Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

Walter Russel Mead is reading the handwriting on the wall. Our leadership all over the world, but especially in the four largest economies; America, Europe, Japan, and China, has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

The world’s leaders have been on trial these last few months. In Europe, a long running currency crisis has tested the commitment of Europeans to the social ideals they so often speak of, and to the community of nations they have worked to build since the 1940s.  TEKEL: weighed in the balance and found wanting.

In China they have been on trial as the accumulating evidence suggests that corruption, incompetence and malfeasance damaged the country’s vaunted high speed rail project and led to the deaths of dozens of passengers.  TEKEL.

In Japan they have been on trial since the tsunami last spring.  Would Japan’s bureaucracy tell the truth to the public?  After a lost generation of stagnation would Japan’s government come up with an effective plan to reconstruct the north and rebuild the country’s economy?  TEKEL.

And in the United States we have a stagnant economy, a mounting debt and no real idea of the way forward.  Would Washington come up with a constructive, future-oriented program to move the economy forward and start the adjustments necessary to prepare us to live within our means – and to grow our means so it wouldn’t be hard?  TEKEL again.

Europe, China, Japan, the United States: the leaders of the world’s four largest economies are nowhere near passing the tests that history has set them.  In all four places the instincts of the politicians are the same: to dissemble, to delay, to disguise and to deny.

But it is not just in financial matters and not just the leaders. It seems that there is a dearth of vision afflicting all of us these days. No one seems to be interested in doing great things, like going to the Moon. Instead our leaders squander our money and promise high speed rails. Mead puts it far better than I ever could.

The challenges the great powers face today run much deeper.  Behind Japan’s economic problems and the pathetic inadequacy of its political leadership is a much deeper question of identity and purpose.  What is Japan’s job in the world; what does Japan have to teach and to suffer and to do?  What is the special contribution that only Japan and the Japanese can make, and how does the country prepare itself for this?  Do thousands of years of Japanese culture and philosophy culminate in a cheap consumer culture and relentless demographic decline?

It is the same thing in Europe.  The financial problems, real and dangerous as they are, proceed from a vacuum in the hearts of the European peoples.  What is it to be a German, a French person, an Italian, a Greek, a Spaniard or a Swiss?  Is it a matter of blood, belief, or of culture?  What duties do the Europeans have to one another and to the world?  When Europeans talk about their decline in the world – and it is worth talking about, since for 100 years Europe has been steadily and sometimes catastrophically in decline – they too often look at questions of imperial power or relative wealth.  But what was extraordinary about Europe 100 and 200 years ago and is largely lost now was never imperial power or economic might.  It is the cultural energy and dynamism that once made Europe the greatest font of creativity and ideas since ancient times.  The art, the music, the philosophy and the science of Europe captured the world.  Now Europe designs very nice shoes, and its Michelin starred restaurants serve quite excellent meals.

Europe’s challenge isn’t to fix the euro or to reform its pensions.  And it is not to make clunkier shoes or less appetizing meals.  Its challenge is to become Europe once more: to be as adventurous, as profound, as creative and yes as dangerous as it once was.  The core European debate should not be over the constitutional provisions of the European Union or the financial arrangements behind the euro, important as those things are.  What matters in Europe is that the younger generation wakes from the materialist, conformist affluence – deep wells of listlessness, anomie and despair concealed under whatever ephemeral cultural fads and fashionable causes drift by.  They must begin to live, to take risks, to dare, to create and to build – and, among other things, that means they (like the other affluent peoples) must start having children again.

China too has bigger fish to fry than high-speed trains.  The convulsive transformation of the biggest society in the history of the world, the sudden rise of enormous wealth cheek by jowl with poverty made worse by the alienation and dangers of urban life: all taking place in a moral vacuum where neither tradition, reason nor culture softens the harshness of oppression and injustice.  This cannot endure; the people of China are struggling blindly for some better way.  Unless China becomes great it cannot live, but by great I do not mean building a blue water navy and winning the fearful awe of its neighbors.  I mean the interior greatness that comes from disciplined talent, ambition harnessed to service, creativity addressed to the task of healing, and strengthening a people still scarred by a century of war, revolution and soul-crushing oppression at the hand of foreigners and fellow countrymen alike.  China has within it the seeds of an excellence and greatness that the world has never seen.  It can become a garden in which all the beauties and aspirations of past millennia can be fulfilled – but that requires a deeper kind of leadership than one fixed on keeping the growth pot boiling lest popular revolt overthrow the regime.

I have written before of the challenges that face us in the United States and will not say more here except that stale quibbling over expense cutbacks that will not significantly reduce the deficits, and reforms that will change very little, is not what we need.  Americans have the opportunity and the duty and the urgent pressing need to move into the future, to do and be more than ever.  The thin rhetoric of a backward looking president, the obstreperous negativism of an opposition better at rejecting what it hates than building or even conceiving what it needs, the lotus-eating educational formation that cuts us off from our past, and the incessant noise of a superficial pop culture: none of this is worthy of America at its best and none of it will help us now.

I wonder, are our days numbered and will we be divided between the Medes and the Persians?

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