Stein is an organizational and political strategist who has worked with dozens of for-profit, not-for-profit and political and public sector organizations over the past 50 years. He currently serves as a researcher/writer, consultant and champion of the work of cross-partisan cultural and political organizations and initiatives.
The brutal, unrelenting Russian assault on Ukraine may continue far longer than we can imagine. If and when it finally is constrained by some form of international agreement, the months and years following that fragile understanding will represent a monumental inflection point for humanity and the civilized world.
There are many ways in which the family of nations will process what has happened, what real and perceived lessons have been learned, and how nation states and international relationships might evolve.
While there are many options for how the new world order could emerge, the following scenarios are intended to describe the most likely broad categories:
- Coldest containment. The world slides into a more dangerous and volatile version of last century’s unending, and at times escalating, Cold War with regional power blocs constantly threatening their neighbors and asserting their dominance regionally and globally. Such saber-rattling antagonists probably would include North Korea, China, Iran and Russia.
- Darkest dystopia. In this scenario, the rape of Ukraine will have been a tipping point into a continuing descent into the hell of division, hatred and violence. The world will have devolved into a 21st century jungle — a harsh and brutal dystopia ruled by might, power and privilege. The lethal tools of modernity — cyber, chemical, nuclear, biological, hypersonic — would be the weapons of choice for continuing and escalating brutality exercised by stronger countries against both perceived global adversaries and their weaker regional prey. In this option, Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and perhaps other modern weaponized autocratic nation-states are the most likely aggressors.
- Evolved enlightenment. In this scenario, our battered and broken world discovers the will, courage and means of ushering in an era of human enlightenment and positive political, economic and cultural evolution in which the family of nations finds new accommodations with one another, constructive international institutional arrangements, and productive means of resolving differences without resorting to threats and violence. While this outcome may seem the least likely at this fraught moment, and particularly to hardened international affairs analysts, pundits, academics and journalists, it is neither impossible to imagine nor unattainable.
If Donald Trump’s descent down the faux golden elevator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015, to announce his candidacy for the presidency of the United States was the beginning of a dystopian American political era and a profoundly uncertain new world order, Vladimir Putin’s descent into the purgatory he unleashed upon Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 will likely be seen, however lethal the siege still may become, as the cataclysmic end of that beginning.
While seven years — roughly 2,500 days — is but a blink of an eye in the course of human history, the enormity of change that these two events have set into motion is as momentous for our now fractured 245-year-old country as it has become for the increasingly fragile community of nations.
And, if we are witnessing the end of a beginning in the history of our modern world, what and wither does the future hold for the community of nations, our planet’s 7.5 billion inhabitants, and our born and unborn progeny?
The course of any dramatic change — at personal, communal or global levels — is rarely predictable. And seismic change, even if occasioned by familiar, albeit demonstrably evil, perpetrators, can never be knowable. So, in this fraught and dispiriting moment, as we approach the end of this beginning of new levels of aggression and brutality at both home and abroad, we are without precedent, prescience, knowledge or know-how to predict the near- or long-term fate of our country, our species, or to even have meaningful insight into our shorter-term futures.
The inevitable, prolonged uncertainty about whether we are more likely to continue to grovel in some threatening and unresolved state of “coldest containment,” devolve into a “deepest dystopia” or emerge from the shadowy caves of our descents over these past seven years into an “evolved enlightenment” undoubtedly will continue to feed relentless speculation and engender great fear, anxiety and additional fraught consequences.
Is evolved enlightenment possible?
Conventional wisdom is rarely hopeful. And as our psyches and bodies continue to suffer the horrors of the global pandemic, the erosion of truth, trust, reason and civility around the world, the Trump era, and now the Ukrainian assault, our lived experiences are not conducive to hope-inspired aspirational thinking.
And yet, there is sufficient wisdom from the ages, and an elegant truth about the human condition and human nature itself, that should be cause for at least a glimmer of hope: Despite our miseries, fears and present experiences, human thriving may not be extinct, and perhaps, just maybe, we can both imagine and inspire evolutionary advancement and survival of our species.
The wisdom is this: While there is clear and present evidence of the existence of evil in the world, our collective kindnesses to one another and our preternatural instincts for hyper-cooperation, even in dire times, generally have overcome the greatest adversities besetting our frequently beleaguered species.
Humanity’s myriad accomplishments, our profound accumulation of knowledge throughout the ages, the marvels of science, the beauties of art, the wonders of our imaginations, our astounding productivity, creativity and inventiveness, and the expansion of liberties, justice and opportunities for billions of people over the millennia are all resounding testaments to our collective capacity to both survive and thrive in spite of our weaknesses, failings and the injustices we perpetrate.
The elegant truth about our species is that we individually and collectively are able to learn, change and evolve our thinking, relationships and actions:
"The future is not some place we are going to,
but one we are creating,
The paths are not to be found, but made,
and the activity of making them
changes both the maker and the destination."
— John Schaar, University of California, Santa Cruz
The traumas of the present, and the foggy uncertainties of the immediate future, will certainly conspire to cloud the clarity we will have to conjure in order to believe in our agency to craft our future in an image of hopeful enlightenment.
Faith is a human attribute derived from an improbable belief in what cannot now be seen, known or knowable. It is not simply a religious construct, but a confidence derived from unknowable recesses within self, community, and capacities lurking in the infinite possibilities of hopes and dreams poised to be realized.
We are entering uncharted territory in the human saga at a moment of severe shock and dislocation. And while there are no guarantees for what comes next, the potential for survival and thriving are within our grasp as surely as are relentlessly contained hostilities or further descent into endless abyss.
In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, the challenge for the community of nations now, as it was for our own country 160 years ago during our nation’s divisive Civil War, is to dispense with failed solutions and open our minds, together, in “concert” to new and productive possibilities:
“….we can succeed only by concert. It is not can any of us imagine better?”, but can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
-Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, imploring the nation to emancipate the slaves, December 1, 1862
Having witnessed, over the past seven years, the horrors of evil up close, personal and in real time, it would seem as though this is another precise moment in human history for the community of nations to “disenthrall” ourselves of our deeply troubled past in order to “think” and “act anew.”
There is, and should be, cause for hope that we are wiser, and therefore better equipped, than perhaps ever before to have the faith, will and courage to forge the constructive interpersonal relationships, and productive international and institutional alliances, that will support human thriving, species well-being and planetary sustainability.
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