In Part 1 we learned how the current “stack” of generations is very reminiscent of the generational makeup of the late 1930’s. In Part 2 we examined how our current “Crisis” portion of the four phase cycle is playing out. In Part 3 we looked at what is next based on that historical perspective. In Part 4 we will consider the powerful forces aligned to drive us towards a Climax.
Are we headed to War?
Since I originally posted the earlier parts of this series back in 2017, I will consider one of the important players in the Climax drama at that time: Steven K. Bannon. Bannon has some strong views on what direction our country should be going in the future, and he has not been shy about sharing that vision through his media property, Breitbart News. He was a key strategic advisor in the White House who shaped Trump’s campaign, and it remains clear that he wants to make his vision a reality. Although he didn’t last very long in the Trump administration, he continues to spread his populist vision around the globe, most recently in trying influence the EU Vote.
Bannon is a Baby Boomer of the first order, as outlined in this cover article from Time magazine. He was born in 1953 during the “American High” and was raised a Democrat by a working-class father. Later in life he shifted his beliefs as he became convinced that mainstream liberals and conservatives were not serving the country.
More interestingly, he is a devotee of Strauss and Howe’s generational theories. In 2010 he made a film, Generation Zero, which is an alt-right polemic view of Strauss and Howe’s work. The film is crystal clear on the view that we are headed for a massive conflict and that the US will be victors only if we ascribe to Bannon’s ultra-conservative viewpoints. David Kaiser pointed this out in two Time Magazine articles: one in November 2016 and a anoother in February 2017.
I think it is critically important to state that Strauss and Howe’s theories were not intended to support any particular viewpoint. I know Neil Howe personally and although I won’t reveal his political leanings, I can say that he is definitely NOT an extremist and I have been told the same about Bill Strauss. In their books they describe how public sentiment enables leaders to accomplish different things in different periods but it does not determine the political direction of those accomplishments.
“Generation Zero” is very clear that the dominant liberal democratic values held in most of the West are the root of a problem which will lead to the next “War to end all wars”. Is a war between the superpowers possible? I believe the risk today is greater than any other period during my lifetime (note: I was not alive during the Bay of Pigs invasion).
Although Bannon’s view is that populism is the opposite of liberal democracy, I don’t believe that the Chinese or Russians would agree. Their worldview is authoritarian and their focus is on stability through a single ruling authority. That is the true opposite of a liberal democracy.
What would World War III look like?
“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”Possibly Albert Einstein
The Novel, “Ghost Fleet”, written by P.W. Singer is an entertaining, and terrifying, vision of what a global war in the Information Age would look like. I don’t want to give it away, but the story revolves around the combination of physical and cyber attacks, used to disable the US military and economy. The enemy is a slightly futuristic version of the Chinese government.
If Trump’s trade war with China continues to escalate alongside our difficulty with Russia and North Korea, perhaps Singer’s nightmare might become a reality. How could this be possible in the Atomic Age? In Singer’s book, China’s goal is to cripple the US, not take it over completely. Through a combination of traditional and cyber warfare they cause chaos for both the military and the civilian population. But a nuclear response remains an unpalatable option because of mutually assured destruction. Is this realistic? Singer spent years at the Pentagon, so maybe it is not that far-fetched…
In the US we are quite concerned with how the Chinese and Russians continue to grow their cyber warfare capabilities. Many are concerned that these capabilities will inevitably lead to a conflict. One of my very best friends had a long military career, serving at the highest levels. When I spoke to him about this he reminded me that capability alone is not what causes conflicts: there must be a political or economic factor that pushes a nation towards war. In the case of both Russia and China, their fundamental ideological disagreements with the West may be that factor.
Imperialism as the Driver
Russia, in my view, is a particular concern. Looking back at the previous Crisis Climax (WWII) is the source of my concern. Although Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s are now remembered for their inhumanity and the holocaust, that is not the thing that made them such a terrifying enemy at the time. Hitler used racism and xenophobia to motivate the German people, but he also had a “higher” goal of “Lebensraum” that inspired the German’s desire to recapture their rightful domain (and a sizable buffer around those lands). During the Blitzkrieg he showed Germany and the World that he could quickly take what Imperial Germany had failed to dominate in WWI. Hilter had a lethal combination of an “inspirational” vision for a downtrodden people coupled with a thirst to dominate and colonize.
