Homesick Politics

World order – or the lack thereof – is a hot topic these days. Our fixation with the future of global structures and systems is evident everywhere – in the news and at conferences, on bestseller lists, even in popular television shows.

People are anxious. The world seems to be undergoing fundamental change: new actors are emerging on the world stage, previously sacrosanct rules of international behavior are being openly defied, and a new wave of technological progress is disrupting entire industries and economic sectors. In our quest for structure and predictability – a natural impulse in times of rapid change – we are desperate for hints about how the world, and our role in it, will develop.

It is of course vital in such situations that we identify the best, or at least the most feasible, way forward; predictability provides a foundation for cost-benefit analysis and strategic thinking. The problem arises when our yearning for certainty overwhelms rational thinking, taking our ideas and actions in an unproductive – or even dangerous – direction.

The current trend toward rose-colored retrospection is a case in point. Faced with political, economic, geostrategic, and social uncertainty, policymakers have increasingly succumbed to the allure of nostalgia, promising a return to what they portray as the familiar and complete rules and practices of the past.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin has been operating according to a nineteenth-century worldview, in which great powers dominate their spheres of influence unchallenged. As he noted at last October’s meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, “The bear will not even bother to ask permission. Here, we consider it the master of the taiga.”

The Islamic State is attempting to return to an even more distant past. Its adherents espouse a medieval ninth-century doctrine to justify their effort to reestablish the caliphate, in which “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null” and summary execution and slavery are mandatory.

The West, too, has fallen into the trap of nostalgia, clinging to a late-twentieth-century conception of order in which it makes the rules and can choose whether to follow them. The latest example of this anachronistic perspective is America’s ham-fisted (not to mention failed) attempt to stem support for the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, after repeatedly refusing to provide a greater voice for the world’s emerging powers in the Bretton Woods institutions.

Nostalgia has also emerged as a major factor in many countries’ domestic affairs. Throughout Europe, populist parties – from the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party to the far-left Syriza in Greece – seek a return to the ostensibly simpler and happier times of national control and closed borders. In the US, a prominent strain of jurisprudence defends the “original intent” of the Constitution’s framers, while Republicans are shifting toward isolationism and Democrats are denouncing free-trade agreements.

But nostalgia offers no solutions – only a dream of escape. Looking backward gets us no closer to what we want; on the contrary, it is a surefire way to miss the challenges – and miss out on the opportunities – that lie before us. Trying to advance one’s interests based on the rules of the past is like trying to solve today’s crossword puzzle using yesterday’s clues.

Let’s face it: the halcyon world to which many people are so eager to return – before, say, the European Union or the United Nations or even the nation-state – never really existed. As Marcel Proust noted: “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” The past is being abridged and sugarcoated in order to portray it as superior to the widespread tumult and misery of today.

Over time, nostalgia has come to have a benign connotation. But the word – a combination of the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain) – was coined to describe the disease of “acute homesickness.” Perhaps it would be beneficial to return to that definition of nostalgia, at least in its political manifestation, as something more akin to an illness: a condition that distorts reality and impedes the formulation of effective solutions for real-world challenges.

No worldview rooted in the nineteenth century – much less in the ninth century – is adequate to the complexities of today’s globalized world. Likewise, the rise of new powers and non-state actors means that rule making (and breaking) can no longer be restricted to a small Western club. And the intensity of global competition means that European countries cannot hope to thrive independently of one another.

Flimsy ideas thrive in the absence of a viable alternative. That is why a period of reflection on world order is so important. But, rather than allowing ourselves to be swept up in the regressive tide of nostalgia, we need to engage one another in a constructive conversation about the challenges that we actually face and propose new ideas for addressing them.