Thoughts at sea: Can the center hold?

"We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us," remarked J. G. Farrell in The Siege of Krishnapur, "but what if we're only an afterglow of them?"

In a similar vein, William Faulkner warned that our lives are surrounded, shaped, and controlled by the past, but it is often dangerously invisible to modern eyes.  In the course of a recent 6000-mile sea journey from San Francisco to New York via the Panama Canal, I had long days to reflect upon such notions while gazing at the restless ocean.

 Five centuries ago men like Columbus, Magellan, Cortez, Pizarro, Balboa, and many others sailed these waters often unaware of where they were, or where they were going, but certain they were pursuing missions that fully justified the risk and dangers that such explorations entailed.  The country that sent them -Spain- established and ultimately surrendered its' Empire in the "New World" but today the language, religion, and culture of twenty nations are direct consequences of those long ago voyages.

In similar fashion albeit a little later English speaking men sailed forth to build a British Empire that at one point would compass a quarter of the earth's surface.  Like its' Spanish counterpart that Empire has vanished while leaving profound influences upon the peoples of its former domain.

These ruminations are much enriched by the company of an English friend from long ago Oxford days and later for five years a fellow resident of London.  Through nearly fifty years in highly varied venues we have periodically gotten together to discuss and debate the policies, problems, and prospects of our respective countries.  Over time we've been better observers than prophets, as the geopolitical world of 2016 would have seemed utterly improbable if not impossible to the sensibilities of 1970.

 He is currently working on a book (Disappearing Empire- Britain From Sarajevo to Suez), which examines the relatively sudden collapse of Britain's World dominating Imperium between 1914 and 1956.  In it he describes the immense but still poorly understood consequences of Britain's catastrophic losses in blood, treasure, and above all self-confidence occasioned by the First World War.  He asserts that all subsequent British history is but a series of footnotes to that shattering experience.

 Certainly the War had a paralyzing effect on the politicians of the Western Democracies as evidenced by their supine behavior in the face of the growing Nazi menace.  When Neville Chamberlain was rapturously acclaimed by Britons of all classes when he returned from Munich waving a piece of paper signed by Hitler and declaring it meant "Peace in our Time" it clearly illustrated the near universal willingness to pay almost any price to avoid a repetition of the horrors of the Western Front.

 The collapse of Western Civilization's "Old Order" through the blundering calamities of 1914-1918 amplified by the derivative horrors of 1939-1945 ushered onto the World stage a new kind of political actor totally devoid of any morality or concern for the people they rule and prepared to go to any extreme including genocide to gain their evil ends.

 The templates for this new breed were Hitler and Stalin- men driven by messianic ideology and personal pathology.  They are gone but their disciples and imitators abound and have spread throughout the world- Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, Saddam, Kim, Khomeini, Chavez Mugabe, Gaddafi, Putin, Assad, Erdogan, etc.  They differ only in the power of their countries, and/or their access to weapons of mass destruction.  Of late their impulse to anti-Western mayhem has found a parallel in the shadowy world of Islamic Terrorism and its' fanatical adherents who have perpetrated a growing list of murderous and destabilizing outrages across the world.

 The response of the Western democracies to these metastasizing disorders has been confused and feeble.  Russian aggression in Ukraine, Chinese and North Korean provocations in Asia, and ongoing genocide in Syria are answered by empty gestures, failed U.N. resolutions, timid economic sanctions, and a pathetic clinging to diplomatic (non) solutions.  Even when military force is sporadically indulged the usual result is a power vacuum that makes matters even worse.

 The indecisiveness and weakness of the democracies is complicated by continuing economic malaise and growing internal political turmoil.  This state of affairs is abundantly evident to the world's bad actors and they fully exploit it at every opportunity.

All of this recalls the still relevant words written in 1919 by an Irish poet contemplating the wreckage of World War I:   "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world... The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." --William Butler Yeats"The Second Coming" (excerpt)

Bill Moloney of Denver is a Centennial Institute fellow and a former Colorado education commissioner. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.