The Great Recession reached its peak in 2008, exactly 10 years ago. It was a time of great drama for financiers, politicians, and journalists. Directly or indirectly, its consequences contributed to a host major events and trends across the world, including the unprecedented bailouts of private investment banks in the US and Europe, the Occupy Wall Street movement, the rise of populist and nativist politicians, and a seemingly more unpredictable context full of new possibilities and new dangers.
Even then, the most judicious of observers would not have been able to predict that in 2018 retired basketball player Dennis Rodman would be on CNN voicing an incoherent analysis of a meeting between a bombastic US president and the leader of—at least until recently—a reclusive rogue state with nuclear weapons. Those weapons were touted as an important deterrent for North Korea and “denuclearization” means different things to different sides, but its leader, Kim Jong-un, is certainly no longer a recluse and is rapidly being taken more seriously as a diplomatic equal by many countries, including the US.
It is difficult to maintain one’s equanimity in such a volatile political environment. It can be easy to cling to old certainties and assumption, but it is also too easy to fall for shiny-but-hollow promises. Whatever our personal opinions of Trump and Kim, it is clear that conventional ideas about political affiliations and diplomacy need to adapt to new conceptions of statecraft, domestic flourishing, international relations, and hard and soft power—without compromising our moral compasses.
For the Buddhist, international co-existence and plurality coupled with internal harmony, prosperity, and development has always been an important starting point of what constitutes a “healthy” international context. In this respect, any steps toward peace in Asia and indeed the world, is good. While there is much debate on whether some countries benefited more from this summit than others, peace on fair terms is a prize that benefits all nations. Of more concern to observers across the political spectrum are the weaponized unpredictability of Trump’s policies and his administration’s relish of keeping adversaries and allies guessing for their next move.
A sobering story can be found in the Buddhist texts concerning the Buddha’s old tribe of the Shakyans and their adversaries, the Kosala, a kingdom led by the Buddha’s student, King Ajatashatru. After a long period of antagonism caused by the Shakya tribe’s mistaken sense of superiority, Ajatashatru decided to destroy the Shakyans. He and his army were dissuaded by three supernatural interventions from the Buddha, but eventually after discerning the many causal chains and conditions that had led to the Shakyans’ predicament, the Buddha understood that Ajatashatru’s wrath was the result of the Shakyans’ karmic fruit. And in the end, the Shakyan kingdom was wiped out.
We do not wish to draw contemporary comparisons, however we need to consider everything that has happened in 2018—such as the US withdrawal from the UN human rights council, the Iran Deal, and the Paris climate change agreement. We are living in a period in which adjustments to the changing role of the US are happening before our eyes—and very often, these adjustments are being made by the US itself. The wheels of history, of karma, are moving. For better or for worse, be it sudden and violent or gradual, major changes to what the world is accustomed to are coming, and the somewhat surreal summit between North Korea and the US is one indicator of this great change.
This intentional unpredictability by Trump and Kim, and the corresponding adaptation of nation-states, multinationals, and other bodies in response to an increasingly unstable superpower is the challenge of our world today. Journalists might be supposed to provide the “first draft of history” (a term attributed to former Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham), but in these strange times it is important to remind ourselves of what the character of Tom Irwin says about the Holocaust in The History Boys:
“Our perspective on the past alters. Looking back, immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means that there is no period so remote as the recent past. And one of the historian’s jobs is to anticipate what our perspective of that period will be.”
To some degree, Buddhism has long accepted that instability—change and flux—are actually the natural state of the world. Indeed, the idea of “stability” in a post-Cold War international order is artificial, existing only through the guarantee of a sole superpower that followed a geopolitical philosophy of benevolent hegemony and unilateralism—or, at least, a majority say in international bodies. It is not an exaggeration to predict that this unilateral role will also be relatively short-lived, at least compared to the hegemony of ancient, medieval, and early modern empires.
We must set out to opine, analyze, comment, and editorialize about the shudders and shifts the world is going through with this humble awareness of the impermanence and contingency of things in mind. We must remember the lesson of the Shakyans and Ajatashatru. We must be sober about the prospects of true peace, global, lasting peace, while so many people in power remain mired in greed, hatred, and delusion. This latter factor is perhaps the greatest danger to whatever international configuration might emerge this century. How can the world be truly at peace when so many of our leaders are not at peace with the world itself or even with themselves?
These will continue to be questions that the Buddhist tradition asks—questions it has asked of Ajatashatru and long-gone leaders for more than two and a half millennia.