National Review

The Fragility of Civilization

Strategies for surviving the eruption.

Associate Director, Center for the Future of Liberal Society
People's figures are illuminated by the glow of the lava on March 28, 2021 on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland. The Mount Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted on March 19, after thousands of small earthquakes in the area over the recent weeks, and was reportedly the first eruption of its kind on the Reykjanes Peninsula in around 800 years. (Photo by Sophia Groves/Getty Images)
The Mount Fagradalsfjall volcano illuminated by the glow of the lava on March 28, 2021, on the Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland. (Sophia Groves via Getty Images)

Since the end of the Cold War, much of the Western world has built and inhabited an elaborate fantasy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to this story, the big dragon had been slain, the kingdom was at peace, and the only task left was to clean up the last vestiges of the nasty old world of conflict and chaos. Democracy and human rights could advance around the world, Communist China could learn free trade, Russia could come into the fold, Europe could unite and become a great and independent power, and none of it would require much spending on the military, diplomatic, and aid tools of foreign policy. The future would be like the finale of Independence Day, with all the peoples of the world united behind American leadership to defeat invading aliens — or, sober-minded fantasists believed, more-realistic threats such as the erosion of the ozone layer.

Not every member of the Western foreign-policy elite shared each aspect of this dream, but enough of them picked up enough parts of the story to push the United States and its allies into hubris and overreach. Like the Pompeiians in search of fertile soil, they forgot the wisdom of their ancestors, ignored the dangers, and moved steadily closer to the mouth of Vesuvius.

Now, the rumblings from the caldera are shaking the foundations of this fantasy world. First, the early stages of the pandemic revealed that the supposedly global system of trade would screech to a juddering halt if disease broke out in a handful of Chinese cities, or if the Chinese Communist Party withheld shipments to disfavored nations. Companies around the world discovered that after optimizing for efficiency for decades, they no longer had the resiliency needed to deal with sudden shocks. Next, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine reminded them that hostile dictators cannot be put off forever by threats of sanctions and diplomatic isolation, that steel cuts through paper. And the catastrophe that Hamas unleashed on Israel shows that another part of the fairy tale — that the bad guys will always lose the fight and the good guys can relax — is also made of pixie dust.

As the lava burbles up from below, the storytellers have choices to make: They can flee down the mountainside, they can sacrifice some of their homes and try to save others, or they can dig ditches and build walls to stop the onrushing magma short of destruction. But first, they must accept that they do not live in a castle in the sky.

The Israelis, who confronted the viciousness of Islamist terror more directly than many of their allies, did not succumb to the same delusions as their Western friends did. But a great deal of magical thinking nonetheless took place in the Holy Land. The second intifada convinced most Israelis that the Palestinian leaders were untrustworthy and unwilling to make peace. But after a period of taking the terror threat seriously, Israelis let themselves be lulled into their own false sense of security. As they saw it, after taking control of Gaza, Hamas would realize that it had more to lose from war than it could possibly gain and that the sporadic threats emanating from the West Bank would be manageable.

As the threat seemed to recede and domestic politics became more important, the Israeli government allowed Jews to permeate the West Bank with small, isolated settlements, many of which were militarily indefensible. But many Israelis convinced themselves that the Palestinians could not organize a mass attack without being detected and that Israel’s high-tech border security would give the military adequate time to respond to any attacks on the homeland. When I visited the Israel–Gaza border this summer, the Israeli briefers emphasized the threat from rockets and artillery. They felt confident in their ability to detect tunnel-diggers and knew that if a group of Gazans approached the security fence, the Israel Defense Forces would send a detachment to drive them away. But they expected no more than a few Gazans at a time.

The IDF was ready to fight when Hamas attacked. But it was ready to fight in the wrong place: the West Bank, where the IDF had apparently concentrated its forces. As thousands of terrorists surged across the Gazan border, IDF units there were cut off and overrun. Many gave their lives to slow down the assault. Reportedly, the bulk of the IDF had to race from their West Bank positions while Hamas worked its devilry in the south.

Neither the Israeli government nor the West Bank settlers bear guilt for these deaths: That burden falls solely on the shoulders of the people who planned, supported, and carried out the barbaric attacks in southern Israel. Many of those killers hope to receive their just reward from God for their actions, and all civilized people should do what they can to grant them their wish. Nonetheless, if the worst happens and Iran’s other proxies attack from all sides, Israel will need to make hard choices about how many resources the IDF can spare to defend these lonely West Bank outposts.

