The Fourth Turning: What Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Howe.
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he theoretical slogan “Make America Great Again,” followed in practice with a ban on travel to the US from seven Moslem countries, is ultimately rooted in a sinister theory of history.
The theory does not originate from the new occupant of the White House, who has never exhibited much intellectual curiosity, be it in history, or any other subject for that matter, with the possible exception of business deals, but it is endemic to his most influential and trusted advisor Steve Bannon, the man behind the curtain who landed him in the White House.
Bannon is known as a White Supremacist, with racial and anti-Semitic tendencies; a passionate adherent to a theory of history about America’s future as elucidated in the above mentioned book. There are around a plethora of cyclical theories of history, the most popular being perhaps that of the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico. One could indeed go all the way back to the ancient Greeks who believed that at the end of a given cycle of history (the saeculum) comes a “ekpsyrosis” or a cataclysmic event, a trial of fire of sorts, which destroys the old order and brings about a new one, but this new theory by Strauss and Howe is unique in its sheer darkness. To boot, Bannon misinterprets it to better suit his own political agenda.
As per this theory, there are three turning of history which America has experienced, so far: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Great Depression followed by World War II. They were marked by massive dislocations, war, and decay from which the people were forced to reunite and build a new order. In other words, first comes a catalyst event from which issues a period of regeneracy climaxed by a war with the old order which ends with a resolution. The resolution is the triumph of the new order.
Bannon seems to be obsessed with the theory. He is convinced that a reckoning is fast approaching, in fact it must necessarily arrive in order for a new order to emerge; also, that the climactic conflict will be conducted from the White House. He has shown himself willing to advise Trump on the enactment of policies disruptive of the current order. It is generally believed that the he was the architect behind the ban, called temporary for now, on travel and on entry Muslims in the US. He was also behind the deletion of the reference to Jews as victims of the Holocaust on its recent yearly commemoration (on the very same day of the ban enacted on Moslems by executive fiat).
One of the side-effects of this encouraged disruption is the breaking down of old political and economic alliances, even the turning away from traditional American principles to create chaos and prepare for the new order. Chaos seems to be the climate in the present White House: rampant confusion under conflicting orders, with Caligula redivivus creating the confusion and then perversely enjoying the reality show, to suddenly show up as the man with the brilliant solutions. It’s as if the Apprentice TV show were still going on. It’s the atmosphere of the Roman Colosseum where the phenomenon of survival of the fittest is the ultimate goal and rationale. Many, in and out of the White House, are concerned and are beginning to entertain the idea of impeachment. Some have even mustered the courage to call him “illegitimate,” which is the equivalent to the little boy in Christian Andersen’s tale shouting “the emperor is naked” as the emperor struts around in his splendid invisible clothes to the sycophantic admiration of his followers.
The bizarre show, as of this writing, goes on unabated. It has to go on, necessarily, because Bannon is attempting to bring about, or fulfill, if you will, the so called fourth turning of US history, a new vision of America as described in the theory above. Trump is merely the means to attain to it. In an interview Bannon has described Trump as “a blunt instrument” but one that he is perfectly willing to use nevertheless, in order to attain the appointed goal of history. It is all rather deterministic with human responsibility, guilt and regret, notably absent from the whole process.
Nevertheless, taking notice of this fourth turning gives some needed context to policies that so far seem deranged, incoherent and inconsistent, unexplainable and confusing even to experts in geo-politics, as they vainly attempt to square the circle and make some rational sense of it all.
Bannon is convinced that we are already in a period of regenaracy. The catalyst was the financial crisis of 2008. As described in the book, this is a period of isolationism, of reimagining the economy (which so far has shown itself prone to a reimagining new tax breaks for the rich…), re-building of the infrastructure, and, most importantly, a strong centralized, authoritarian, powerful government where the executive reigns supreme, unencumbered by too many laws and regulations. But this is only a preparation for a massive conflict of civilizations to come. A conflict between East and West, which may mean the Middle East or perhaps China. Russia, for the moment, seems to be considered a friendly ally, with few if any rationales.
But what does history ultimately show? Does it really repeat itself deterministically, or are the catastrophes of every era unique to each era? Will the fourth Turning be the same as the first, second, and third? To take a close look, it appears that the Fourth Turning of the Civil War was quite different than that of the Depression and World War II.
Logically, it is argued, the financial crisis of 2008 is the catalyst for our crisis and the coming struggle, just as the Depression was for the third turn. But are the two really comparable? During the Depression unemployment reached 20%; in the fourth turning it never went beyond 10%. Unlike the Hoover Administration (an administration which prided itself of its business acumen) which dilly dallied for two whole years, the government of Barack Obama acted very fast to prevent a meltdown and turned the situation around, at least on a financial level.
What this financial crisis has brought about this time around is an exacerbation of the income inequality gap which has been growing globally since it began some forty years ago. That explains the popularity of a Bernie Sanders, and to a certain extent that of Donald Trump, who as one of those who benefitted from and produced the gap, then skilfully used it as a campaign strategy to fool millions of middle class workers who are now waiting for the check in the mail. Good luck. The disappointed will be palpable in a few months.
