by David C. Grabbe
July 10, 2007
Poet and philosopher George Santayana is famous for his observation, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." His timeless words go essentially unheeded, though, for the history of any given people is usually one of repeating cycles. Modern nations—despite considering themselves "progressive" and thus too advanced for consequences—are no exception to this. The historical crisis cycles of the United States, Europe, and Russia appear to be converging, and set to plunge the Western world into a new violent storm of chaos.
For the last six centuries or so, the American and British peoples have followed a predictable cycle that contains a national crisis roughly every 90 years. The American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression/World War II are the three most recent crises that threatened both economic ruin as well as possible national collapse. These crises were existential threats. In their 1997 book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, historians William Strauss and Neil Howe predicted that, based on the cycles of history, the next crisis would begin somewhere around 2005-2008, and would be resolved—if possible—around 2025. Whether the authors were a few years late (and the crisis began on 9/11) or the beginning is just over the horizon is still yet to be determined. But barring America's sudden comprehension of the "lessons of history," it is on track to face another major national crisis quite soon.
European dynamics are also beginning to shift. Strategic Forecasting's Peter Zeihan notes, "In 2007, the last of the post-Cold War generation of Western European leaders will move on, heralding a fundamentally new era for all of Europe" ("Jump-starting European History," April 24, 2007). The major European powers—France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—are all experiencing leadership changes that signal fundamentally different political goals and environments. Zeihan continues:
The three most powerful European leaders of today—Schroeder, Chirac and Blair, all of whom led their respective countries for the bulk of the post-Cold War period—are leaving office more or less at the same time. These men also stand out as arguably the three major European leaders most supportive of European integration. . . . Their collective departure heralds the demise of the integrationist impulse in Germany, and the re-emergence of more traditional balance-of-power politics.
The replacement of Chirac by Nicholas Sarkozy is particularly noteworthy, as the latter is the first Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic of France who does not adhere to the ideology of Charles de Gaulle—that Europe exists as a platform from which France can fashion itself as a world power. The pro-American, pro-market Sarkozy is far more interested in domestic reform than in consolidating and projecting power internationally. This change is highly significant because of a repeated European cycle, as Zeihan explains:
European history is a chronicle of the rise and fall of its geographic center. As Germany rises, the powers on its periphery buckle under its strength and are forced to pool resources in order to beat back Berlin. As Germany falters, the power vacuum at the middle of the Continent allows the countries on Germany's borders to rise in strength and become major powers themselves. Since the formation of the first "Germany" in 800, this cycle has set the tempo and tenor of European affairs. A strong Germany means consolidation followed by a catastrophic war. . . . For Europe this cycle of German rise and fall has run its course three times—the Holy Roman Empire, Imperial Germany, Nazi Germany—and is only now entering its fourth iteration with the reunified Germany. ("The Coming Era of Russia's Dark Rider," April 17, 2007)
While the European and American cycles synchronize, Russian history appears to be turning toward a crisis as well. The Russian cycle is one of national catastrophe, involving an existential threat (such as its defeat in World War I and the Soviet collapse) that uproots the current social order. Russia typically emerges from the chaos into a second phase under the aegis of a "white rider." Unlike Western heroes who bring wealth and freedom, this figure provides more basic Russian needs: civic stability, consistency, and strength. Vladimir Putin, the current "white rider," has for good or ill been highly successful in centralizing power, organizing the nation's energy assets, and stabilizing Russia. However, his term ends next year, at which time Russia will likely enter the next phase.
The third phase occurs when the white rider gives way to a "dark rider," a leader who is not held back by idealism. A pragmatist, he is willing to act without regard to moral concerns. Josef Stalin, the "Vasilys," and Ivan IV (known as "Ivan the Terrible") were all incarnations of such a dark rider. Says Zeihan:
Under the rule of the dark rider, Russia descends into an extremely strict period of internal control and external aggression, which is largely dictated by Russia's geographic weaknesses. . . . Once the dark rider takes the state's reins, he acts by any means necessary to achieve Russian security. Internal opposition is ruthlessly quashed, economic life is fully subjugated to the state's needs and Russia's armies are built furiously with the intent of securing unsecurable borders. That typically means war: As Catherine the Great famously put it: "I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them." (ibid.)
Major shifts are simultaneously underway in the United States (and in the larger "Anglosphere," as columnist Mark Steyn calls it), in Europe (particularly France and Germany), and in an awakening Russia. The next few years portend tremendous upheaval, as history relentlessly repeats itself.