so oceanic.

Brexit is a dreadful portmanteau. I tried to divert myself last night coining better alternatives for other potential coming secessions, instead of “Frexit” and “Italexit” (my money’s on Fradieu and Italiciao, respectively).

But not only is the word ugly but so too the deed. Probably.

Given what our generation has grown up with – a fairly predictable march towards neoliberal consensus, general stability save the occasional earth-shattering global financial crisis, a world of solid borders and staid bureaucracy – we at least have an excuse for complacency in the absence of change. Those responsible for the referendum and the crisis that’s led us to this moment, not so much, as Adam Elkus pointed out. But it would seem that history is roaring back with a vengeance and threatening to upend the order we’ve taken for granted.

I would hope that an island’s decision to exit a common market does not throw the longest peace on the Rhine in a thousand years into jeopardy; indeed, this early on I cannot quite envision the chain of events that would lead to that (okay, well, since you asked, Brexit precipitates two to three other EU withdrawals, leading to a collapse of the European Union, returning us to a perfect Westphalian state of international anarchy, but I digress).

The mid-to-long-term effects have yet to be seen. In the short run, obviously the pound sterling has tanked (though seems to be making a slight recovery), wiping out significant economic value, and stock markets across Asia, Europe, and the United States have also opened down. This, however, seems a poor explanation for the panic breaking out online and in person, the sense of grief and loss that’s accompanied this momentous and shocking vote. Plummeting retirement accounts and weakened currency are disastrous, to be sure, but they’re hard to pinpoint as a source of raw emotion.

There’s also something unseemly about arguing that “the market” should have been given a veto over a decision of popular sovereignty. Which isn’t to say that material well-being shouldn’t be nor wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s vote, but the idea that the City of London’s reaction to a vote to leave should determine national standing in the world is rather jarring (if not entirely inaccurate even without a referendum at all).

No, what’s caused this international mood of mourning is something grander than sheer material impact. It’s the loss of an idea, that a united Europe could overcome the historical divisions and enmities that have led to so much bloodshed over the course of several millennia. To turn its back on that sectarian, internecine warfare and instead chart a common course towards a mutual future; in short, a true commonwealth.

Of course, the European Union as constituted was (and is) rife with problems of its own. It is both too unaccountable and too lacking in power. It enjoys a currency union without a fiscal one; legislative representation without political supremacy. The vote reflects general and intense (and well-deserved) dissatisfaction with the elite. There are cases to be made for exiting the EU as a positive, both from the right and the left. But they’re not wholly convincing, because whatever the “cost” or “savings,” the results of the referendum transcend a materialist analysis of Britain’s EU membership, and is the death knell of an ideal.

This a tragedy especially for the young people of Britain and Europe, who time and time again have had their desires thwarted by older voters who won’t be around long enough to live with the consequences. It happened in the US Democratic primary and to a lesser extent in Scotland; the trend was undeniable even before then. That comment from the Financial Times that’s gone viral really does summarize it well: there will still be an unaccountable elite, only with British accents instead of a European polyglot; and the freedoms to live, work, and study in Europe, to meet a future spouse there, to be exposed to the tremendous panoply of cultures that comprise modern Europe, to try and fit Britain into a larger context, into the world: all of that has been dashed by a generation that already got theirs.

So despair is the watchword of today. Of course, Parliament might choose to dishonor the results of the referendum, or there could be a second one, or the Queen could refuse her assent, or any manner of other things. At a minimum the process will take two years. But the fact that a majority of England and Wales would prefer to exist outside the European Union is a profound shift in the international order. Scotland, on the other hand, may well opt for a second independence referendum, given the significant changes since the previous one (i.e., no more EU membership). But with the price of oil having dropped significantly from its 2014 levels, the self-sustainability of that project might be more in question.

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Sinn Fein, as is their wont, has also made their announcement calling for a Northern Ireland vote to reunify Ireland, given the impending border checks and controls that would arise from a Northern Ireland outside of the EU.

The unthinkable has been set in motion and may yet be halted. But this vote should be of absolutely no comfort to anyone. We’re in uncharted waters, and the idea of European unity and a whiggish progress towards some noble and enlightened end has been thrown into stark relief. As the developed world mourns the idea of growing integration and peace, we’ve been reminded that the trend of the past few years is no happenstance, but rather that chance and contingency are once again a part of geopolitics – for better or worse.

Expect the unexpected; choppy waters ahead.

Reliving the Past

As Herbert Butterfield warns us and as I’ve mentioned here before, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  I was then pleased to read Patrick Porter’s latest column, “The Shadow of the Fathers.” He writes about invocations of the Founding Fathers as justification for all manner of… anything, really. To him, American policymakers have “the tricky job of acknowledging the powerful ideas and heritage that shaped American statecraft, while also resisting it.”

Perhaps my favorite line in the piece, though, belonged to Nicholas Spykman:

Not conformity with the past but workability in the present is the criterion of a sound policy.

Words for today.

SMS Goeben, the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the Coming of the Great War

SMS Goeben

In November of 1914, the once-mighty “sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire, entered the war to end all wars as a Central Power. Having concluded a secret alliance with Germany against her long-time rival Russia, the conditions for war were met, and on November11 Sultan Mehmed V declared jihad.

As with so many other empires, the jump into war would prove to be the downfall of Turkey as a Mediterranean power, and in fact as an empire at all. The terms of their alliance with Germany pulled the Ottomans into the war, but the real question remains: what led them to sign it? The answers can be found in two places: the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and the arrival of the SMS Goeben.

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Whither Arabic Science?

It’s widespread knowledge that many scientific and mathematical fundamentals can trace their lineage to the ‘golden age’ of the Arab world. Our numeral system, refinements in geometry and astrology, and other stepping-stones on the path to modern science originated in the Middle East between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Of course, this period of

Austin Dacey has written an article called “The Decline of the Decline of Arabic Science,” in which he attempts to address the ‘withering’ characterization of Arab-Islamic science. According to the traditional description, the cutting-edge nature of Islamic thinkers began to peter out, until the West overtook the East by leaps and bounds. Instead, he writes, there was nothing preordaining our current state of physical knowledge.

A sort of ‘Whig interpretation‘ thus explains the Arab ‘failure’ to discover what the West eventually did. Happenstance, coincidence, and chance are the real underpinnings of modern science (and this actually begins to make even more sense when considering the chaotic behavior of sub-atomic particles and quantum mechanics). Which raises an even more intriguing question: in what other direction could science have gone?