Op-ed: Revolutions Happen. This Might Be Ours.
Sometimes political orders break apart. But beware the dangers of what comes next.
By Stephen M. Walt
Whenever political and social upheaval occurs, William Butler Yeats’s famous poem “The Second Coming” (1919) immediately springs to mind. Are we at a moment in history where, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”? Will anger at entrenched injustice, racism, and other outmoded ideas sweep aside familiar institutions and replace them with something better? Are global arrangements that have been in place for decades being transformed as well? Is a desire to “move fast and break things” now the mantra for both local and global politics?
If so, it will be a rude shock for people like me. If you’re a privileged American baby boomer, you’ve lived most of your life in a fairly stable era of world history. The Cold War began before you were born and lasted until you were approaching middle age. For people of my generation, institutions like NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the United Nations, the World Bank, and countless other arrangements seemed like permanent features of the landscape. Even the nuclear arms race, worrisome as it was, eventually became a bit like watching reruns of Seinfeld or M.A.S.H.: The players were familiar, we could recite all their lines, and we knew how every episode was going to turn out.
There were crises and upheavals of different sorts in many places, of course, and important changes did occur at home and abroad. Some of those developments were highly contentious and involved the use of violence. Political and social reform occurred slowly, however, and rarely achieved as much as the protagonists hoped. Even events as significant as the Sino-Soviet split, decolonization, the 1970s oil shocks, the end of the gold standard, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, or the Iranian revolution ultimately had only modest effects on the overall global order. Until the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it was an era of considerable continuity in much of world politics.
If the stability that characterized the Cold War order is your idea of “normal,” therefore, you’re probably inclined to see existing institutions as enduring and to think of revolutionary change as the rare exception rather than a constant possibility.
But suppose you had been born in the West in 1900. As a teenager, you would have watched the European great powers fall into a self-destructive blood-letting that toppled two empires and impoverished victors and vanquished alike. If you were lucky, you’d have then survived the global influenza pandemic that killed roughly 50 million people in 1918 and 1919. You would have seen a new regime emerge in Russia that was committed to spreading a revolutionary political and economic ideology and watched as it attracted millions of followers around the world. You would have witnessed the heady exuberance of the Roaring ’20s, followed by the deep quagmire of the Great Depression and the spread of fascism in Europe. You would have observed a defeated and disarmed Germany abandon the Treaty of Versailles, rearm, and threaten to dominate Europe once again. Beginning in 1939, you’d have seen the Axis powers rapidly conquer vast areas of Europe and the Pacific, then watched with amazement and relief when it took the Allies less than three years to reverse those conquests and compel their opponents to surrender unconditionally.
In short, if your life experience was formed by the first half of the 20th century rather than the second, you might have acquired a healthy respect for the fragility of political orders, a sense that seemingly stable balances of power could erode overnight, and a deep appreciation of the speed with which political fortunes can shift. And you’d be inclined to think that maintaining stability and order was essential and required constant vigilance and a fair bit of luck.
As for today’s millennials (and those even younger), many of them have lived through the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of apartheid, and the hubristic failure of America’s so-called unipolar moment. They watched the supposed “Masters of the Universe” on Wall Street crash the world economy in 2008 and seen glaciers melt and oceans rise as the planet warms. Their economic prospects are probably better than their parents’ if they live in an emerging economy, but in the developed world, most will struggle to live as well as their parents did. Well-established taboos about gender and other social issues have been overturned in their lifetimes, and technological change has proceeded at a pace that no one can anticipate, let alone manage. They have plenty of reasons to be worried about the future—and to believe that radical change is both long overdue and genuinely possible. Although they obviously arise from radically different impulses, the Make America Great Again, Bernie Sanders, and Black Lives Matter movements all reflect their followers’ conviction that the current system is badly broken and that half-measures won’t fix it.
So which is it? Is this the moment when “all that is solid melts into air,” as Karl Marx once prophesied? Or is the alarm and agitation we are seeing today more smoke than fire?
On the one hand, there are reasons to be skeptical that radical change is actually in the offing. As I noted in my last column, revolutionary upheavals are inherently hard to predict, because it is impossible to know just how many people are eager for change, how much risk they are willing to bear to bring it about, and how they will react when opponents push back. A country or even a whole region can be in a state of high revolutionary potential for a long time, and yet no revolution may occur or succeed.