The unfolding series of wars and crises around the world has shown that the international order is profoundly unstable. Some may object that Russia’s attack on Ukraine and Iran’s proxy attack on Israel are unconnected. That is true — the new Axis partners do not trust one another much more than the old Axis powers did, and they do not appear to fully share their strategic planning with one another. But a complacent person in 1936 would have been equally correct to point out that Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Italy’s gas attacks in Ethiopia, and Germany’s proxy war in Spain were not products of a single grand design. The three powers still combined to conquer most of Europe and much of Asia shortly thereafter.

Many of the most critical and dynamic parts of the global economy are just as vulnerable as Israel is. Iran demonstrated when it hit the Abqaiq oil refinery in Saudi Arabia in 2019 that it is able to devastate the world’s energy markets with only a few missiles and drones, and it’s willing to do it. If the Gaza crisis breaks out into a major regional war, the consequences could be immense: Iran has more than 3,000 ballistic missiles and has armed Hezbollah with more than 100,000 rockets. Stray rockets and artillery could close the Suez Canal, and one-fifth of the world’s oil and liquefied natural gas could be blocked from leaving the Persian Gulf and flowing to homes and factories across Europe and Asia. Israeli innovation, which has improved the lives of untold millions around the world, would be diverted to an all-out struggle for survival. The human cost would extend far beyond the Middle East.

Meanwhile, China’s belligerence is raising the stakes on the other end of Asia. The Chinese military’s increasingly aggressive actions against Americans, their partners, and their allies show that Xi Jinping is giving it a long leash, and it is snapping at the heels of peace-loving nations around the region. Last month, the Chinese coast guard collided with a supply boat and a coast guard vessel from the Philippines — an American ally — in the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Last year, China used the Winter Olympics to honor an officer whose unit killed more than 20 Indian troops along the disputed China–India border. And over the past two years, the Chinese military has buzzed and harassed American ships and planes more than 180 times.

Even neophytes such as Vivek Ramaswamy are aware of the importance of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, which makes more than 90 percent of the chips that power the global tech ecosystem. But chips will not be the only worry if a conflict breaks out in the Taiwan Strait. The island democracy would certainly have trouble exporting its best products, but it would not be alone. Taiwan sits astride the sea lanes that connect China, Japan, and South Korea to the rest of the world: Each of them depends on food and fuel imports for survival, so they would struggle to feed their people and keep the lights on in a war. Moreover, half of the world’s trade would be in the line of fire. Japan, which hosts American bases and whose leadership increasingly realizes that Taiwan’s survival is vital for Japanese independence, would probably be scarred by Chinese missiles.

A conflict with China could unleash chaos throughout the region. North Korea has steadily made progress on its own missiles and nuclear arsenal, but it does not need them to do serious damage. Over half of South Korea’s population lives in and around Seoul, many of them within range of North Korean artillery. The South Korean military has found four tunnels for infiltrating North Korean forces, and defectors say there are plans for more than a dozen more. If American forces have their hands full against China, North Korea could blackmail South Korea or rain down shells while its shock troops burst out of the ground.

The heat rising out of the caldera has alerted some of the Western elite that all is not well in their fairy-tale world. But they have not yet made their move. For years, America has been a dangerous friend and a feckless enemy: We overturned a friend in Egypt while letting a butcher in Syria run amok, we encouraged Ukraine’s democratic aspirations only to shrink back when it was attacked in 2014, and we have done next to nothing as Iran has steadily overtaken much of the Middle East and China has built up its military might.

The sallies out from the sky castle have been embarrassing failures. The fall of Afghanistan was a humiliation. Appeasing Iran has made the Middle East more violent. China’s military budget has rocketed up to $700 billion a year, while American defense spending as a share of our economy drops ever lower. Many of the Eastern Europeans are arming themselves as fast as they can, but the Germans are dragging their feet. And now that Russia has attacked Ukraine a second time, seven of the ten largest economies in the world are losing a war of attrition to the eighth-largest. In international forums, Western diplomats tie themselves in knots to lay out the challenges without offending their adversaries. They are hashing out the distinctions between magma and lava while their shoes catch fire.

