Ever since learning that in 1947, Walter Lippmann popularized the term “Cold War” to define the emerging conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States, I thought it would be cool to be able to name a historical epoch. Now that the post-Cold War has expired, the post-post-Cold War that we’ve entered is just begging to be named. So here goes: It’s the age of “That Was Not the Plan.”
I know, I know, that doesn’t trip off the tongue — and I don’t expect it to stick — but boy is it accurate. I stumbled across it on a recent trip to Ukraine. I was speaking with a Ukrainian mother who explained that since the war started, her social life had been reduced to occasional dinners with friends, kids’ birthday parties “and funerals.” After typing her quote into my column, I added my own comment: “That was not the plan.” Before last year, young Ukrainians had been enjoying easier access to the E.U., embarking on tech start-ups, thinking about where to go to college and wondering whether to vacation in Italy or Spain. And then, like a meteor, comes this Russian invasion that turns their lives upside down overnight.
She is not alone. A lot of people’s plans — and a lot of countries’ plans — have gone completely haywire lately. We’ve entered a post-post-Cold War era that promises little of the prosperity, predictability and new possibilities of the post-Cold War epoch of the past 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There are many reasons for this, but none are more important than the work of four key leaders who have one thing in common: They each believe that their leadership is indispensable and are ready to go to extreme lengths to hold on to power as long as they can.
I am talking about Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu. The four of them — each in his own way — have created massive disruptions inside and outside their countries based on pure self-interest, rather than the interests of their people, and made it far harder for their nations to function normally in the present and to plan wisely for the future.
Take Putin. He started off as something of a reformer who stabilized post-Yeltsin Russia and oversaw an economic boom, thanks to rising oil prices.
But then oil revenues started to sag, and as the Russia scholar Leon Aron describes it in his forthcoming book, “Riding the Tiger: Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the Uses of War,” Putin made a big turn at the start of his third presidency in 2012, after the largest anti-Putin rallies of his rule in 100 Russian cities broke out and his economy stalled. Putin’s solution: “Shift the foundation of his regime’s legitimacy from economic progress to militarized patriotism,” Aron told me, and blame everything bad on the West and NATO expansion.
In the process, Putin made Russia into a besieged fortress, which, in his mind and propaganda, only Putin is capable of defending — and therefore requires that he stay in power for life. He went from Russia’s distributor of income to a distributor of dignity, earned in all the wrong ways and places. His invading Ukraine to restore a mythical Russian Motherland was inevitable.
Events in China have also unfolded quite unexpectedly of late. After steadily opening up and loosening internal controls since 1978, making it more predictable, stable and prosperous than at any other time in its modern history, China experienced an almost 180-degree U-turn under President Xi: He dispensed with terms limits — respected by his predecessors to prevent the emergence of another Mao — and made himself president indefinitely. Xi apparently believed that the Chinese Communist Party was losing its grip — leading to widespread corruption — so he reasserted its power at every level of society and business, while also eliminating any rivals.
It has made China more closed than any time since the days of Mao — complete with the sudden disappearances of the ministers of defense and foreign affairs — and sparking talk that we may have already seen “peak China” in terms of the country’s economic potential, which would be an earthquake for the global economy.
It was certainly not in my plan that after nearly a lifetime following Israel’s struggles with foreign enemies, I would end up writing about how the biggest threat to the Jewish democracy today is an enemy within — a judicial coup led by Netanyahu that is splintering Israel’s society and military.
The former director general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, Dan Harel, told a Tel Aviv democracy rally last week that “I have never seen our national security in a worse state” and that there has already been “damage to the reserve units of essential IDF formations, which has reduced readiness and operational capability.”
This is no small problem for the United States. For the past 50 years, Israel has been both a crucial ally and, in effect, a forward base in the region through which America projected power without the use of U.S. troops. Israel destroyed both Iraq’s and Syria’s budding attempts to become nuclear powers. Israel is the main counterweight today for containing the expansion of Iranian power across the whole region.
But if we have three more years of this extremist Netanyahu government, with its aspiration to annex the West Bank and govern Palestinians there with an apartheidlike system, the Jewish state could become a major source of instability in the region, not stability, and a much more uncertain ally — more like Turkey and less like the Israel of old.
And why? In a recent Times profile of Bibi, Ruth Margalit quoted Ze’ev Elkin, a former Likud minister in Netanyahu’s cabinet, as describing Netanyahu thus: “He began with a worldview that said, ‘I’m the best leader for Israel at this time.’ Slowly it morphed into a worldview that said, ‘The worst thing that can happen to Israel is if I stop leading it, and therefore my survival justifies anything.’”
Needless to say, watching Donald Trump’s effort to overturn our 2020 election by inspiring a mob to ransack the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and then seeing this same man become the leading Republican candidate for president in 2024, makes our next election among our most important ever — so that it won’t be our last ever. That was not the plan.
To the extent that there is a common denominator that binds these four leaders, it’s that they have all breached the rules of their game at home — and, in Putin’s case, started a war abroad — for an all-too-familiar reason: to stay in power. And their local systems — the Russian elite, the Chinese Communist Party, the Israeli electorate and the Republican Party — have not been able to effectively or entirely constrain them.
But there are also important differences among the four. Netanyahu and Trump are facing pushback in their democracies, where voters may yet oust or stop both of them — and neither has started a war. Xi is an autocrat, but he does have an agenda to improve the lives of his people and a plan to dominate the major industries of the 21st century, from biotech to artificial intelligence. But his increasingly iron-fisted rule may be exactly what prevents China from getting there, chiefly because it’s sparking a brain drain.
Putin is nothing but a mafia boss masquerading as a president. He will be remembered for transforming Russia from a scientific powerhouse — which put the first satellite into orbit in 1957 — into a country that can’t manufacture a car, a watch or a toaster that anyone outside of Russia would buy. Putin had to dial 1-800-NorthKorea to scrounge for aid for his ravaged army in Ukraine.
Trump, ultimately, is the most dangerous of the four — for one simple reason: When the world becomes this chaotic, and such key countries go off the plan, the rest of the world depends on the United States to take the lead in containing the trouble and opposing the troublemakers.
But Trump prefers to ignore the trouble and has praised the troublemakers, including Putin. It’s what makes the prospect of another Trump presidency so frightening, so reckless and so incomprehensible.
Because America is still the tent pole that holds up the world. We don’t always do it with wisdom, but if we were to stop doing it at all — watch out. Given what’s already going on in these other three important countries, if we go wobbly, it will birth a world where nobody will be able to make any plans.
There’s an easy name for that: the Age of Disorder.
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