The bane of Spain is Catalonia, where many want to secede from the Spanish kingdom. Madrid doesn’t want this to happen, which is why the Spanish Senate authorized the government to seize direct control of the rebellious northeastern region, which for decades has enjoyed considerable autonomy under the Spanish system. This action came after the Catalan Parliament, which has a bare separatist majority, approved a resolution to “create a Catalan republic as an independent state.”
Thus has Spain entered what The New York Times calls the country’s “greatest constitutional crisis since it embraced democracy in 1978.” That represents nearly four decades of relative democratic stability for a country that went through a horrendous civil war in the 1930s and then succumbed to nearly 40 years of dictatorial rule. And now, once again, prospects of bloodshed are real.
The emergence of this new crisis after so many good years raises a question: Why now? The answer: These events are merely part of a broader global deterioration in the status quo. The world hasn’t seen this kind of progressive decay in established structures since the chaos of 1914-1945. During that time, which followed nearly a century of relative global stability, the world seemed to come unglued — until a new global order was established through World War II and its aftermath, with America at its center.
But now that global order seems itself to be coming unglued. Consider the acidic forces and sentiments roiling the globe in these times — sectarian animosities; nationalist sensibilities; passions of ethnic identity; geopolitical rivalries; migration urgencies; angers against globalism. Clearly, the status quo is under attack from many directions.
This suggests there’s a reason that the post-Cold War era doesn’t have a name other than one that denotes it came after the Cold War. It doesn’t have an identifying title because it doesn’t have an identity. It is merely the period of increasing chaos that followed one era of stability and will lead, one can only hope, to another. In the meantime, we should brace for increasing instability and difficulty in global affairs.
Some of the more powerful developments of this era of change are the rise of China and its apparent resolve to challenge America’s 70-year Asian hegemony; the growing tensions between the West and Russia over who will control lands traditionally part of the Russian sphere of influence; the progressive feverishness and acrimony of the Middle East, unleashed in part by the U.S. incursion into the region and propelled now by sectarian passions and geopolitical interests; the looming confrontation between the United States and Iran; the transformation of Turkey from a nation facing West and extolling pluralism into an increasingly Islamist dictatorship; the emergence of a nuclear threat from North Korea; the rise of Western nationalism; and the surge in immigration that threatens European and American cultural and societal stability.
What’s striking about many of these developments is the extent to which they have generated huge unresolved questions that will have to play out well into the future. Hence, there’s no reason to believe the post-Cold war era — a time pregnant with change and conflict — will end anytime soon.
Also noteworthy is the extent to which Americans, and particularly American leaders, cling to a global status quo that is in progressive erosion. A case in point was Arizona Sen. John McCain’s recent speech before the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He talked about America’s “indispensability to international peace and stability and to the progress of humanity.” He said that “we are a land made of ideals,” and we must be “their champions abroad.” He said we have a “duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth.’ “
This implies that America represents universal principles of governance and national rectitude that must be spread around the globe. But that’s the very concept that contributed to today’s Middle East chaos when George W. Bush led America into the region “to end tyranny in our world.” It helped generate the tensions in Ukraine when the Barack Obama administration supported a coup against that nation’s elected president and threatened Russia’s ancient geopolitical interests.
No, America needs fresh thinking more in tune with the profound changes washing over the globe and the new realities aborning. American global hegemony won’t work. American exceptionalism is a national conceit that has been proved ridiculous by events. Our ideals are right for us and worth fighting for, but they aren’t universal and shouldn’t be pushed upon other peoples of other lands. Exhibit A for this fundament of geopolitical realism is the Middle East, which is going its own way irrespective of American wishes and American power — not to mention American ideals of the kind extolled by Sen. McCain.
If America is to play a major role in moving the world toward greater stability and peace, it must abandon hegemonic ambitions in the name of American universalism. It must instead accept regional spheres of influence while protecting its own sphere of influence in the Americas, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and surrounding waters. It must maintain its close ties with Europe, its cultural wellspring. It must opt for a foreign policy based on the imperative of promoting a global balance of power.
Can such an approach help foster a new era of global stability? Perhaps, perhaps not. But Sen. McCain’s status quo approach will simply add further to the global chaos.
• Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century,” goes on sale on Nov. 7.