Living in Candlestick Park

In the twenty-first century geopolitics might well take its metaphors from geology, as the state system of international relations gets shaken to its foundations

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

The Atlantic Monthly Looks Ahead to the 21st Century
THE images that stick in our minds reveal a lot about how we think. Surely the memory most of us retain from the end of the Cold War is that of the Berlin Wall coming down, on November 9, 1989: the toppling of that concrete-block obscenity, to the cheers of ecstatic topplers, seemed to signal a new and more enlighted age. Almost ten years into it, though, enlightenment is hard to find, and other, more disturbing images crowd our minds.

Since the Cold War ended, we have seen victims of genocide being disinterred in Central Europe; African rivers choked with mutilated bodies; armed teenagers ruling Third World cities from the backs of pickup trucks; defeated dictators refusing to accept their own defeat; women forced back into isolation in the name of religion; emigrants clamoring to abandon old cultures for new ones they know only from television; terrorism striking with deadly efficiency where one might least expect it -- in the American heartland. It is enough to evoke a certain nostalgia for the old world order. The new one, as the French author Philippe Delmas points out, contains far too many people who are prepared "to turn around and disembowel one another over an acre of land, a hamlet, or some ancient totem."
What happened? How did patterns of behavior that most of us had thought buried in the past suddenly become our future? It might help, in explaining these unpleasant surprises, to retrieve a different image from the year 1989. The date was October 17, the time 5:04 P.M. Pacific Daylight, the place San Francisco's Candlestick Park. The Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants were about to begin the third game of the World Series when a distant rumbling suddenly became an uncomfortable shaking, and the great Loma Prieta earthquake proceeded to pre-empt everything planned for that afternoon and for some time to come. Television cameras, before they were knocked off the air, caught the astonishment on the faces of players, fans, and anchorpersons alike as they abruptly acquired a Shakespearean insight: that there were more things in heaven and earth than had been dreamt of -- or at least adequately taken into account -- in their philosophy.

On shaky ground

GAMES and the settings in which games are played are very different things. The Cold War once seemed a matter of life and death; but as the years rolled by and the Apocalypse did not arrive, it took on the character of a latter-day "great game," reminiscent of the long nineteenth-century conflict between the British and the Russians in Asia, which never quite produced a great war. Even the language of the Cold War became that of games: policymakers warned gravely of falling dominoes; theorists built billiard-ball models of world politics; critics of détente complained that the Soviet Union was playing chess while the most the Americans were managing was checkers. And in the end -- whatever Washington's ineptitude at chess -- the West somehow "won."

Implicit in all these metaphors was an important assumption: that however intense the rivalry, no one was going to hurl the checkers and chess pieces to the floor, or run off with the dominoes, or rip the billiard table's fabric down the middle. Whatever the game might be, the playing field would remain level. No earthquakes were anticipated. Even a nuclear war, a few strategists once thought, might be fought within certain "rules of the game," and an entire discipline -- game theory -- grew out of efforts to discover what those rules might be.

Today, though, the metaphors have shifted: geopoliticians sound more like geologists than like game theorists. The political scientist Samuel P. Huntington warns of "fault line conflicts" in which clashes of civilizations are bound to occur. The economist Lester C. Thurow sees "tectonic plates" colliding, with unpredictable consequences. The journalist Robert D. Kaplan predicts that seismic shocks will result from demographic and ecological pressures: "Though the havoc is unanticipated, stresses that build up gradually over the years cause the layers of crust to shift suddenly."

This new "tectonic" geopolitics suggests the need to rethink an old conflict. The Soviet-American "great game," it now appears, was taking place all along within an international system -- in effect, an arena -- whose stability we should not have taken for granted. Reminiscent of the teams at Candlestick Park, the Cold War superpowers competed even as historical processes of which they were only dimly aware were determining their future. It took the upheavals of 1989 to reveal these: to make it clear that the old rules, even the old games, may no longer apply.

Very Big News

WHEN geologists want to know the future, they look at the past: at the record of forces operating beneath the earth's crust that drive everything from the imperceptibly slow drifting of continents to the fault-line slips that cause catastrophic earthquakes. This method assumes -- safely enough, it would seem -- that processes in motion for millions of years are not about to disappear or reverse themselves overnight. Geologists still cannot say just where or exactly when a fault will give way. But that it will, sooner or later, is as certain as anything on this planet can be.

The end of the Cold War was an earthquakelike event in that it revealed deep and hitherto hidden sources of geopolitical strain. As is often the case in geology, though, it has taken a while to map these, and to find the faults they have produced. First impressions were that the critical fracture lay between democracy and capitalism on the one hand, and authoritarianism on the other. The Soviet Union collapsed, according to this view, because it was unable to feed or free its people at a time when prosperity and liberty had become normal for most of the rest of the developed world. Kremlin leaders found themselves in a classic Catch-22: their country could save itself only by ceasing to be what it was.

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