Around about the middle of October, I began to get the feeling that 20, 30, 50 years from now, historians might agree that the United States entered a new era this past year—and not a good one. It started over the summer, with a series of deeply depressing global crises: the Central American children trying to cross en masse over the Texas border; the continuing irredentist actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine; the latest Gaza war; and, of course, the ISIS beheadings and the larger threat the group poses. In a normal summer, any one of these four would have dominated headlines and been plenty enough crisis for us to handle. But all four at once! It was just too much to absorb some days.
Some of those faded away, as crises do (which doesn’t mean that they’re not still going on). But the ISIS crisis intensified, as President Obama started bombing the militants and arming the Syrian rebels. Then this fall came the Ebola scare. By October—bad timing for the Democrats, in electoral terms—there was a sense of helplessness about the land, and the polls were clear: Americans think the country is flailing and can no longer solve problems; they hate both parties and see no leadership.
The Democrats paid a huge price for all this in the midterm elections, but I think what’s been going on ought to be seen through a wider prism than that of elections, because it’s potentially far more seismic. I think we’re potentially entering a new age—call it, if you don’t mind six-syllable words, the Age of Insolubility—in which we are confronted with a series of globally dystopic crises that can neither be ignored nor solved, especially in today’s polarized Washington. This new age may reshape our society and our politics in the way the Cold War did, or the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s. Reshape them how? I think eventually for the better, but only after a lot of resistance and pain.
I know people are constantly proclaiming new ages of this and that when in fact the world has had more or less the same kinds of problems—basically, people hating one another because of religion, money, land, or culture—since the Punic Wars. Some portion of the world’s poor will always be desperate to come to the United States, and to one degree or another the Israelis and the Palestinians will always be at it. Stipulated.
But even so, what’s going on now feels different. It’s not necessarily that the problems are all that different. We’ve always had plagues and viruses and savage, ISIS-grade murderers. What’s different today is that we can’t ignore them.
Because of globalization and mass migration (especially to the United States, which remains by far the top migration destination), and because of the smartphone and social-media revolutions, crises that were once remote from most Americans’ experience are now smack in our faces. It’s worth stopping to reflect on how different this is from past eras. Back during the Cold War, say, when the United States and the Soviet Union were propping up their preferred dictators in poor, far-off countries, Americans never had to give a passing thought as to what life was actually like for people in Nicaragua or Zaire, never had to think that maybe those people had aspirations of any sort. That ignorance is simply impossible in today’s world. And by the way, the higher awareness runs in the other direction too: Today, the people who live in repressive societies tend to know what they’re missing in a way they didn’t two generations ago, and they are able to make demands on our consciences in a way they weren’t back then. The reality today is also different from the immediate post-9/11 era. Then, at least the source of anxiety was one event perpetrated by one culprit from one region. Now, it’s a multitude of events, which is even harder to deal with, because they’ll never stop happening.
Of the summer crises named above, the Gaza war provided perhaps the most graphic illustration of all this change, in some ways even more so than the ISIS rampages. For virtually 50 straight days, we saw images of bombs raining down, on both sides, but of course to much more devastating effect in Gaza. And, these images weren’t confined to a few minutes on the nightly news, as in the Vietnam days. They were a constant, via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and other sources. Imagine the My Lai Massacre happening in today’s world. In the late 1960s, that incident wasn’t revealed for nearly a year and a half. With today’s technology such an event would be exposed within minutes.
I sensed during this recent Gaza war the beginning of a certain subtle shift in American opinion. One would not go so far as to call it pro-Palestinian; the American public is a long, long way from abandoning Israel and embracing a movement that most Americans see as indiscriminately violent. But one might well say that for the first time, the broader American public got the sense that there existed such a thing as an innocent, dead Palestinian, as opposed to one who was just a terrorist anyway and got what was coming to him—those four boys on the beach, perhaps most memorably, but also the at least 15 killed in the shelling of that United Nations school. Americans began to see that there is a Palestinian side to this story.