Putin shares many of these characteristics. One of his early advisors was Alexandr Dugin who, like Stephen Bannon with Trump, helped define Putin’s winning election strategy. He was the founder of the Eurasia Party which seeks to “reunite” the nations of the former Soviet Republic (and a sizable buffer around those lands). He also directly opposes liberal democracy and believes that a dictatorship is the only viable option for Eurasia. Like Bannon he is no longer part of the ruling administration, but his ideas remain entrenched.
Proof of this came in 2014 when Putin made his foray into Crimea. While the international community condemned his actions, they did not take military action. The same was true for Hitler with Poland, but, thankfully, Putin did not push his advantage like the Nazi’s did at that time. Putin knew that he lacked allies that could support him militarily and economically. But he certainly noted the muted international reaction to his brazen imperial effort. Putin’s success with the disinformation campaign during the last US Presidential election, he also showed that he could cause great disruption with a relatively small investment.
China does not seem to share quite the same level of imperialism, but they certainly want to be acknowledge as one of, if not the, dominant world power. Their cyber abilities continue to increase and they have been consistently willing to flex that muscle internally. Governments around the world have become very concerned about this cyber capability, and the Huawei debate is just the most recent example of this concern. Both China and the West are dependent on the Internet for economic growth, but China has already built-in protections for their network including the Golden Shield and the Great Cannon. This gives them a huge asymmetric advantage in a potential cyberwar.
China’s approach to imperialism seems to be taking a mostly economic form so far. Although Taiwan and other nearby nations may fear a direct takeover, China seems more focused on African nations and building it’s “belt and road” initiative to spread its influence globally. This may be, in part, because China’s ability to wage kinetic war is more limited than Russia or the West. Although China has a massive arsenal, it’s traditional military force is largely untested.
If the China-US trade war continues to drag on alongside the Russian Sanctions, the West may inadvertently create an environment where China and Russia have nothing to in an alliance against the West. Given enough time, they may shift their economies away from global trade, which would allow for more open conflict with their ideological nemeses.
The Rise of Nationalism in the West
The common theme globally today is a focus on nationalism. It is one of the big drivers for Chinese and Russian imperialism, and, conversely, for the West’s move towards isolationism. Nationalism is decried in liberal democracies, but it is steadily gaining ground, with the 2019 EU vote being the most recent example. But the nationalist politicians in most of the West are also preaching an isolationist policy; pulling out of trade agreements, closing borders and defying international bodies. So while Russian and Chinese nationalism increases their desire for global domination, the Western nations are rapidly pulling away.
Although Trump is regularly called a fascist inside and outside of the United States, there are few that would argue that he harbors openly imperialistic goals. His “Make America Great Again” vision is not about returning to a time of manifest destiny but rather a view that the US deserves payback for all our efforts since WWII. Brexiteers follow a similar “logic” with a desire to pull away from a Europe that has been “bleeding us dry“.
This obviously mirrors the situation back in the late 1930’s when the US had enacted multiple isolationist policies. The public’s distaste for getting involved in another war in Europe was driving the policy of the day, and because they were barely recovering from the Great Depression, the focus remained on the domestic agenda. It took Pearl Harbor to finally wake the sleeping giant.
What will be the Spark?
WWI started with an assassination, while WWII began when Germany invaded Poland. But it was the geopolitical climate at those times that were the actual cause of the conflict. The political climate today is extremely divisive and all sides are ramping up towards a climax. Vice President Mike Pence recently told West Point Grads to prepare for combat. As the tensions rise between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies, eventually it will take the smallest spark to kick off a conflict. Will that be another annexation by Russia, another economic meltdown that pushes the West to resort to conflict, or the expansion of a proxy war in the the Middle East or elsewhere? In reality, the spark is not the real issue.
The generational cycles of history are what provides the fertile ground for a conflict in the Crisis period. Our top leaders today globally are almost exclusively Baby Boomers, known for their idealistic dogma. Gen X’ers dominate the “middle management” in government and corporations, with their “ends justify the means” pragmatism. And Millennials make up the bulk of the potential fighting forces with their focus on collaboration and cohesion. This “stack” of generational archetypes is what creates such great potential for conflict and eventual resolution.
While there are many parallels between today and the last climax (WWII), there are also many differences. In the next post I will explore those differences and consider how they might lead to a very different outcome.