The incompetence is staggering. Something must change.

One option, for the Americans at least, is to flee down the mountain slope and hope that other houses slow the lava flow enough that it cools before it engulfs their own home. This is a long-standing tradition in American foreign policy. Some of the Founders hoped that national independence would free Americans of concern about foreign affairs, although wiser ones such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Quincy Adams counseled their countrymen instead to build up their strength and then decide what role the United States should play in the world. Many members of the founding generation lived long enough to learn during the Napoleonic Wars that a country that engages in trade as heavily as the United States does cannot emerge unscathed from major wars in other parts of the world.

The last time the world was filled with this much turmoil, Americans had to learn this lesson again. As the Axis powers rose, a group of well-meaning American patriots partnered with a disreputable group of antisemites and lowlifes to argue that the United States should stay out of the war. As they saw it, Europe’s and Asia’s problems were for Europeans and Asians to solve and, in any case little harm could come to the United States. They were mistaken, and their bad ideas contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans.

Another choice is to try to save some parts of the mountainside but not others. As the advocates of this position point out, strategy is about setting priorities, and even the United States has limited resources. For the many Americans who are not impressed by recent forays in the Middle East, and who are exasperated by the Europeans’ being quicker to wag their fingers than to shoulder the load, this strategy has a strong intellectual and emotional appeal. If the Europeans are so smart, let them manage their own affairs; the Arabs have all this money, let them figure out their neighborhood. China is the main threat, and we can focus there.

Upon closer inspection, this strategy is far riskier than its advocates admit. Take Europe. Some blithely assume that the European democracies are unwilling to pay their fair share on defense because the United States does too much; they will cough up more as American forces withdraw, the thinking goes. It is possible that all the European democracies will pull together as the relatively small American contingent pulls out. But people who know European history understand that Christendom’s past was bloody and fratricidal and that only the arrival of entrenched American power broke the cycle of violence. We are defending Europe at relatively little cost, and because a pullout would risk destabilizing America’s top trading partner, the stakes are very high.

Paradoxically, too intense a focus on Asia could make Americans lose there. At the onset of the Cold War, American strategists realized that the industrial heartlands of Europe and Japan were the most important prizes in play. But for Western Europe to rebuild its economy and fend off the Communists, it needed cheap energy. The American government, which did not have much faith in Britain’s imperial acumen and dreaded Soviet domination of the global energy market, began elbowing both of its major wartime allies out of the Middle East. To win the Cold War, America needed the Middle East on its side.

Today, Japan, India, and other major allies and partners depend utterly on Middle East oil and natural gas: Withdrawing from the region would put Israel in mortal peril and would hand control of global energy markets to China, Iran, and Russia. They might squabble among themselves and even fall out about how to best divide up the enormous spoils, but our Asian allies and partners are not likely to be impressed by that level of American strategic incompetence. Moreover, because their security depends on American assurances, they study all of American behavior closely: If Obama’s failure to enforce the red line in Syria undermined Japan’s confidence in the United States, imagine what a precipitous withdrawal would do.

The last option is to descend from the sky castle and build real defenses. This will require hard work. Joe Biden needs to come up with a plan for victory in Ukraine and bring it to Congress, he needs to stop appeasing and start confronting Iran, and he needs to get our commanders in the Indo-Pacific the resources and authorities they need to defend American interests and allies. This will be expensive, but deterrence is much cheaper than war.

And we will not be alone: Japan and South Korea are doing their part to build up their defenses, and we have seen before that our Middle East partners pitch in when they know the United States is behind them. The Western Europeans are slow, but Britain and Eastern Europe are clear-eyed about the threat from Russia, and Europe as a whole has given Ukraine about twice as much aid as the United States has.

The Jewish state points the way out of this mess. The entire aim of Zionism is to make the Jewish people the subject of history, not its object. Theodor Herzl warned his kinsmen that the fond wishes of the international community would not save them when the crisis came, nor would their devotion to human rights and democracy, but a state with an army could. Since then, Israelis have shown that vision and purpose can make a people flourish, but only steel can make them secure.

Peace will come when our enemies know that the cost of aggression is too high, defeat is assured, and struggle is futile. Israel is ready to crush its enemies. We should help.

It’s time to descend from the sky castle. It’s not made of steel.

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