Generational Dynamics: Forecasting America's Destiny Generational
 Forecasting America's Destiny ... and the World's


Generational Dynamics Web Log for 5-Apr-2009
President Obama scores big diplomatic victory in a world waiting for ... what?

Web Log - April, 2009

President Obama scores big diplomatic victory in a world waiting for ... what?

We might call this "The Age of Great Compromises."

President Barack Obama's visit to Europe was greeted by wildly enthusiastic crowds similar to the ones that I wrote about during last July's campaign visit to Europe in "Barack Obama in Berlin calls for greater European militarism." This time he said, "I've come to listen, not to lecture," to wild cheers.

Michelle Obama was treated like royalty, and much of the coverage of the couple centered on Michelle's style, and Michelle's mutual hug with the Queen of England.

Barack was pretty charming himself. At the G-20 economic conference, he's being credited with brokering a deal on tax havens (billionaires will supposedly no longer be able to hide money in countries like Switzerland and Lichtenstein); and at the NATO conference, he's being credited with brokering a deal on the selection of the new NATO Secretary-General (Turkey was objecting to the popular choice, the prime minister of Denmark, because of the Danish cartoon scandal of 2006).

However, it's not clear that anything of substance was achieved. Just as he did last July, Obama called for greater European militarism, especially in "Obama's war," the war in Afghanistan, and he even scolded the Europeans for "casual and insidious anti-Americanism," and for not "bearing their share of the burdens."

What's being declared as a new era of American-European cooperation is an agreement that Europe will send 5,000 troops to Afghanistan. What a diplomatic victory!!

Well, unfortunately, it turns out that they're only going to be there until the time of the presidential election in August; and they're just providing security for officials during the campaign, rather than doing any heavy fighting; and oh by the way, the Americans, who are the ones actually doing most of the heavy fighting, are sending 17,000 more troops.

Then, on Sunday, the North Koreans launched a missile that overflew Japan and was heading toward Alaska when it splashed into the Pacific Ocean. This has raised fears of a future nuclear strike on America's west coast. It also raised concerns about North Korean stepped up sales of nuclear materials to other countries, as it has recently allegedly done with Syria, Libya, Pakistan and Iran.

The missile launch had perfect timing, since it came just before a scheduled speech by Obama in Prague on nuclear proliferation. Speaking to 30,000 people, Obama called the launch a provocation that threatens the security of countries "near and far. What will the US or anyone else do about it? Well, nothing, but Obama did promise to lead the way in creating a world free of nuclear weapons.

The Age of Great Compromises

Recently I saw former Secretary of Defense Henry Kissinger being interviewed on tv, where he was asked, "What are the potentials around the world for confrontations in the next two to three years?" Here's his response (my transcription):

"The paradox of the situation is this: I don't know any period in history where every major power had simultaneously an interest in maintaining more or less the status quo. None of the big countries is in a position -- would want to challenge the status quo.

So you have countries like Iran, which is basically a relatively weak country, which however has a capacity to unsettle the Mideast, by supporting the radical movements there [Hamas and Hizbollah]. And secondly its development of nuclear weapons may set off a cycle of proliferation that in itself becomes a threat to the peace. So the challenge we have in the next period is to see whether the major countries, that more or less share a common interest in preventing this from happening, can overcome the domestic hesitations they have for a variety of reasons to do what is needed to solve the problems that exist."

I actually wrote about this subject in 2006 in "A beautiful mind? The world is paralyzed into a 'Nash equilibrium.'" I compared the world to a concept from mathematical game theory, describing a situation in a game where every player has to play the same move over and over again to avoid losing. Thus the world today is in a kind of Nash equilibrium, where every country is paralyzed into inaction, for fear of disturbing the equilibrium and starting a war.

