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Letter from the Editor

In his excellent critique of the Obama administration’s Iran policy (one of several provocative articles in this issue of World Affairs), Sohrab Ahmari notes in passing that the Middle East’s “architecture of power is undergoing a massive and unprecedented change.” No doubt about it. But the recent upheaval in that region, while in some respects startlingly new, also represents more of the same: another dimension of complexity and danger in what was already a disconcertingly volatile, wildly unpredictable, and dangerous world.

The reason that Matthew Arnold’s famous lament about standing between two worlds, one dead and the other struggling to be born, is so frequently quoted is because it is always true. History doesn’t stand still. It always moves forward, although in staccato and unscientific ways undreamt of by Marxist dialecticians. History is always a grave and also a cradle, leaving those of us trying to make sense of it unsure of whether we should grieve or exult or do both at once.

Every generation feels that its world is being overtaken by malicious change. But today’s challenges are related and distinct in an unprecedented way—a Rubik’s Cube of crises involving a clash of civilizations, religions, ideologies, and cultures, and also of economies, budgets, demographics, and political systems; a clash between the resource-rich and resource-poor, between tyrants and democrats (and people who say they’re democrats), between those who yearn for freedom and those who are armed and dangerous and yearn for power; a clash between forces that are national, cross-border, regional, continental, and global, separate but interconnected, and above all inescapable.

In the past, the First World was largely a spectator as forces such as these collided. But today, the gathering clouds also move toward and across the prosperous and democratic world. Its elected and unelected elites are rightly (if tardily and even now somewhat cluelessly) preoccupied with their over-leveraged, debt-ridden national budgets and economies. With a wary eye on their angry (and in some cases overindulged) constituencies, they worry over how to buy another year or two of time, ignoring the future that approaches like a runaway train and turning their backs toward the hard choices required to slow it down.

We are right to blame leaders who have shackled themselves (and us) in no-tax pledges, rancid “fairness” rhetoric, and guaranteed social, welfare, and corporate entitlements and subsidies from which they cannot liberate themselves in the interests of a higher and common purpose. But the truth is that we have all shut our eyes and turned away from the problems that now threaten us, adopting a peace-in-our-time attitude that is as fruitless as it is unbecoming. We have knowingly marched toward this moment together and apart. Now, we have arrived together to share the blame and fix it, or suffer the consequences.

Which is why I began by citing Sohrab Ahmari’s point about the architecture of power that we see constantly changing all around us, as one edifice is brought down and another erected on its rubble. American exceptionalism alone cannot save us from this process or ensure that we can channel its course. We need to make the tough choices that will get our house in order, not only because some of those involved in this haphazard global demolition and construction project will not always have our best interests at heart, but also because in the upheavals and settlings yet to come, the ideal of freedom itself is likely to require an advocate whose foundations are solid enough to withstand the ever more serious tremors that will shake our world.

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