What we do know is that wars can’t last forever. What we don’t know is how to end them. The only way to defeat an enemy is to tell a new story in which the enemy becomes the friend. Because what will always matter most in the game of nations is the narrative.
The connecting narrative of the 20th century was the story of Germany coming to grips with being a nation-state. Germany’s struggle immolated the entire European peninsula as humans attempted to learn how to reconcile national interests with a new industrial society.
Germany still struggles with this question, and the peninsula could still burn in the future, but the ability for Germany to rearrange its geopolitical vulnerabilities is largely constrained by the existence of the European Union. Nevertheless, the tension which lead to two world wars and a drawn-out cold war remains because no one knew how to end it.
This is a world, as the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer says, where nothing is fixed and nothing changes. There may well be a series of acts in the global theatre of humanity beginning with an opening and stretching to climax, but the denouement never arrives to clean up what was misunderstood.
Ultimately, people have to choose which story they wish to pursue. For humanity the central plot is the love of one’s own. Where a person was born, their family and first religion holds a robust significance in an individual’s mind that often transcends any of life’s later affiliations. The choice of story at the nation-state level differs only in the sense that it is the individual’s story magnified by millions. What a nation eventually tells itself is truth is reflective of impersonal forces of geography and time which are unique to any given landmass. This is the nation’s story constituting its national interests.
The illusion is in assuming an impermeability of those interests. People groups move and scatter, wars expel them from homelands and others arrive to take their place. Germany’s experience last century showed how difficult it is to deal with other nation’s interests and find balance. Leaders of nations must maintain the illusion that the chosen national story is the right one for the time.
The United States, as the head of an unintended empire, is attempting to extricate from long conflicts in an effort to reposition the country’s limited resources. The narrative in this post-9/11 world is a return to maintenance of US national interests as defined for the present.
The mere concept that the Americans are moving into a “post-9/11” reality is worth considering. It indicates first that it is moving away from something, and second that what it is moving away from was concluded in some fashion. But if there is no denouement and nothing is fixed, then the only thing that the US is moving towards is a different narrative. A growing number of US officials and military Generals are of the opinion that unless the country does something to change the reality on the ground in the Middle East and in the Islamic world, the US military will be killing extremists in those regions for ever.
The US has the capability to do this task indefinitely, and the means to conduct extended warfighting are becoming more efficient and cheaper every year. But the US is learning to be an imperial power. The key to controlling an empire is knowing when an action has become untenable and to cease doing that action. In the game of chess, an old saying advises that when a player is losing, the best move is to knock over the table and start again. Sure, it might annoy the opposing player, but in the end both will continue playing chess and each has a new chance at victory. The United States sees a lot of truth in this advice.
In the game of nations, each player wants not so much to win as to avoid losing. All players have no objectives except to keep the game going, because the alternative to the game of nations is war. What the United States knows is that all wars must end, but what it does not know is how to accomplish this. We are told by intelligent and well-meaning people that the war against extremist religion can end by playing the game of nations with the supplied pawns and with the assumed rules.
What we are not told is that nothing ever changes. We are for eternity caught in Schopenhauer’s flat circle as the global drama’s fourth act plays for perpetuity, never entering the denouement of the fifth act. The game of nations will continue to be played, leaning in one direction then the other. When the game isn’t likely to result in victory, however fleeting, the option always remains to flip the table. So if a war can’t end no matter how many missiles and soldiers are thrown at it, the answer is to change the narrative to reflect a more favourable reality.
This post-9/11 world the US is organising is identical to the previous world. The only thing that changes is the narrative. US government officials know this but they must find a way to bring an illusion of denouement and victory even if the game continues with all the same people and pieces.
Now the Americans will refocus on “new” projects and collectively forget about the problems it could not fix. Those are problems it will revisit in the future again and again precisely because of the necessary illusion of narrative and the imperative of keeping the game of nations going.