And seeing that there’s a Palestinian side to the story means seeing the world in something closer to its actual complexity. This also is what may be new about the Age of Insolubility. Americans don’t typically go in much for complexity, especially in global affairs. We like it simple (we are hardly unique in this among the world’s peoples). During the Cold War, we were the good guys, the Russians, the bad guys. After September 11, I remember someone thundering on Fox—maybe it was Bill O’Reilly—that yes, some things are black and white, that we don’t need shades of gray at a time like this, we need moral clarity.
Well, the world of global dystopia is a world of moral ambiguity. Yes, ISIS is straight-up evil—on that one much of the world agrees. But after that it gets cloudy fast. What about Bashar al-Assad? Ally with him? He’s as savage a butcher as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s leader. Work with Iran? We say we’re not playing ball with those two, but to some extent, a little coordination will be unavoidable. Instead, we are more openly working with the Saudis, our “friends” who run one of the world’s most repressive regimes and are, by the way, no slouches in the beheading department themselves. We’re going to be mucking about in the Middle East for a long time, and the opportunities to make morally clear choices are going to be rare.
Most Americans are never going to be deeply engaged in these questions. Most Americans can barely find Europe on a map. But over time, as this world of unavoidable global crises becomes a more fixed reality in our lives—and technology and migration will see to that—I do think a certain critical mass of Americans will grow to be a little more knowledgeable about the world.
Of this I say, it’s about time. Much of the rest of the world lives with roiling violence as a normal part of daily life, and it’ll be a good education for Americans to have to see this. A certain percentage of Americans will even start to come to terms with the fact we bear some responsibility for these conditions, depending on the place. Knowledge leads inevitably to empathy, or if not exactly empathy at least to having to sit with a problem and examine it in its complexity. You can’t just put it in a box in the attic anymore. And dealing with the complex world is what Americans are now being forced to do.
The public polling that came out during the fall on the issue of what the United States should do about the Islamic State reflects perfectly this sense of Americans trying to grapple with a complex problem. The polls say, in sum: Yes, we have to do something about ISIS; yes, it’s probably not going to work; yes, we suspect this will require ground troops eventually, which we will oppose; but…yes, we need to do something, and now.
The nature of the world today is such that the United States has to do something to try to address a wide range of global problems, but we don’t have the power to fix any of them. In fact we barely have the power to influence them except around the margins, at high cost, and over long, slogging periods of time. This is a new thing for Americans, who still believe in that can-do, roll-up-our-sleeves business. At first, the messiness of it all will probably make people throw up their hands, and the isolationist temptation will be strong. It’s strong now, on both the libertarian right and the anti-war left, and in the near term will probably only get stronger.
But I think over the next ten or 15 years, most Americans will have to come to terms with insolubility and, assuming we’re still a more-or-less functioning democracy, our leaders will follow suit. So we may retreat at first, but in time Americans will see that retreat from the world stage isn’t really a viable option. Then we’ll probably overreact (again) for a few years; let’s just hope we do it without creating the catastrophes we created a decade ago. And then, hopefully, if we have the right kind of President, and if the Republican Party has lost enough consecutive presidential elections that it finally decides to stop being a rage machine and start thinking quasi-responsibly again, we’ll be able to make a foreign policy that attempts to meet the world’s needs. It will be engaged but not presumptively militaristic, strong but highly multilateral, and most of all it will take a broader and less defensive view of American interests, so that with any luck a consensus will support, for example, the idea that the United States has a clear interest in helping West African countries build health-care infrastructures before a virus starts to kill thousands.
However things turn out, this global dystopia is going to reshape our culture and our politics in a profound way. Maybe instead of constantly thinking about how different we are from the rest of the world, how their problems aren’t ours, we’ll start thinking just a little more that our fate is tied to the rest of the world’s. And if we do that, maybe some of these problems will start seeming, and actually being, soluble after all.