I think that this is a truly fascinating aspect of the world's geopolitical situation, but I disagree with Kissinger that this is the first time in history that it's happened. As I described last year in "The gathering storm in the Caucasus," it's precisely what happened in the leadup to World War I. During "La Belle Époque," the period before 1914, the world was at peace, international trade was at a peak, and life was great - at least for the élite.

It was a time in history where "every major power had simultaneously an interest in maintaining more or less the status quo," to use Henry Kissinger's words.

There were two major factors destroying the status quo:

Both of these factors prevail today. Young, disaffected Islamist terrorists flew a plane into the World Trade Center, blew up London's subways, and are responsible for suicide bombings in countries around the world. Kids in Mexican drug cartels are killing and kidnapping thousands of people with reckless abandon. Young people in Taiwan increasingly want independence from China, but are held back by the threat of war from Beijing. Young Palestinians are ready to heed Iran's leadership to push Israel into the sea.

Today there are huge numbers of interlocking treaties. America alone has signed a large number of mutual defense treaties with other countries. These include agreements with Japan, South Korea, Israel, Taiwan, the ANZUS agreement with Australia and New Zealand, and the NATO agreement with all of Europe.

The worldwide fear of disturbing the status quo essentially means that nothing can get done, because anything non-trivial might disturb the status quo and trigger a war.

A waiting world

That's why this is a world waiting for something to happen. People anxiously grasp onto any straw of hope, wanting things to return to the Unraveling era of the 1990s, but not daring to disturb the equilibrium anywhere.

If Henry Kissinger understood generational theory, he would know that the current status quo cannot be maintained, and that sooner or later some crisis will irretrievably end the status quo.

That almost happened several times in the last year, with crises at Bear Stearns, Royal Bank of Scotland, Lehman Brothers, AIG, and others. In each case, officials rushed to restore the status quo. But the crises have been getting worse, and one of these times a crisis will be too large to patch up.

A more realistic view of the world than Henry Kissinger's is given by David Kaiser, a history professor at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. Kaiser is a student not only of history, but also of generational theory, having spent years as close friends of the founding fathers of generational theory, Neil Howe and his partner, the late William A. Strauss.

Kaiser is a strong supporter of the Democratic Party in general and President Obama in particular, but his expertise in both history and generational theory gives him a realistic view of the world and a great advantage over numerous over other professors of history and various experts who, as I've pointed out many times on this web site, really don't have the vaguest idea what they're talking about.

In his latest entry in his History Unfolding blog, Kaiser compares Obama to the presidents in America's two previous generational crisis eras -- Franklin Roosevelt in World War II and Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War (1860s):

"Roosevelt and his contemporaries, the Missionary generation, had spent their young adulthood during the Progressive era, a liberal era politically. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had introduced the idea of government regulation of the economy into American political life, although their actual steps in that direction had been quite modest. The era of reaction against their efforts had lasted only eight years before the Crash of 1929. Roosevelt had a cadre of middle-aged reformers upon which to draw when he put the New Deal together.

Our own Awakening (about 1965-84) was very liberal socially, but politically it marked the shift from the Democratic majority created by FDR to the new Republican one created by Nixon and solidified by Reagan. There has been no serious effort to reform the economy on behalf of the less well off since the 1960s in the United States. And as a result, President Obama, whose instincts seem to be very good, is relying upon an economic team led by Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, each of whom is deeply implicated in the economic changes of the last fifteen years or so, and neither of whom has shown much interest in fundamental reform. I am deeply troubled that the maverick economists that have kept older traditions alive--the Paul Krugmans, Joseph Stiglitzes, and James K. Galbraiths--unanimously feel that the Administration's rescue plans have not found the right path.

No President can move faster than history is ready for, and it may be, sadly, that further disasters will be necessary to discredit what has become the conventional wisdom. Both FDR and Lincoln frequently disappointed their more radical supporters in their first years in office. But sadly, the diseases of the last thirty years have infected nearly our entire leadership class. The public is ready for a new one. The problem is to provide it."

