The bipartisan hubris born of the Cold War’s end is only slowly ebbing, even as Trump’s election represented a rejection of Washington and its “Consensus.” What new ideas will replace the old?
I used to think it was a wonderful year, 1989.
I turned 18 in January, graduated from Brea Olinda High School in June, and matriculated at the University of California, San Diego in September.
I trucked down the Southern California coast in my “new” 1977 VW Bus with all my stuff, ready to take on the world, or at least Pacific Beach.
The Berlin Wall fell in November.
For Andrew Bacevich, “The annus mirabilis of 1989 wiped away the sins of former years.”
On one hand is imagination, or where I was at 18, and on the other is retrospective, where Bacevich is coming from in a recent essay considering the fateful 1989–2008 era.
There’s George Orwell, who wrote in 1946 that the Soviet Union “will either democratize itself, or it will perish.”
And President Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation, warned the U.S. of the rising power that was the “military-industrial complex.”
George F. Kennan, the very architect of the “containment” policy that gave rise to many proxy wars during the post-World War II period, evoked Ike in his forward to Norman Cousins’ 1987 treatise The Pathology of Power, an essay reproduced in Kennan’s 1996 memoir, At a Century’s Ending: Reflections, 1982–1995:
Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.
Then we have Robert McNamara, who wrote, “We were wrong, terribly wrong,” in his memoir In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, published 20 years after the Fall of Saigon.
“What will be?” and “What happened?” are two sides of the same discussion.
|For Andrew Bacevich, “The annus mirabilis of 1989 wiped away the sins of former years.”|
The former is inherently hopeful, though prescience will also highlight coming dangers. The latter is often wistful, a longing for second chances, though constructive minds will look for long-term lessons.
As we’ve often noted, here at WSD, our bailiwick is innovation, technology, science, and progress.
So we’re consumed with imagination — new ideas, new concepts, new services, new products.
One of the most compelling notions we’ve come to understand since July 2016 is that imagination is a critical part of science, that art can influence research.
Out of Richard Feynman’s imagination sprung the “nano” revolution.
The Truman Show (“a dystopic prediction of human relationships”) influenced evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, who recently reflected on the movie’s central conceit, “a manipulation of a human being by an environment that was entirely deterministic.”
As Brooks, who studies the convergence of biology and culture, notes in a September 2016 podcast produced as part of Nature’s science fiction special: “As a piece of futurism, The Truman Show is spot on.”
Astronomer Bryan Gaensler’s love for Time for the Stars by Robert Heinlein helped him understand that his “concern that physics and science and astronomy was this very boring option that had no creativity” was wrong, “that there was incredible creativity and excitement and wonder within the path that I had chosen for myself.”
And during that same podcast, Jennifer Doudna — widely credited for discovering the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique, “the biggest biotech discovery of the century” — cites Gattaca as a major influence on her work.
H.G. Wells, “the Shakespeare of science fiction,” wrote The War of the Worlds in 1897. One prevailing interpretation of the novel is that it wars against an imperial complacency that had settled over England at the time of Queen Victoria’s 60th anniversary Jubilee.
Another is that it represents Wells’ forecast of the First World War, “a warning of the changes in human life to be brought by new science and technology, as Mark Hillegas suggests.”
|One of the most compelling notions we’ve come to understand since July 2016 is that imagination is a critical part of science, that art can influence research.|
Wells was not anti-science; quite the contrary. He was nearly obsessed with Darwin’s then-revolutionary theory of evolution.
And he did understand that rapid change can destabilize societies. He saw, for better or worse, what was coming.
Imagination is the key to scientific progress.
It’s also critical to understanding other facets of the human experience, such as geopolitics and economics.
Would that our masters had seen what was coming with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
That’s the theme of a recent essay by Andrew Bacevich, who is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University and author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History.
It was a colossal failure of imagination.
In his essay, published at TomDispatch.com under the title The Age of Great Expectations and the Great Void, Bacevich identifies three themes that defined “the new American age” in the aftermath of the Cold War.
One is: “the transformative potential of turbocharged globalization led by U.S.-based financial institutions and transnational corporations.”
