Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Revolutions Happen. This Might Be Ours.

| June 16, 2020

Sometimes political orders break apart. But beware the dangers of what comes next.

Whenever political and social upheaval occurs, William Butler Yeats's famous poem "The Second Coming" (1919) immediately springs to mind. Are we at a moment in history where, "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world"? Will anger at entrenched injustice, racism, and other outmoded ideas sweep aside familiar institutions and replace them with something better? Are global arrangements that have been in place for decades being transformed as well? Is a desire to "move fast and break things" now the mantra for both local and global politics?

If so, it will be a rude shock for people like me. If you're a privileged American baby boomer, you've lived most of your life in a fairly stable era of world history. The Cold War began before you were born and lasted until you were approaching middle age. For people of my generation, institutions like NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the United Nations, the World Bank, and countless other arrangements seemed like permanent features of the landscape. Even the nuclear arms race, worrisome as it was, eventually became a bit like watching reruns of Seinfeld or M.A.S.H.: The players were familiar, we could recite all their lines, and we knew how every episode was going to turn out.

There were crises and upheavals of different sorts in many places, of course, and important changes did occur at home and abroad. Some of those developments were highly contentious and involved the use of violence. Political and social reform occurred slowly, however, and rarely achieved as much as the protagonists hoped. Even events as significant as the Sino-Soviet split, decolonization, the 1970s oil shocks, the end of the gold standard, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, or the Iranian revolution ultimately had only modest effects on the overall global order. Until the unexpected collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, it was an era of considerable continuity in much of world politics.

If the stability that characterized the Cold War order is your idea of "normal," therefore, you're probably inclined to see existing institutions as enduring and to think of revolutionary change as the rare exception rather than a constant possibility....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M."Revolutions Happen. This Might Be Ours." Foreign Policy, June 16, 2020.

The Author

Stephen Walt