Here the fate of the Arab Spring offers a cautionary tale. There have long been ample grounds for popular discontent in much of the Arab world, due to widespread corruption, brutal authoritarianism, sectarian divisions, slow economic growth, deteriorating environmental conditions, etc. Lots of people knew an explosion was going to occur eventually, and under President George W. Bush, the United States even tried to ignite one by invading Iraq and proclaiming a “Liberty Doctrine.” When the public suicide of a distraught Tunisian fruit vendor in 2010 triggered a popular rebellion and both traditional and social media began to spread the word to other Arab societies, a transnational revolutionary moment seemed to have arrived. Plenty of people—myself included—could not figure out where the process was headed: Would it lead to far-reaching social and political change, or would the old order reassert itself and crush popular pressures for reform?
We all know how things turned out. As the British historian George Trevelyan said of the 1848 revolts in Europe, the Arab Spring proved to be “the turning point at which [Middle East] history failed to turn.” Egypt’s fledgling democracy was overthrown by a military coup, Libya descended into civil war following the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi, the Assad regime in Syria held power by pursuing a brutal scorched-earth strategy with a frightful human cost, and the Gulf monarchies have used a combination of social spending and repression to ward off meaningful political change. The failure of the Arab Spring is a telling reminder of the obstacles to truly revolutionary change.
But, on the other hand, the possibility of radical change cannot be dismissed entirely. We are in the midst of a global pandemic whose duration and cumulative damage are still uncertain. The world economy is contracting sharply, and the lives and career prospects of hundreds of millions of young people will inevitably suffer. The balance of economic and military power is already shifting gradually from West to East. Governments in several key countries are paralyzed by partisan division, and the political order in the United States has proved to be better at enriching the few than improving the lives of the many. Over the past month, the deep institutional roots of American racism have been exposed yet again, leading to demands for structural change that are resonating more widely than before.
And all this is occurring at a moment when good leaders are hard (though not impossible) to find. In two of the oldest and most influential democracies, voters succumbed to the seductive snake oil of U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson: faux populists who turned out to be lazy, reflexively dishonest, morally corrupt, and supremely ill-suited for the challenges they are now facing. At a moment that cries out for disciplined, unifying, and inspiring leadership, both Trump and Johnson have shown themselves to be incapable of advancing the public interest or even pretending to care very much about it. Don’t get me started about what is happening in Brazil.
If all these problems were not enough, the planet is still getting warmer, species extinction is accelerating, and new viruses are bound to make the leap from animals to humans and threaten us again. Taken together, these challenges have left a lot of flammable material lying around, and it is somewhat surprising that demands for change have not been even greater.
An optimist would see these overlapping crises as a tremendous opportunity, and they might be right. Perhaps a new burst of creative political energy will revitalize democratic institutions around the world, produce healthy economic reforms, lead to rapid and lasting progress toward racial equality, fix the criminal justice system, and encourage the United States and other countries to adopt more sensible and successful foreign policies. One could even imagine a sustained international effort to construct a new operating system for the emerging multipolar or bipolar world, one that sought to manage great-power competition and preserve as many positive gains from global cooperation as possible.
That is exactly what I’m hoping for, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Political reform is challenging in the best of circumstances. Entrenched elites in democracies and nondemocracies alike rarely give up their wealth or political prerogatives willingly, even when preserving economic and social stability would be in their own long-term interest. States may recognize incentives to cooperate yet still be tempted to go it alone, free-ride, or blame others. Plenty of things may need fixing, but necessity does not guarantee they will actually get fixed.
If enough people conclude that the current order is incapable of meaningful change, however, there is literally no telling where their anger and their actions might lead. I’ve studied enough revolutions to be wary of what can happen when a political order collapses completely, and it is rarely a pretty sight. Familiar elements of our political order are now under siege—some of them for very good reasons—but radical change is an inherently unpredictable process. In the end, political institutions are not permanent phenomena like the laws of physics, a mountain range, or an ocean. They are artificial human creations, and they’re only as enduring, adaptive, and effective as we make them. I hold out my hopes for a serious and sustained process of democratic change, one that respects the nobler features of the U.S. constitutional order yet takes dead aim at all the ways in which America has failed to live up to its own professed ideals. The alternative, I fear, will be something much more dangerous. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Pahlavi family, or any of the other former leaders who failed to read the writing on the wall.
*Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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