The announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords was a defining moment with implications far greater than most people imagine. Many observers rightfully have argued that the action was emblematic of America’s abdication of global leadership, a position incontestably held since the end of World War II. Possibly more significant was the response from various institutions, both governmental and private, that diminished national authority. Those activities included states and local governments pledging to abide by the agreement. Consider that California signed a separate agreement with China regarding the environment. Major companies and civic groups also promised support for such actions.
Of equal importance, signing of the Accords was the first time so many countries have come together and agreed to take action on any subject. That concordance alone was worthy of American support. Trump’s stated rationale for American withdrawal was a litany of lies and yet applauded by constituents obviously unfamiliar with the content of the agreement. Specifically, they failed to understand that targets were internally set, malleable, and voluntary.
In a 2006 monograph, The Changing Nature of War, I wrote that “the nation-state was a failing concept.” My observations were based on the disintegration of major geographic entities, such as post-colonial Africa, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia. Personal experience in Afghanistan also was a contributing factor. Admittedly, I was challenged by members of the State Department who wanted to know what organizational structures would follow. After all, the nation-state was, and remains, the fundamental building block of international relations. Frankly, I didn’t have a good answer, except to note that form follows function, and that some self-organizing structures would emerge. These new entities would, I suggested, cohere around common belief systems, values and desired outcomes. Further, information technology would facilitate coalescence among geographically dispersed elements.
Even earlier, in Future War, published in 1999, I commented on how ultra-wealthy individuals had acquired the ability to alter, or influence, the foreign policies of nations. Soon thereafter the DoD began to address the notion of the super-empowered individual (SEI). The SEI reference originated regarding the ability of Osama bin Laden to generate the force known as al-Qaeda. With an ingrained Wahabi philosophy, personal access to wealth, and the ability to obtain more, his influence exceeded the impact of other charismatic leaders that periodically have risen to power.
What I failed to foresee was that the United States might join the devolution process so soon. While well aware of societal subdivisions and changing demographics, it seemed that America would retain certain core values that would supersede internal tensions. While they were acknowledged, however difficult, those challenges appeared to be manageable. Like many other scholars, I believed that the framers of the U.S. Constitution were so adept and intuitive, or as some thought, possibly even divinely guided, that in decreeing the tripartite separation of powers, the country could self-correct any aberration. Though some constitutional experts may disagree, it appears they were wrong and did not account for the current political situation. The shortfall was the assumption that in the end, as a group, representatives of all branches of government would put honesty, integrity and morality above partisan ambition. An egregious example was on 8 June, when Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, excused the improper, if not illegal, behavior of President Trump, because he was a political neophyte. While not yet collapsing, these actions have seriously undermined the foundations of national governance.
While understanding the corruptible influence of wealth, the Founding Fathers could scarcely have fathomed the capitalistic juggernaut that emerged in the post-World War II era. Now, fiscally-driven and globally unconstrained, national allegiance is a waning attribute for mega-corporations imbued with byzantine, responsibility-evading, architectures. Just as super-rich individuals have more in common with each other than citizens of their geographic happenstance of birth, so too do these mammoth entities collaborate, often to the detriment of their host nation populations. Enabled by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, in the U.S., that is most evident in the lobbying efforts of groups like the medical sector, including Big Pharma, realtors, energy companies, defense contractors, and the NRA.
A confluence of events has accelerated the fragmentation of the republic. These include:
- The election of Donald Trump (by 26 percent of eligible voters)
- Our inability to adequately reconcile social differences such as race, religion, or sexual orientation (Note the GOP’s grave concern about where people pee)
- Rapidly increasing wealth disparity (top 0.1% make 198 times what the bottom 90% make, CEOs average 354 times the average pay of employees)
- A tendency toward isolationism (America first is really America only)
- Serious failures of our educational system
- Knowledge of, or trust in, science (evolution and climate change are facts)
- Ability to compete globally (the U.S. currently ranks 25th in science, 24th in reading, & 40th in math)
- Withdrawal from comprehensive public system (use of vouchers for private schools, diminishing financial support for public education)
- Unquestioned acceptance, and proliferation, of counterfactual information by both senior officials and a substantial subset of the public (so prolific it needs no explanation)
According to a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Trump sees “the world not as ‘global community’ but an arena” in which each element “competes for advantage.” Therefore, in that context the elemental nature of international affairs is conflict and not cooperation. That is a mindset that portends ill for our people in the age of inevitable globalization.
A fundamental error is the assumption that each country is an “element.” In fact, the geographic distribution as it currently exists makes little sense. Most of the boundaries of the world were established more than a century ago, not by the inhabitants, but by Europeans and based on their own self interests. Even there, the tendency toward “nationalization” had devastating consequences prior to World War II. It was a signal factor in the creation of the United Nations, an imperfect attempt to mitigate large-scale conflicts. Trump’s foreign policy, or lack thereof, represents a throwback to 19th century thinking and is catastrophic for the world.
A crucial factor in Trump’s election, and philosophical support for his transient positions, is a direct result of failure of the educational system to teach critical thinking skills. What has dominated our political system is the preeminence of emotion over facts and the willingness of a large number of Americans to vote against their own best interests. Almost all campaigns now focus on the negative aspects of opponents or positions. Frequently, counterfactual information (also known as lies) govern the discussion. They are targeted against the perceived predisposition of likely voters. That makes a vulnerability that can be exploited. It is how Russia was able to impact the 2016 election. By injecting both accurate but negative, and inaccurate information, into social media and fake news websites, those previously disposed toward anti-HRC sentiments, were swayed in sufficient numbers to impact the outcome. While investigators look for indication of direct hacking of the voting system, they generally have ignored the real culprit that was in plain sight. That is the massive infusion of anti-Clinton material posted on social media sites without accurate attribution. In short, supporting GOP campaign rhetoric, the Russians made the noise level overwhelming. So much so that facts no longer mattered.
On right-wing talk radio, I heard some caller note that, “no KGB agent was standing over my shoulder when I voted.” Let alone it was likely the SVR or FSB, the real answer was that they were just assuredly standing there, but he was not aware of it. In fact, gaining unwitting compliance is a hallmark of Russian intelligence and they are very good at it. How many voters were so influenced cannot be determined. It was, however, probably more than the 80,000 voters in three key states that were required to have changed the election results.
The accuracy of belief systems doesn’t matter, only that it is held and the person is willing to act on it. When comparing belief system predisposition versus facts, opinions win. What is very disconcerting is that acceptance of information that is demonstrably false is not limited to dumb, or uneducated individuals. More recent inquiries have shown that once an opinion is mentally locked in, it is nearly impossible to erase, no matter how compelling the evidence.
Trust and confidence drives organizations and the economy. That applies at all levels, including whether or not the country continues as previously constructed. It is painfully obvious that a very substantial percentage of U.S. citizens have lost confidence in the system. Polls consistently reflect the low opinion of all branches of the federal government, and well as the media. A near majority of eligible voters did not bother to turn out in November. That speaks volumes. Very troubling are the overt actions of the President, and others, to drive confidence even lower.
The usual response when confusion and lack of confidence reign, is for the public to look to authoritarian leadership. Trump supporters fit that bill, and his actions indicate his strong preference toward that style of governance. Instead of assuming roles as enablers, both the Legislative and Judiciary branches of government must exude independence and dampen this apparent trend. Failure to do so leads us further toward some new organizational structures, ones that do not look to Washington as a seat of authority, and interacts differently with other globally oriented entities. It will last for a while, but the nation-state is a failing concept. How the transition is managed is critical for America and the world.