The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. (Photo via Getty Images)

Weekend Listening: Are We in a Pre-War Era?

Walter Russell Mead believes we live in an age when humans could bring about an apocalypse. He tells me why—and what we must do to avoid it.

Recently, Walter Russell Mead wrote an outstanding article in Tablet titled “You Are Not Destined to Live in Quiet Times.” It’s about the paradox—and great dangers—of technological progress. “Human ingenuity has made us much safer from natural calamities,” he wrote. “We can treat many diseases, predict storms, build dams both to prevent floods and to save water against drought, and many other fine things. Many fewer of us starve than in former times, and billions of us today enjoy better living conditions than our forebears dreamed possible. Yet if we are safer from most natural catastrophes, we are more vulnerable than ever to human-caused ones.” 

Today on Honestly, Walter talks about that significant vulnerability, and why human-caused catastrophes are the most serious threat to humanity today. Walter also explains why he believes we have definitively entered a pre-war era, and what he thinks needs to change in order to get us out of it. 

Walter Russell Mead is a fellow at Hudson Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a professor of foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College. He’s written numerous books on foreign policy, including last year’s excellent book on Israel titled The Arc of a Covenant, and he is the host of the brand-new podcast What Really Matters.

Listen here to our full conversation, or check out an edited excerpt below. And as always, see you in the comments. —BW

On how progress can result in bloodshed:

BW: You’ve explained that what actually makes us better, as a human species, could be the very thing that ends us. Why? 

WM: As it turns out, the greatest danger to human beings is not the natural world; it’s not the polar bears, the great white sharks, and the tigers. The biggest danger is us and the very technology that enables us to survive, or manage, these natural catastrophes. So we are now in this totally new era. During the Enlightenment, we thought that we were escaping all of that, that we were moving toward a world of security and abundance. And now that we’ve reached it, it turns out there isn’t any security there after all. 

BW: You make the argument that progress is fundamentally good when it is methodical and controlled. But you ask: “Can the rate of social, economic, cultural, and technological change drive a particular society into a political, psychological, and moral spiral of crisis and dysfunction?” Do you feel like that’s the moment we’re facing right now? 

WM: I think that’s the danger that we’re facing. In my work, I keep referring to something called the Adams Curve, where Henry Adams, over 100 years ago, had looked at the collective power of the human race. He looked at how much power humans could produce and saw a curve that started very flat. Then around 1500, it started to go up, and became almost vertical after 1900. There’s only so much technological progress a given society can experience and yet still function. You can see that as that curve becomes steeper, more societies start encountering problems. They’ll be confronted with conditions that they don’t know how to manage or deal with. I think you can look around the world and see a fair amount of that going on today. 

BW: You’ve also argued that the revolution we’re currently living through might be invisible to many, but it’s happening inside of us and all around us all the time. That felt very true to me, but also very unsettling because history reminds us that revolutions don’t usually happen without tremendous violence and bloodshed. So, is that what’s around the bend, or is that already happening and we’re just not seeing it?

WM: I think there are signs of violence. You can see it in places like Ethiopia, Sudan, and Syria, where societies that had been reasonably stable are now plunging into the kind of ethnic and sectarian wars that we saw in the Balkans in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. We can also see it in the rising international tensions: Asia is in an international arms race in conditions of zero strategic trust. This is something that most students of international relations would tell you is the kind of situation where war becomes more likely. Obviously, with Putin in Ukraine, with what Iran seems to be cooking up in the Middle East, the world is not getting more stable. Somewhere around 2014, we left a postwar era (where international politics was about dealing with the leftover problems of the last great conflict) and into a pre-war era (where when international political conflicts aren’t managed or solved, they could spark the next great international conflict). 

On uncertainty at home and abroad:

BW: When it comes to polarization, are things actually worse than they have been before? Because we did live through a civil war in this country, and sometimes I wonder if those of us warning about polarization are being hyperbolic, myself included. 

WM: I don’t remember the Civil War, but I do remember the sixties and seventies quite well, and in some ways, people were as bitter or more bitter then than they are now. I think the polarization, in some ways, was actually worse. Remember that with the Vietnam War there was the draft, so 18-year-old boys were facing existential choices. You had the civil rights movement, the beginning of feminism, and the gay rights movement all churning around. One of the things that’s different now is that politics is steadily becoming more of a religion for more people. I think this is a result of the rapidity of change that we’re going through, which makes people uncertain and look for a framework to make sense of it. There’s also this notion now in politics that if the other side wins, then we’re all going to die. It’s because people recognize that the stakes in the world are so great. We live in an age in which the apocalypse is no longer kind of a religious idea that only divine power can bring about. The apocalypse is something that human politics could bring about with nuclear war, climate change, AI taking over everything, etc. This is real. 

