Past and Present: Writing About the Collapse of International Order

Yesterday I published an essay which attempted to examine the failure of the League of Nations and the terrible consequences of that event. The subject itself is raw; it is not distinct – and cannot be made distinct – from the suffering of the First World War and the horrors contained within (and exacerbated by) the terrible conflagration which followed that fragile peace. Sally Marks refers to the geopolitical situation of the entire period in particularly visceral terms; it was, at least for her, an ‘illusion of peace’. As I have written before, there is a great deal of emotion invested in history. For some, the possessive is always justified – and used – in discussion of the past. It is ‘our’ history, ‘my’ story, ‘your’ heritage. This may be a rather nebulous linguistic point, but it does at least betray a kind of attachment – a deep and elemental attachment, one too complex to describe as glibly as I have just done – to the past which can transcend the quotidian and inspire people to relive old anxieties, fight old battles once again, and (to paraphrase Howard Jacobson) stand haughty upon the honour of their predecessors to demand satisfaction for some ancestral qualm or quarrel.

This moral element can be very difficult to escape; and so it can prove also when a matter of historical curiosity becomes intertwined – perhaps out of necessity, perhaps derived from deliberate design – with the world as it is today. I did not set out, when I wrote about apparent American isolationism and the failure of the League of Nations’ international agenda, to deliver an oblique attack on the current occupant of the White House. (After all, I had already engaged in that particular pursuit before.) And to some extent I suppose I succeeded. The essay itself – it can be read here – was devoid of all contemporary reference; it contained not a single comment which could identify its author as a critic of current US policy. Yet the first thing I was asked after it was published was how the theme at hand reflected or affected or in some way preceded the collapse in the American-led world order to which we today bear witness.

My initial answer was a little circumspect. Well, I said, I suppose it’s a little more meandering than that. I deliberately tried to avoid the obvious comparisons to our own times; I guess the central thrust of my argument, I suggested, is that the United States, rather than actually withdrawing from the wider world, simply acted in other ways during the period in question – and that these actions, while not entirely unreasonable, hastened the creation of a climate in which the League failed to achieve its ambitious and largely unprecedented objectives. The essay, I went on, has a resonance today in reference, for example, to the fact that the Obama administration claims to be rowing back on intervention, and yet it makes conscious policy decisions – as seen in the Iran deal and the obvious half-measures undertaken in Syria – which affect the whole world, and do so in a profoundly negative way.

Upon thinking about it more seriously, however, I have begun to take a different tack. The history we write, it could be argued, serves (or can serve) as an accurate reflection on our own times. It can demonstrate hidden anxiety; it can serve to document a public mood or craving or obsession; and it can, if assessed properly and sensibly, tell us a great deal about ourselves – and not just through a cursory reading of the transient market trends which make up the weekly bestseller lists. (At the moment these lists appear to be stuffed with books written by young people who got famous on the internet; I doubt that this fact can reveal any great philosophical truth about life as it is now lived.)

But it must be true that there is an anxiety – call it superpower suspense – which was created and will be exacerbated by the relative decline of the United States as a world power. Adam Tooze’s monumental recent volume, titled The Deluge, which sets much of the First World War in its true context, deals with some of this anxiety (however obliquely) in its grand narrative. One of the essential events of the Great War, in this telling, is the fact that by war’s end America had become the financial juggernaut of the world; the British Empire, wounded by the immense financial strains placed upon its once mighty frame, was now a creditor nation (in fact, Britain could only carry on fighting at all, at least in part, through financial assistance from the United States on a massive scale: J. P. Morgan himself supervised vast efforts to raise capital on the New York money markets).

This narrative, contained though it is within a grander tale of America’s rise to pre-eminence, retains more than a hint of current relevance. After all, for America to rise the British must decline; each nation can be superseded, no matter how powerful. And so it apparently seems – at least now that the United States zigzags towards the fate summoned up by Kipling in his pessimistic 1897 requiem for British power, “Recessional”.

Far-called, our navies melt away;

   On dune and headland sinks the fire:   

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!   

The same impulse, the same essential force, propels much of what we write about the past. Though the world will likely never see as optimistic a diplomatic development as the League of Nations again – our collective memories are too scarred, perhaps, by its failure – there remains the ghost of the League and its ignominious end in much contemporary political discourse. There is still, I think, a longing for a new type of diplomacy, a new way of doing things which departs from the old. ‘Power politics’, ‘imperialism’ – these are phrases the Obama White House has sought to leave behind, with little apparent success. After all, one can only truly eradicate imperialism if the other side swears off it too – and that is far from likely in this case. What I suppose the message of all of this is (if it can be claimed truly to have one) remains that the world may not desire American dominance, and it may not be popular in many corners, but without it – and with a president who seems to desire nothing less than casting aside the Sisyphean task of global leadership – the world is rendered far less stable, less prosperous and, yes, less safe.

While I am not convinced that this lesson correlates exactly with the historical example under discussion, it is as good a conclusion as any. And anyway, being obsessed with learning the supposed lessons of history might make for a far from satisfactory strategy. For illustration, look no further than the current President of the United States, whose sole foreign policy goal appears to be doing the opposite in all things of everything undertaken by his predecessor.