New World, New Disorder: Novus Disordo Seclorum

My concern that global change is out of control involves a necessarily subjective interpretation of the political meaning and message of our times. It is hence partially diagnosis, partially prognosis, and partially advocacy, and occasionally even trespasses on the philosophical. But it is not possible to deal with modern global politics, in the age of massive political awakening, without taking into account the consequences not only of enhanced human capabilities, but also of changes in the dominant content of the human spirit….

Today, the United States stands as the only truly global power. But it does so in a setting in which traditional international politics are being transformed into global politics: politics that are becoming—under the influence of modern communications and increasing economic interpenetration—an extended process, obliterating the distinction between the domestic and the international. Inherent in this is the potential for the emergence of a genuine global community. The question arises whether a global power that is not guided by a globally relevant set of values can for long exercise that predominance. To be sure, American power is real, and in fact, it is unlikely to be challenged in the foreseeable future by any of its potential rivals. Neither Japan nor Europe are likely to displace America. In that sense, the U.S. global position is historically unique. But many of the weaknesses of a “permissive cornucopia” represent the potentially defining trend in the current American culture. Unless there is some deliberate effort to re-establish the centrality of some moral criteria for the exercise of self-control over gratification as an end in itself, the phase of American preponderance may not last long, despite the absence of any self-evident replacement….

That is why there is the need for a wider, globally shared understanding of the purpose of political existence—that is, the condition of human interdependence. A major step toward such understanding implies some effort at defining the proper limits—ultimately, moral in character—of internal and external aspirations. This will require a conscious effort to strike a balance between social need and personal gratification, global poverty and national wealth, irresponsible alteration of the physical environment as well as even of the human being and the effort to preserve both nature’s patrimony and the authenticity of human identity.

This is the critical historical challenge that America now faces in the post-utopian age. The point of departure for an effective response is the recognition that only by creating a society that is guided by some shared criteria of self-restraint can America help to shape a world more truly in control of its destiny. Only with such recognition can we ensure that we will be the masters, and not the victims, of history as we enter the twenty-first century.

The Century of Megadeath

The unprecedented dimensions of the twentieth century’s bloodletting were directly derived from the central existential struggles that defined and dominated this century. These struggles cumulatively produced the two most massive moral outrages of our time—outrages that transformed the century of promise into one of organized insanity. The first involved prolonged and extraordinarily devastating wars, not only with very high military casualties but with an equally high or even higher civilian toll: two world wars and at least 30 additional major international or civil wars (defined as ones in which fatalities were no less than tens of thousands). The second has involved the totalitarian attempts to create what might be described as “coercive utopias”: perfect societies based on physical elimination of prescribed “social misfits,” doctrinally defined as racially or socially precluded from redemption….

Of those killed in twentieth-century wars, approximately 30,000,000 were young men, mostly between the ages of 18 and 30, who perished in the name of nationalism and/or ideology. The two world wars are estimated to have consumed at least 8,500,000 and 19,000,000 military lives, respectively, causing a massive biological depletion of talent, energy, and genetic inheritance in several key European nations. Other wars elsewhere in this century caused an additional 6,000,000 or so military fatalities. Civilian casualties—as actual by-product of hostilities (and not of deliberate genocide) accounted for about 13,000,000 women, children, and older men during World War I and for about 20,000,000 during World War II, to which must be added the estimated 15,000,000 civilian Chinese deaths in the Sino-Japanese war which started prior to World War II. In addition, probably no fewer than 6,000,000 civilians perished in other conflicts.

Among them, the Mexican wars of the early century, the Paraguay-Bolivia War of 1928-35, the Spanish Civil War in 1936-9, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, the India-Pakistan partition of 1947 and the subsequent two wars, the Korean War of 1950-53, the Nigerian civil war of 1967, the Vietnam War of 1961-74, and the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-87 have been the most lethal.

In brief, this century’s wars extinguished no fewer than approximately 87,000,000 lives, with the numbers of wounded, maimed, or otherwise afflicted being beyond estimate.

These staggering numbers are matched and morally even overshadowed by a still more horrifying total, one that justifiably stamps the twentieth century as the century of megadeath: the number of defenseless individuals deliberately put to death because of doctrinal hatred and passions. Four individuals—each epitomizing a doctrine in which the physical elimination not just of individual opponents but of entire categories of human beings, defined either through race or class, was held to be socially beneficial—caused most of these politically motivated deaths.

