Petulance is no substitute for politics

A century ago, Oswald Spengler published The Decline of the West. In it, Spengler predicted that around the year 2000, Western civilization would enter a “pre-death emergency.” A question: Are Brexit in the United Kingdom and a partial government shutdown in the United States precursors of this “pre-death emergency?” Or are these examples symptomatic of political and governmental gridlock in which leaders and the public are unable to reach agreement and consensus on vital issues that eventually will be resolved for good or ill?

The Spenglerian interpretation is far more sinister. Not only is there no good outcome for Brexit. No matter the outcome, save one, Britain, the European Union and the Atlantic Alliance will be profoundly shakened and weakened. The possible exception is if a second referendum occurs and Britons vote to remain. But even then, great damage will have been done as a substantial part of British society is strongly opposed to remaining in the EU.

It may well be that Brexit is also a precursor of the need to re-examine the EU as structured. Yet, if the EU does require change and adaption to the 21st century, will its brittleness prevent that overhaul? If true, then is the EU entering a “pre-death emergency,” as unfit for purpose?

The prospects in the United States may be more frightening. The standoff is far more significant than funding or building a “wall” of any description and the $5.7 billion demanded by the president. The standoff reflects a political life-and-death struggle between the president, who must maintain his base of 30 to 35 percent of Americans by fighting for the wall in order to govern and for Democrats who despise and regard Donald Trump as dangerously unsuited for the office and want him gone.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi denied the president her chamber for the State of the Union address until after the shutdown ends. Trump retaliated, canceling military transport for her and her colleagues to travel to NATO in Brussels and to Afghanistan. These tits for tats seem juvenile and petulant. But herein lies the danger. Suppose a potentially existential crisis arises in which presidential actions are juvenile and petulant?

It is not that momentous presidential decisions have not been made before based on anger and uninformed and even childish behavior. In the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964, President Lyndon Johnson made the ill-advised decision to retaliate against North Vietnam for an attack against U.S. warships that did not take place. Or George W. Bush’s orders to invade Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist as rational to end Saddam Hussein’ rule.

Suppose in a moment of pique over North Korea denuclearization negotiations; China and tariffs; or nuclear arms agreements with Russia and the demand that Moscow destroy a cruise missile in apparent treaty violation breakdown. How might a petulant president react? Will Trump respond in spite, as he did with Pelosi? As the Pentagon was reportedly directed to prepare plans for an invasion of Iran, perhaps in a fit of pique, an impulsive president might order a show of force, such as sending an aircraft carrier strike group into the South China Sea or a limited strike on North Korean nuclear facilities to make his point.

In the past, most presidents have not been as impetuous and undisciplined to act without some consideration of consequences as has Trump, the two examples above withstanding. However, given senior advisers who when told to jump by the president ask “how high,” crisis by petulance or pique can no longer be dismissed as farfetched. And quite frankly, Democrats do not have a better argument than ABT — anyone but Trump.

If Spengler were alive, he might predict that Brexit is more than the “pre-death” of the Atlantic Alliance and akin to the bullets that killed Archduke Franz Fedinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 that would shortly unravel Europe. And he also might conclude that the juvenile and petty tantrums thrown by the president and second in succession to that position likewise signal a nation so unserious in its ability to govern that under certain circumstances it poses a grave threat to global peace and stability.

This of course is speculation. Brexit and the shutdown do not smack of the clear and present Cold War dangers from the fall of Eastern European states to Soviet control; the Berlin Wall; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war; the setting of Defcon 3; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Still, if Spengler proves even a portion correct, this is very worrying.



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