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Another is: “rethinking the concept of personal freedom as commonly understood and pursued by most Americans… The concept of a transcendent common good, which during the Cold War had taken a back seat to national security, now took a back seat to maximizing individual choice and autonomy.”
“Finally,” Bacevich writes, “as a complement to these themes, in the realm of governance, the end of the Cold War cemented the status of the president as quasi-deity.”
It happens every four years now:
The political establishment and the establishment media collaborated in sustaining the pretense that out of the next endlessly hyped “race for the White House,” another Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan would magically emerge to save the nation. From one election cycle to the next, these campaigns became longer and more expensive, drearier and yet ever more circus-like. No matter. During the Age of Great Expectations, the reflexive tendency to see the president as the ultimate guarantor of American abundance, security, and freedom remained sacrosanct.”
But “the Age of Great Expectations” has given way to “the Age of Unwelcome Surprises,” embodied by Monica Lewinsky, Bush v. Gore, 9/11, New Orleans, the Great Recession, Obama, and, now, Trump, according to Bacevich.
|And he did understand that rapid change can destabilize societies. He saw, for better or worse, what was coming.|
Trump is more “transitional” than “transformative,” his mandate “almost entirely negative.”
Trumpism “centers on rejection: of globalization, of counterproductive military meddling, and of the post-Cold War cultural project.”
“The principles that enjoyed favor following the Cold War have been found wanting,” Bacevich concludes.
He also asks, “What should replace them?”
Bacevich suggests an Age of Humility:
Efforts to identify those principles should begin with an honest accounting of the age we are now leaving behind, the history that happened after “the end of history.” That accounting should, in turn, allow room for regret, repentance, and making amends — the very critical appraisal that ought to have occurred at the end of the Cold War but was preempted when American elites succumbed to their bout of victory disease.
It’s an endeavor neither Trump nor “the establishment that candidate Trump so roundly denounced, but which President-elect Trump, at least in his senior national security appointments, now shows sign of accommodating” will undertake:
Those expecting Trump’s election to inject courage into members of the political class or imagination into inside-the-Beltway “thought leaders” are in for a disappointment. So the principles we need — an approach to political economy providing sustainable and equitable prosperity; a foreign policy that discards militarism in favor of prudence and pragmatism; and an enriched, inclusive concept of freedom — will have to come from somewhere else.
Bacevich invokes historian and social critic Christopher Lasch and his yearning “for a politics based on ‘the nurture of the soil against the exploitation of resources, the family against the factory, the romantic vision of the individual against the technological vision, [and] localism over democratic centralism.'”
For me, 1989 was actually pretty good.
|“The principles that enjoyed favor following the Cold War have been found wanting,” Bacevich concludes.|
I moved from one suburban white enclave in north Orange County to another in north San Diego County, trading landlocked and provincial though undeniably Rockwellian and prosperous Brea for coastal and relatively cosmopolitan La Jolla, where the cost of living is high but the beaches remain free.
I knew I wanted to write. Twenty-eight years later, I’m grateful to say that’s what I’m doing. I saw an endpoint, but I had only the vaguest idea about the journey it would take to get there.
But clearly, the end of the Cold War did not mark an “end of history.”
The confidence fostered as we emerged as the West’s and then the world’s leading military and economic power during and after World War II devolved to triumphalism as the Berlin Wall and then the Soviet Union fell.
Now we own a VW Routan, a soccer-mom-ified bus we refer to as “Big, Black, and Beautiful” and that I constantly threaten to adorn with flames so it’ll resemble that old Hot Wheels van.
Things have changed. It took a trip to law school to find my wife and to find out that I didn’t want to practice law. Only after that did I realize I wanted to and could make a living as a writer.
Ponder the potential good. Contemplate the potential bad. Reflect on what you don’t know as much as that which you think you know.
It’s like John Lennon said: “Imagine.”
Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial establishment would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy. The truth of the matter is that the greater portion of American society that lies outside the defense establishment is rapidly falling into a position resembling that of much of civilian society in northern Europe toward the end of the Thirty Years’ War: reduced to trailing behind the armies as camp followers, hoping to live off the remnants from the military stores and kitchens.
— George F. Kennan
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily