Foreign policy during the industrial age was conducted in great secrecy between governments which claimed to embody the nation. For the purposes of global politics, the US government was the United States. In reality, of course, elites and large bureaucracies ran the government: but their will was the general will, and their interests became ipso facto the national interest.
From this claim of identity flowed the extraordinary powers of modern government. It held all the meaningful information on any foreign policy question, and it could, at a moment’s notice, as a chit in the global game, mobilize entire populations and requisition the material resources of the nation. The model was top down, like factory management. The bottom of the social pyramid largely acquiesced in the symbolic claims of the top. Most Americans a generation ago would have agreed that, when dealing with the world, their government was the United States.
The assumptions and conditions that made this system possible have been swept away by that colossal cataclysm I call the Fifth Wave of information.
Secrecy is gone. In the age of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, negotiations with foreign governments must be conducted before a surly domestic public. Every point yielded brings an avalanche of criticism – but so does failure to conclude a deal. The situation resembles that of the heroes of Star Wars, who are stuck between the crushing walls of a compactor. Governments escape from this dangerous predicament by seeking isolation from their publics or dealing in bad faith.
In the old system, revolutionary regimes turned foreign policy into a propaganda weapon. Today, relations between perfectly conservative governments must often be conducted on a propaganda footing.
The legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the public is gone. The old social contract depended on a silent, passive public. That time is over. The public, which now commands the strategic heights over the information landscape, looks on government and sees only failure, and interprets failure in terms of elite conspiracy and corruption. On foreign and domestic policy alike, nothing can be hidden and nothing is forgiven.
The ruling elites are demoralized and unwilling to lead where no one will follow. Their natural instinct is to pretend to “do something” while maintaining a defensive crouch. The French government’s “war” against the Islamic State and the US government’s unsigned “agreement” with Iran exemplify this pattern. In both cases, theater has trumped reality, and worst-case scenarios have been pushed to the future, to become someone else’s headache, rather than being dealt with now.
The traumatic crack-up with the elites has driven the public to levels of hostility and negation that border on nihilism. Governments will be tempted to follow the same dangerous path in foreign affairs: targeting enemies for the public to rally against. Vladimir Putin has done so with Ukraine, Adbel Fattah al-Sisi with the Muslim Brotherhood: the two men are hard authoritarians responsible for broken economies, yet both are immensely popular – at least as of the present moment.
In the chaotic aftermath of the Fifth Wave, foreign policy will be driven by tactical considerations within a combustible environment. Timid governments that favor theatrical postures will tempt aggressive governments engaged in enemy-mongering.
The dissolution of the top-down model means that no government can know the fateful hour when the public will secede. None wish to put the matter to the test: mobilization on an industrial scale hasn’t occurred for decades. At the same time, mobilization on a micro and tribal basis is a fact of everyday life today – sometimes virtually, in advocacy groups like the Save Darfur Coalition, but just as often in bloody reality, as a glance at the horrors in Syria and the Islamic State should illustrate.
This ability of small-scale units to mobilize is a symptom of a deeper, more consequential change.
Even the integrity of the nation is gone. The public in the industrial age was herded into masses that obliterated significant differences of interest and opinion. Elites insisted on a particular standard of identity: either national or alien, that is, belonging to people and places under their jurisdiction or to those beyond their reach. Since they monopolized power and attention, the arbitrariness and artificiality of the system was noticed by few.
But elites and the institutions they control no longer monopolize much of anything. The great reversal in the information balance of power has allowed the public to fracture along the lines of its true interests, and to pursue, with obsessive dedication, its favorite causes. Vital communities, organized around some topic of abiding passion, form, dissolve, and re-form at the speed of light, without regard for national borders or national governments. Often, the shared fascination concerns events in the world.
The political war-bands mobilized by these causes ride the digital whirlwind, but also have at their disposal the machinery and technology of the industrial age. They can communicate and organize instantly across the globe, and they can travel there in large numbers if they so wish it. To their eyes, the world looks very unlike the geopolitical map: nothing is fully national, nothing is really alien. In their minds, the line drawn by the elites between foreign policy and domestic politics has lost all meaning.
British, French, and Belgian nationals are among the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State. They belong to a vital community that cuts across borders on behalf of a transcendental cause. In the old days, they might have done so clandestinely. Today, they post jihad selfies. Their actions take place on center stage, where all can see: for Europe’s governments, they represent an internal security crisis and a foreign policy catastrophe in the Middle East.
Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan nationals are in the hundreds of thousands streaming toward Europe. Panicked governments and media in the continent have labeled the wanderers “refugees” – but the term, I think, is misleading. This human tidal wave has been mobilized at the micro level, among local communities that ride the cell phone and digital communications to evade the flimsy barriers erected by European governments. The people involved aren’t passively pleading for refuge: they self-righteously demand satisfaction for their cause. Demographically, they appear identical to the east-bound IS fighters – young and mostly male – only headed in the opposite direction. Their sudden appearance inside Europe’s borders, result of a foreign policy disaster, may well shatter whatever remains of the European Union’s political integrity.
The forces of negation have driven ruling elites to seek shelter in transnational and international organizations that serve as scapegoats for failure. Elites have also tried to restore their broken authority by striking poses of moral superiority, as in the immigration question, or by pretending to stand between the public and doomsday, as with climate change. The public is having none of it. The flight of national governments into transnational hiding-places has ignited a powerful and contrary movement among the governed. The war-bands at the vanguard of this movement have been labeled “nationalist” – but this too is a misleading term.
Groups like the Sweden Democrats and UKIP are uninterested in the greater glory of the nation. They have no wish to see Sweden or Britain cut a more heroic figure in the world. Instead they stand firmly against. They are against the EU. They are against immigrants. Above all, they are against their national elites, whose pious vacillations they perceive to be self-serving and public-destroying.
That’s how vital communities are mobilized today: by negation. They rally forever against. Pushed to the extreme, negation becomes nihilism – the barbarian’s faith that destruction is a form of progress. The jackhammering of antiquities by the IS, and the soccer hooliganism of Golden Dawn in Greece, are just two of many current examples of this temper in action.
I find it hard to imagine that such suicidal urges can come anywhere close to the levers of power in democratic countries. However, a resurrected Caliphate once seemed like a zealot’s pipe dream. Given enough failure from the top, a radical convulsion at the bottom must be considered a possibility. Since revolution, on the mass movement model, is now obsolete, doomsday by absolute nihilist negation will assume the aspect of a political ideal.
While elites temporize, the initiative has passed to an unruly public. The only consequential battles over foreign policy occur between vital communities on the warpath in pursuit of a sacred cause. Such advocacy is often conducted in coordination with foreign groups and in defiance of national policy.
Pro-Palestinian students at elite US universities have sought to punish Israel, a US ally. Pro-Israeli groups maneuvered an address to Congress by the Israeli prime minister, against the wishes of the sitting American president. The incapacity of central government to impose its will on events could scarcely have been more clearly demonstrated.
As the solidarity of the nation fractures along a thousand slivers, the authority of government bleeds out of a thousand cuts. Government still offers a stage for elites to strut on, and acts as employment service for millions: but it’s a body without a soul. In global politics as in much else, the actions of government often resemble those of a movie zombie: a loud but aimless staggering about that often achieves the opposite of what was intended.
Government agents patrol the border but somehow the “alien” hordes pour in. Government officials inspect visa applicants but miss the irreconcilable enemy. The female shooter at San Bernardino received three separate background checks from immigration officials, and then was waved in. François Hollande called for “vigilance” after an Islamist attack in Paris, but a second attack came and was ten times deadlier.
Governments are responsible for the established order of the world – the framework of nations – but order has collapsed in the Middle East, and nations there are cracking apart, in blood and misery, before the advance of sectarian war-bands. The butcher’s bill was 100,000 deaths for 2014 alone.
In fact, the world order cobbled together in 1945 and 1991 has been battered beyond the possibility of repair. Now there is only world disorder. The US government, protector and guarantor of the old system, is consumed by its own negations and in full retreat from responsibility. The European democracies are also in flight from a dangerous world. The void has been filled by governments adept at enemy-mongering – Russia, Iran, North Korea – and by a vast patchwork of vital communities infused with a zeal for holy war.
A new system of global power is thus likely to be more hostile toward the democratic principle. But no new system is in sight, nor do the laws of history mandate that one emerge. Deepening and prolonged disorganization is a possibility. Such a chaotic geopolitical environment would favor small, fast units of action over lumbering institutions. It is that confrontation, in any case, that imparts to our moment its peculiar turbulence and unpredictability.