In the name of doctrine, Hitler had about 17,000,000 human beings put to death. He was outdone, however, by Stalin and Mao. Stalin inherited from Lenin an efficiently operating machinery for the mass destruction of political and social opponents, and he further improved on it. Because of Lenin—through mass executions during and after civil war, through massive deaths in the Gulag initiated under Lenin’s direction (and powerfully documented in Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago), and through mass famines induced by ruthless indifference (with Lenin callously dismissing as unimportant the deaths of “the half-savage, stupid, difficult people of the Russian villages”)—it can be estimated that between 6,000,000 to 8,000,000 people perished. That number subsequently was more or less tripled by Stalin, who caused, it has been conservatively estimated, the death of no fewer than 20,000,000 people, and perhaps even upward of 25,000,000. Given the size of the Chinese population, and the indifference to human life of the current regime, the estimate of about 29,000,000 as the human cost of the communist era is in all probability on the low side, especially as it does not take into account the net loss to China’s population because of the demographic impact of such mass killings.

This ghastly ledger would not be complete without some accounting of the price in human lives paid for the attempts to construct communist utopias in Eastern Europe, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Cuba. It is a safe estimate that these consumed at least 3,000,000 victims, with Cambodia under Pol Pot alone accounting for about one-third. Thus the total might actually be higher. In brief, the failed effort to build communism in the twentieth century consumed the lives of almost 60,000,000 human beings, making communism the most costly human failure in all of history. To sum up, the appalling total killed deliberately during this century—not in actual combat but in cold blood, for various ideological or religious reasons—comes to upward of 80,000,000 lives. Thus, during the twentieth century, no fewer than 167,000,000 lives—and quite probably in excess of 175,000,000—were deliberately extinguished through politically motivated carnage. That is the approximate equivalent of the total population of France, Italy, and Great Britain; or over two-thirds of the total current population of the United States. This is more than the total killed in all previous wars, civil conflicts, and religious persecutions throughout human history. These horrendous though dry numbers are also a reminder of what can happen when humanity’s innate capacity for aggression becomes harnessed by dogmatic self-righteous-ness and is enhanced by increasingly potent technologies of destruction….

The Peerless Global Power

Ominous for America’s continued global pre-eminence are the implications of the social and philosophic dimensions of America’s condition. These are no less important than the economic factors in determining America’s likely global role. They influence the perception of America by the rest of the world, either thereby enhancing or constraining the role that America is able to play as the catalyst of global change. In this connection, the biggest danger is posed by the collision between the intractibility of America’s social problems with the values that increasingly dominate America’s culture and spirit.

America clearly needs a period of philosophical introspection and of cultural self-critique. It must come to grips with the realization that a relativist hedonism as the basic guide to life offers no firm social moorings, that a community which partakes of no shared absolute certainties but which instead puts a premium on individual self- satisfaction is a community threatened by dissolution.

The danger to American global preeminence generated by America’s internal social and cultural dilemmas is two-fold: on the one hand, the image of a society guided largely by cornucopian aspirations devoid of deeper human values tends to undermine the global appeal of the American social model, especially as the symbol of freedom. On the other hand, that image tends to generate highly exaggerated material expectations among the vast masses of the world’s poorer majority, expectations which cannot conceivably be satisfied, yet the frustration of which is bound to intensify their resentment of global inequality.

Dilemmas of Global Disorder

The shape of mankind’s political future will much depend on the philosophical and cultural evolution of the successful but also rather self-centered West, on the degree to which the post-communist transformation confirms or refutes the wider relevance of the democratic model, and on the extent to which the world’s largest social experiment is, or is not, assimilated into wider global cooperation. In a world of ideological confusion and of social polarization, the specter of geopolitical fragmentation thus clearly threatens. Global geopolitical dynamics are interacting with the inchoate yearnings of politically awakened mankind for some certainties about its future and for some universally accepted criteria of justice. That agenda is not only daunting; it justifies concern that the dilemmas of global disorder may become the defining determinants of the new age.

Even though America will remain for some time to come the peerless superpower, its effective global sway may lack authority. American power by itself will be insufficient to impose the American concept of “a new world order.” Just as important, the inclination toward cultural hedonism may make it more difficult for America to develop a shared language with those major portions of mankind who will feel they are excluded from meaningful participation in world affairs. As a consequence, they are likely to be on the lookout for some mobilizing message and some relevant example around which to rally in a comprehensive challenge to the global status quo.

The massive failure of totalitarian metamyths, the extraordinary scale of the megadeaths exacted in the name of dogmas, and the currently more pervasive intellectual skepticism regarding the practicality of utopias, makes it unlikely that a self-destructive political wave will replicate the tragic errors of the twentieth century. But a spasm of irrationality, probably reminiscent of the fascist abomination in style and content—with emotions generated by deep instincts of national identity, ethnic passions, religious beliefs, as well as social and racial resentments, all tapping the hidden wells of mankind’s hatreds—could sweep some portions of the globe.

It will, therefore, be incumbent on the democratic, more stable, and richer West to promote global conditions that reduce the likelihood of such political regression. This will not be easy, in part because of the West’s attitudes toward much of the rest of the world. The West considers itself to be inherently superior, not only on the level of economic development but in political maturity. Much of the West’s political rhetoric about the world reflects that attitude: the less developed countries are viewed as politically primitive, economically backward, and religiously fanatic. And while there may be some justification for such feelings, they also tend to betray a patronizing and parochial attitude, insensitive to the historical and cultural factors that prevented other societies from pursuing the same path of development as the West. Moreover, inherent in that attitude is the assumption that historical development is unilinear, and that imitation of the West is the only positive option open to others….

The Illusion of Control

The West’s contempt for religion is also part and parcel of this mindset. Yet in fact, religion not only persists, but in some parts of the developing world is staging a comeback. In addition to the proselytizing efforts of the Catholic Church in Africa and Asia, and to the spread also of Islam, evangelical and charismatic Protestantism has been gaining adherents, especially in Latin America and lately in the former Soviet Union. The religious revival, however, is often marked by theological confusion and may lack institutional staying power, particularly in the case of the evangelical sects that are dependent on individual and highly charismatic preachers. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the source of the moral sinews of many societies has been established religion, and its heralded decay—especially in the more advanced countries—is not necessarily a sign of human progress….

Global political dilemmas which are heavily influenced by cultural and philosophical factors cannot be quickly remedied by a few specific prescriptions. Indeed, it must be recognized that the expectation of instant solutions to complex and deeply rooted problems is itself a characteristic of our modern age, with its mindset heavily conditioned by ideological expectations and technological capabilities. These have induced a reductionist mode of thought, with its inclination to evade sensitive moral and attitudinal problems by imposing on them doctrinal or technical solutions. The needed correction will not come from a catalogue of policy recommendations. It can only emerge as a consequence of a new historical time that induces a change both in values and in conduct—in effect, out of a prolonged process of cultural self-reexamination and philosophical reevaluation, which over time influences the political outlook both of the West and of the non-Western world. That process can be encouraged by an enlightened dialogue but it cannot be politically imposed….

Any such consensus has to be derived from the recognition that humanity’s control over its destiny requires a moral compass as well as a sense of balance. The exercise of control must be infused with an awareness of the consequence of choice, both in practical and in moral terms, which also implies the need for conscious self-restraint. Being able to alter the environment, or to alter oneself genetically, or to consume more because there is more to consume, or to compound the capacity to inflict mass destruction, is not the exercise of control if the expanding human ability to do so automatically becomes the dominant motive for doing so. The real alternative to total control is not minimal control or, even worse, the absence of any self-restraint, but public self-control that is derived from some internalized and self-restraining notions as to what is appropriate and what is not….

Moral guidance ultimately has to come from within. The modern age, initiated by the French Revolution, placed a premium on the certainties of the so-called objective truth, spurning subjectivity as irrational. The failure of the most extreme perversion of that mode of political thought—namely, of the totalitarian metamyth—has lately prompted an extreme swing in the pendulum of fashionable postmodern thought: from the intellectuals’ fascination with “scientific” Marxism as the epitome of “objective truth” to their currently antithetical embrace of uninhibited relativism. But neither response is likely to provide the framework for a world that has become politically awakened and active. The alternative to total control cannot be amoral confusion out of control. The global crisis of the spirit has to be overcome if humanity is to assert command over its destiny.


Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski (born March 28, 1928) is a Polish American political scientist, geostrategist, and statesman who served as United States National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981.

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