BW: Another feature of our current moment in America is the lack of leadership. You’ve written really brilliantly about the failures of American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. You explain that all of the experts of that generation had the sense that history was over and that freedom of people, freedom of markets, was an unstoppable force. Basically, they were deeply wrong about that core assumption, and it was their generational failure to misunderstand that. You also say that a similar generational failure has happened here at home. Can you diagnose that for us? 

WM: There are several elements to it, but we could take race relations as a key area of this where, 60 years after the civil rights movement and the passing of anti-discrimination laws, the wealth gap between black and white households is greater than ever. The social problems in the inner city are worse than ever. Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, you can look at the last 50 to 60 years of racial policy and see that it didn’t achieve what people said it was going to. You can make some similar arguments about what higher education was going to do. Expansion of college to everybody in a sense devalued the college degree rather than giving everyone the magic of what a college degree meant in 1960 when it propelled you into a place. 

BW: I think the other thing you could mention is globalization. 

WM: Absolutely. People would hear the establishment say in the 1990s, “Free trade with China will make China democratic and Americans rich.” Now people see that that hasn’t happened. Another example is NAFTA, which promised that free trade with Mexico was going to consolidate democracy in Mexico, stop illegal immigration because of all the wonderful jobs that would be created there, and would also raise American standards of living. All of these things people were told would happen aren’t happening, and there’s been no reckoning. 

On decline in religion:

BW: You’ve written about how religion fundamentally provides us with something that fillers—whether it’s politics, money, or hedonism—cannot. You wrote that “Religion exists to enrich and to complicate rather than to simplify our understanding of the contemporary world.” How much of our current uncertainty is tied to the decline in religion? 

WM: Most of American history was actually more like now than like those periods where religion was this kind of fiery force. So that idea that there is an idyllic past of quiet faithfulness now breaking down is really false. Because there are no barriers to expression, people can say what’s on their mind. Because we’re all on social media, we can see what others are thinking and doing. So we’re always more aware of it. However, Abrahamic religion, or monotheistic ethical religion, does bring a lot of value to the table that I think our society is currently in need of and not getting enough of.

BW: What kind of stuff? 

WM: We live in this world of radical risk. I can’t tell you that there won’t be a nuclear war or that AI won’t wipe us out one way or another. You need to hold your psychological balance in these conditions and it helps if you believe in something that’s not only bigger than you, but bigger than the United States government, bigger than the whole human race. People may argue that that’s an illusion, but if you are blessed with faith in God, you have an anchor. And that’s really important.

On whether liberalism is enough:

BW: One of the phenomena of our time, politically, that I’m especially intrigued by is this sense that liberalism isn’t enough. And that in the same way people in your time longed for the revolution, young people in our time long for the hard stuff. Liberalism seems sort of limp, and young people are reaching toward authoritarianism or communism. What is your feeling about that? 

WM: Liberalism by itself is not enough, I don’t believe. I think of liberalism as the idea of compromise, of toleration, of an openness to allow everyone to go through life making their own choices. Liberalism is like the ivy, but it needs a tree. If it’s going to get anywhere, it needs a tree. 

BW: I think maybe the sense among many people is that the tree is missing right now. 

WM: That’s exactly right. Toleration is not enough. I have to believe in something to be tolerant of it. I have to care enough about something. I need to feel that I’m still clinging on to something or that I’m standing on something. 

BW: Do you think that that can be recovered? 

WM: I don’t think it’s ever really gone away. I think about how many people in America stray away from their parents and the path that their parents took. I think about how many families encourage their kids to try new things. Maybe your dad was a shoemaker, but you should go and be a doctor! I think we still have this notion of change. Maybe it’s getting a little weaker. I think of all the Americans that have gone to Silicon Valley to invent new things. I even think of this endless quest for new religious traditions, new religious ideas. I think we are still a society that is very much in ferment, that feels change is part of who we are. 

On what we can learn from history:

Bari: There’s a cliché that those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it. I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately because I believe you can learn a lot about history and get a sense of the moment that we’re in, but that doesn’t necessarily give us any power to change things. I wonder how you feel as a historian who is living in what you call the pre-war moment, and is maybe wanting to shout from the rooftops about how we can avoid catastrophe, but is unable to because people can’t hear you. 

WM: Well, one of the things I’ve learned from my study of history is that most people don’t learn very much from history and that history has a lot of lessons. But I see some positive things happening. I see American society beginning to come to grips with this very threatening international environment. We haven’t talked about the positive side of the information revolution and the vast advances in human productivity, medicine, and so many other things. I really do think that there is a real opportunity for a benign transformation of our situation. I think we, yet again, will come out of one of these moments of national doubt and self-questioning. I think that’s very possible, and I’m kind of optimistic here. Worried, but optimistic.

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