If there is a comparison to be made, it ought to be that of the inaugural address of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, when he describes a county devastated by the Great Depression, a picture that all Americans could see and recognize; and compare it to that of Trump in 2017 a couple of weeks ago, where he talks of a dark “American carnage.” What was he talking about? Not many can answer that question. But it may aptly describe the deep divisions presently existing in this country of ours.
Unlike the era of FDR which put people back to work and created a national unifying spirit wherein society’s resources were redistributed and society rebuilt, what is most apparent today is discord and disunity, as exemplified by the two main political parties who have all but forgotten the word compromise and harmony. The anger and the authoritarianism is there, apparent to all, but not the yearning for social justice, not the common purpose, or the common good. Division and dissension have been promoted as never before.
And this is where Bannon and him minions in the White House are greatly misguided. They believe that they are working for “the Gray Warrior,” the leader described by Strauss and Howe who will “urgently resist the idea that a second consecutive generation might be denied the American Dream.” The identification of the Gray Warrior in a pathological narcissist who creates “alternate facts” as he goes along is indeed a grave mistake.
They also conveniently forget that the new order in the Germany of 1932 was inaugurated by a power-mad fellow named Adolf Hitler who wanted to make Germany great again. Pari passu, today’s hero and savior, while claiming to be champion of the disadvantaged, continues to pursue his own personal financial and political interests and has so far shown precious little compassion for the poor and the unfortunate.
In reality, the ones who may eventually show us the way forward, out of our impasse and begin the Fourth Turning are not the Trumpists in love with Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” but the Millennials, the young, whose needs have all but been ignored by the likes of Trump and Bannon.
The only candidate who attracted them during the presidential campaign was Bernie Sanders. Trump appealed and managed to fool mostly an older generation who felt that something had been taken away from them and resented that fact. The millennials have no such resentment; they have, in fact, never been given a chance at the American Dream in the first place. Most of them voted against Trump, many stayed home and for good reasons: Trump had offered them nothing.
What Bannon has failed to grasp is that the Fourth Turning, as envisioned by Strauss and Howe, is not inevitable and deterministic but requires an urgent return to a constitutionally agreed-upon set of values. The millennials have grasped that much. What Bannon and Trump are doing, on the other hand, is that, far from unifying against outside threats, they are creating enemies galore (Mexico, China, Australia, the EU, you name it) which many Americans don’t want to have. That insistence on creating enemies at a tough bargaining table, does nothing but increase the palpable anxiety and frustration.
Indeed, we find ourselves in uncharted perilous territory and history cannot deterministically predict where we will eventually end up. It can only give us guidelines and lessons on how to avoid past mistakes. History however does teach us that to ignore the voices of justice and reason is to make sure that we will end up with an enormous political disaster on our hands. In a way we already have one reigning disaster right inside the White House. Those who did not vote for confusion and dissension (by 3 million votes difference) are now asked to go along for the ride with the mad emperor. Such are the ways and byways of democracy. In any case, better buckle up; the ride is likely to be bumpy.
Author’s note: this essay has already appeared in Ovi Magazine on February 6, 2017
Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?
Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.
The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.
Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.
Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.
First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.
Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.
Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.
These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.
First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.
In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.
Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.
Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.
Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.
Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.
From our partner RIAC
“Choose sides” is practically a bogus idea for US military partners
“Choosing sides” is practically a non-starter for US military allies such as Japan and South Korea. These nations, first and foremost military allies of the US, are forging cordial and productive ties with other countries based on military alliances with the US. The nature and level of partnerships varies greatly from those of allies, despite the fact that they appear to be quite heated at times.
Military concerns have been less important in the postwar period, but economic concerns have been extremely heated, social and cultural interactions have been close, and the qualitative differences between cooperative relations and allies have gotten confused, or have been covered and neglected.
Some unreasonable expectations and even mistakes were made. In general, in the game between the rising power and the hegemony, it is undesirable for the rising power to take the initiative and urge the hegemony’s supporters to select a side. Doing so will merely reinforce these countries’ preference for hegemony.
Not only that, but a developing country must contend with not only a dominant hegemony, but also a system of allies governed by the hegemony. In the event of a relative reduction in the power of the hegemony, the strength of the entire alliance system may be reinforced by removing restraints on allies, boosting allies’ capabilities, and allowing allies’ passion and initiative to shine.
Similarly, the allies of the hegemonic power are likely to be quite eager to improve their own strength and exert greater strength for the alliance, without necessarily responding to, much alone being pushed by, the leader. The “opening of a new chapter in the Korean-US partnership” was a key component of the joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States following the meeting of Moon Jae-in and Biden. What “new chapter” may a military alliance have in a situation of non-war?
