The West's Last Stand
All of America's great wars have been "holy" wars, the neon-electric lighting of national narrative: revolution was about a nation's birthing, civil war was about inner redemption and world war about our redeeming all humanity.
Sparked by 9/11, the global war on terrorism began as another promise to save all humanity. But eight years later we have the once-and-future Long War. We do not have the promised redemption-"transformation of the Middle East" died on the streets of Baghdad-instead we have forever war. And this forever war is bringing about an end to the world order as we know it.
That world order is the Western universalism for which the United States has been a proud standard-bearer for nearly a century. We remain its champion, but our fight-and the narrative of this war-has shifted dramatically from a necessary defense of the nation in 2001, to fighting passionate nonstate actors and armed groups in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, even Mexico and Colombia, and many others that compete against our universal vision.
Back home, our military-centric response is driving a domestic American transformation that will forever alter our national identity. We reify militancy, especially as other American achievements subside in the wake of the Great Recession. The war becomes our most prized national activity, and the bearer and agency of national narrative.
Abroad, our interventions have cleared space-the chaos space where new identities will eventually grow-and we have filled those vacuums with a conflict-based social-status system of governance. The longer we stay, the more we entrench the cultural dynamic of new identity rooted in militancy. Resistant communities living within this space have discovered how to realize their own identity within our irregular-warfare framework. So we have served as midwife to their societal evolution and eventual legitimacy-their new identity. The Long War is in effect a world-transformation enterprise.
Meanwhile, the United States not only has become the world's greatest creator of failed states, it continues to support crumbling nation-states that are failing their own people and they are legion-like Egypt and Mexico, Pakistan and Iraq.
We refuse to call these states "failed" of course because this would expose the failure of modernity itself. So we acknowledge and maintain so-called "states" that really only represent ruling elites of society. These elites tend to the facade our international system requires, but the actual realities of rule touch the textures of another age. These shell nations look very much like Roman successor kingdoms in the seventh century. Beyond the regalia and the titles and the rituals of modernity, there is no institutional administration of society but rather-as in Nigeria or Kenya-an informal tapestry of alternative pathways of governance, cemented through "elite sociability."
The ordinary people of these countries are the "left behind." They live abandoned by their nation-states and make up 60 percent of humanity. Residing at the toxic margins of globalization, they are on their way to becoming a full two-thirds of the earth's people. This world of the "left behind" and their local elites is in flux, with nonstate communities rising and elite regimes subsiding, though not in the high strongholds of the West-not yet.
Then there are the outlying shocks to the system. Shocks bring human transformations already under way to a head and can push the world to the edge, and even lead to a subsidence of globalization. Climate change and pandemics helped bring down the global networks of Late Antiquity and the High Middle Ages. And multiple shocks await us: the decline of liquid fuels, truly severe global pandemics and climate change, dying fisheries and a world water collapse. They are so familiar and yet so easy to deny. Little is being done to address these shocks, so their full impact and maximum synergy is assured. A decade out and our world could be in crisis.
What does this mean for human transformation? The developed world and its networks will shrink under terrible domestic pressures. There will be a die-off among the "left behind," of perhaps hundreds of millions.
And what will become of us? We are already adapting subconsciously to the shape of things to come. American altruism may survive in rhetoric, but this nation has already rewritten its sacred narrative in the Long War. In doing so we have created chaos space that has only legitimated and emboldened our enemies-and nowhere is this more visible than in Afghanistan today. We have militarized our relationship with the "left behind" in the places we fight and this in itself, tragically, represents a form of evolutionary adaptation-just not the one we were seeking.
All of this is unfolding under the rhetorical cover of "liberal internationalism," but our irregular-war practice is now almost wholly disconnected from the universalist grand strategy of a lost age. No longer do we seek to redeem humanity but rather, in dark awakening, to survive humanity's next transformation.
Michael Vlahos is a fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and author of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change (Praeger, 2008). He is also a former director of security studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.