Kaiser is expressing disappointment that this "world waiting for something" era is going to be politically costly for Obama. This is certainly true, as Obama's popular approval rating has been gradually falling since he took office, even though the stock market has been rallying, and even though he's scoring diplomatic victories overseas. (See "Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso imitates Barack Obama, as Obama imitates Japan.")

Many people blame President Clinton and/or President Bush for the dot-com bubble crash, the real estate bubble crash and the credit bubble crash. But as I've written many times, the roots of these bubbles and crashes were laid decades ago, and they couldn't have been either caused or prevented by any politician.

And as I wrote last week in "Fiscal stimulus programs in 1930s and today," it's way too early in the current financial crisis for anything to work. History shows that a huge credit bubble requires five years of rapid deflation before any stimulus package can have an effect, and we're only 1½ years into the current crash. So nothing that the Obama administration does will have much effect before 2012. The reason that Obama hasn't "found the right path" is that no such path even exists.

But Kaiser, I think, is making a different point -- that Obama isn't even giving the APPEARANCE of doing enough, since he's relying too much on older people from the Boomer and Silent generations. (Last year, I wrote that Obama was in danger of being identified as this crisis era's "Hoover" figure, something for which I received some passionate repudiations by readers. But Kaiser now seems to be worrying about the same thing.)

Kaiser says that Roosevelt, who was in the Missionary generation (the same "Prophet" archetype as our Boomer generation) drew on "a cadre of middle-aged reformers upon which to draw when he put the New Deal together." In other words, Kaiser (himself a Boomer) says that Roosevelt drew on the younger Lost Generation, and wants Obama to depend much more on Generation-X, the modern incarnation of the Lost Generation.

That's a very interesting viewpoint from an avid Obama supporter, but I personally don't believe that it makes any difference in substance. As I've said over and over on this web site, the great events of our time will be determined by the attitudes and behaviors of the great masses of people, entire generations of people, not by the intentional behaviors or actions of a few politicians, and Kaiser himself says, "No President can move faster than history is ready for."

But it might make a political difference. It's possible that Obama's choice of advisors will affect how historians will view his Presidency. I have no opinion on that subject, and will leave it to historians like Kaiser to predict.

Waiting for the next crisis

In a sense, I might be a bit more optimistic than Kaiser about the potential for Obama's success as a President.

Before explaining why, I have to explain what I mean by "success," since it's not the kind of "success" that anyone would wish for.

President Lincoln and Roosevelt are considered among our greatest Presidents because they led the country during the times of greatest disaster. With bodies of dead, young American boys piled high on the fields of Gettysburg in 1864 and the beaches of Normandy in 1944, and with the continued existence of the United States of America in doubt during both eras, these two Presidents led America during these times of peril.

It's a little unfair to say that Obama's had it easy so far, but let's face it -- a stock market rally and a world determined to maintain the status quo are easier than the alternatives. Obama's legacy will depend on how he starts handling real crises when they arise.

Here are some examples:

Now here's the paradox.

Each of the issues in the above list might ripen into a crisis at any time. When it does, the politicians of the world will rush to do whatever is necessary to maintain the status quo, because that's the era we're in.

No one can be a Great President in an Age of Great Compromises. If politicians are successful in maintaining the status quo, as they've been through many recent crises, then Obama will suffer, because he'll be seen as unable to actually solve any problems, and his approval rating will keep falling. If this keeps on until 2012, then Obama may well have a failed Presidency.

(Update: A web site reader points out that the Republican/Democratic gap in approval ratings for Obama is the highest in modern history.)

If, on the other hand, one of these crises spirals out of control, into a generational "regeneracy event" (see "Basics of Generational Dynamics"), triggering a major war for Obama to lead the country through, and if the country survives, then Obama's presidency will be a "success."

(Comments: For reader comments, questions and discussion, as well as more frequent updates on this subject, see the The Near Future For America thread of the Generational Dynamics forum.) (5-Apr-2009) Permanent Link
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