There are at least three features that can be drawn from the series of encounters between South Korea and the United States during Moon Jae-visit in’s to the United States: First, the withdrawal of the “Korea-US Missile Guide” will place military constraints on South Korea’s missile development and serve as a deterrence to surrounding nations. The second point is that, in addition to the Korean Peninsula, military cooperation between the US and South Korea should be expanded to the regional level in order to respond to regional hotspots. The third point is that, in addition to military alliances, certain elements in vaccinations, chips, 5G, and even 6G are required. These types of coalitions will help to enhance economic cooperation.
Despite the fact that Vice President Harris wiped her hands after shaking hands with Moon Jae-in, and Biden called Moon Jae-in “Prime Minister” and other rude behaviors, the so-called “flaws” are not hidden, South Korea still believes that the visit’s results have exceeded expectations, and that Moon Jae-in’s approval rate will rise significantly as a result.
The joint statement issued by South Korea and the United States addresses delicate subjects such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Of course, China expresses its outrage. It is widely assumed that this is a “private cargo” delivered by Biden’s invitation to Moon Jae-in to visit the United States.
Moon Jae-in stated that he was not pressured by Biden. If this is correct, one option is that such specific concerns will not be handled at all at the summit level; second, South Korea is truly worried about the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns and wishes to speak with the US jointly.
South Korea should be cognizant of China’s sensitivity to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea concerns. When it comes to China-related concerns, the phrasing in the ROK-US joint statement is far more mild than that in the ROK-Japan joint declaration. Nonetheless, the harm done to South Korea-China ties cannot be overlooked.
South Korea highlights the “openness” and “inclusiveness” of the four-party security dialogue system, which allows South Korea to engage to some extent. South Korea will assess the net gain between the “gain” on the US side and the “loss” on the Chinese side. China would strongly protest and fiercely respond to any country’s measures to intervene in China’s domestic affairs and restrict China’s rise.
Political Violence and Elections: Should We Care?
The next Sunday 6th of June, the Chamber of Deputies along with 15 out of the 32 governorships will be up for grabs in Mexico’s mid-term elections. These elections will be a crucial test for the popularity of the president and his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). They currently hold majority in the Lower Chamber of the national Congress, and these elections could challenge this.
Recent national polls indicate that the ruling party, MORENA, is still the most popular political force in Mexico, and they are poised to win not only several governorships, but also several municipalities. They are also expected to maintain control of the Lower Chamber, although with a loss of a few seats. In order to ensure MORENA keeps its current majority in the Congress, they have decided to pursue an electoral alliance with the Green Party (PVEM) and the Labout Party (PT). It is expected that with this move, they will be able to ensure the majority in the Chamber of Deputies in the Congress.
There is, however, another aspect that is making the headlines in this current electoral process: The high levels of political and electoral violence, The current electoral process is the second most violent since 2000. The number of candidates that have been assassinated is close to 30% higher than the mid-term electoral process of 2015. More than 79 candidates have been killed so far all across the country.
Insecurity in Mexico has been an ongoing issue that has continued to deteriorate during the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). AMLO has continually criticised his predecessors and the valid problems of their approaches to insecurity in Mexico along with the War on Drugs policy. However, to date, he has yet to offer a viable alternative to tackle the security problems he inherited. During his campaign, AMLO coined the phrase “abrazos no balazos” (hugs not bullets) to describe his approach toward improving security in Mexico. He believed that to successfully tackle the worsening crisis of insecurity, the structural conditions that forced people to commit crimes had to be addressed first: Namely inequality, poverty, low salaries, lack of access to employment etc. To date, insecurity in Mexico continues to worsen, and this had become evident during the current electoral process.
This nonsensical approach to insecurity has resulted in the first three years of his government reaching over 100,000 murders, along with the nearly 225,000 deaths as a result of the pandemic.
What should be particularly worrying in this spiral of violence, is the prevalence of political and electoral violence during the current process. Political violence represents not only a direct attack on democratic institutions and democracy itself, but it also compromises the independence, autonomy, and integrity of those currently in power, and those competing for positions of power. It affects democracy also because political violence offers a way for candidates to gain power through violent means against opposition, and this also allows organised crime to infiltrate the state apparatus.
Political violence is a phenomenon that hurts all citizens and actors in a democracy. It represents a breeding ground for authoritarianism, and impunity at all levels of government. This limits the freedoms and rights of citizens and other actors as it extinguishes any sort of democratic coexistence between those currently holding political power and those aspiring to achieve it. Political violence also obstructs the development of democracy as it discredits anyone with critical views to those in power. This is worrying when we consider that 49% of those assassinated belong to opposition parties. This increase in political violence has also highlighted AMLO´s inability to curtail organised crime and related violence.
Assassination of candidates is only the tip of the iceberg. Organised criminal groups have also infiltrated politics through financing of political campaigns. Most of electoral and political violence tends to happen an municipal levels, where it is easier for criminal groups to exert more pressure and influence in the hope of securing protection, and perpetuate impunity, or securing control over drug trafficking routes. This should be especially worrisome when there is close too government control in certain areas of the country, and there is a serious risk of state erosion at municipal level in several states.
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