Something weird happened recently when headlines swapped one grave crisis for another. No sooner did the nuclear threat from Iran recede, thanks to a breakthrough interim nuclear agreement, than American B-52 bombers were flying into restricted air space newly claimed by China.
Japan was angry at Chinese overreach in a long-simmering dispute over islands in the East China Sea, and the Chinese denounced what they called “Tokyo’s provocations.” Suddenly, America’s treaty obligations to defend Japan were in play again. In Tokyo, Vice President Joe Biden said that China’s assertion of control over a new flying zone “raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.” A day later, in Beijing, after meeting with Biden, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “The world as a whole is not tranquil.” No kidding.
Yet in the sudden shift in Washington’s attention, there was a signal of some deeper current in contemporary affairs: American public awareness, it seems, can be seized by only one major crisis at a time, as if worrisome international disputes are like a line of jet planes, curving back toward the horizon, each patiently awaiting its slot in the landing sequence. In that case, the media mavens — headline writers, editors, bloggers, the commentariat — are the air traffic control operators.
There is no imputing a rational order to our antagonists; nations don’t take turns in asserting their interests. Yet as one flash point gives way to the next, we perceive an underlying coherence of circumstance, which itself may be cause for hope. Our sense of never-ending crisis grows partly from the nature of events overseas, but also from how these events are presented to us.
The recent sensation-flip from Iran to China calls to mind how flash-point Iran, which dominated the worries of late autumn, had itself been preceded by frightening brinkmanship over Syria in the early autumn, which came on the heels of the summer crisis in Egypt, with the ouster of Mohammed Morsi. In the swirl of these critical events, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s surprising agreement to yield a lethal store of chemical weapons — an accord being carried out day-by-day even now — registered not as a historic diplomatic triumph, a possible prelude to truce in Syria and paradigm shift on weapons of mass destruction, but only as one more page to be torn from the calendar of near-miss calamities.
This pattern shows up on a larger time scale, too. Across the last century, one great war followed the other in lock step, with the Cold War their denouement. Within that larger cycle, a smaller one wheeled from Korea in the early 1950s to Vietnam in the ’60s and early ’70s, to Iran in the late ’70s, to Central America in the ’80s, and the Persian Gulf in the early ’90s. No sooner had the Soviet Union disappeared than the threat from Saddam Hussein showed itself, defining a decade and a half. (All the while, dangers of Al Qaeda loomed, and are now taken to be mortal.)
This pattern may reflect something perennial in the structure of history. Or perhaps it is uniquely generated by modern dynamics of the war economy, militarized politics, and the iron rule of defense establishments. Has a century of horrible destruction, and the hovering threat of yet more destruction, stimulated in humans an addiction to some kind of chemical rush that comes of public anxiety? If so, this year’s swing from Egypt to Syria to Iran to China reflects more a war junkie’s need for a fix than any unaddressable dynamics of foreign policy.
The present contest between Tokyo and Beijing, with Washington a reluctant mediator and putative belligerent, points to the profound irrationality of the progression. The three nations are, as never before, inextricably bound by economic ties and interests that overlap far more than they diverge. Because of that, the war scare represented by lumbering B-52s and redeployed aircraft carriers can presumably be counted on to recede. As Xi said after meeting Biden, and noting the world’s lack of tranquility, “To strengthen dialogue and cooperation is the only right choice facing both our countries.”
Biden responded, “The way I was raised was to believe that change represents opportunity.” He might have added that what most needs to be changed is the mad, and apparently universal, attachment to fear — and to the adrenaline rush of the current crisis.
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.