In New Zealand, the Maoris have a ceremonial dance called the haka. Today it’s performed at rugby matches and consists of the New Zealanders making stylized threatening gestures, including sticking out their tongues at their competitors, crouching, jumping and chanting. It is deeply rooted in Maori history, but for all its energy and passion, it does not do what it is intended to do, which is frighten their opponents, and the rugby match goes on.
The political history of humankind is filled with the haka and the violence that was meant to come next. Even at the great turning points, the deepest agonies of humanity, life went on. This was no comfort to those caught in the moment. They died, but in the end, so did everyone. That is of course too Olympian a perspective for most of us, and certainly for those of us with children and grandchildren, but there is a terrible truth to it.
On a lesser level, there are moments when the haka goes on, when all sides are determined to frighten each other and frighten the world, yet it means no more than what it means at a rugby match. Coming back down to earth, we seem to be at a moment like that. The furor rages, but the world appears to be quietly moving along.
The Americans and the Chinese have been locked in a “trade war.” There has been great anticipation of catastrophe for both sides, yet the world remains unchanged save for the noise.
The North Koreans have nuclear weapons. The Americans don’t want them to. Each meeting is greeted with the expectation that something will happen. Apart from each side pulling frightening faces, nothing does.
Russia continues to lick its wounds after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Ukraine. Threatening gestures are made in places that hardly matter to Moscow, like Syria, and Russia struggles with the price of oil, but little of substance takes place.
On the Continent, there are those who regard the European Union as the source of Europe’s redemption, others who see it as a necessary evil, and still others who see it merely as evil. Each faction has utter contempt for the other and makes frightening faces, but nothing comes of it.
In the Middle East, the lines shift as Arabs and Israelis face the Iranians in a battle never really joined. The Kurds and the Palestinians demand statehood, but both are still far from reaching their goal.
And in the United States, Donald Trump is president and the Democrats despise him. Each day, each side invents a new way to hurl contempt, and the viewers are enthralled by the venom. But at the end of the day, Trump sleeps in the White House and those who feel this is outrageous demonstrate their outrage.
There are, of course, places where terrible things are happening, and they must not be dismissed. But such dreadful things have been going on for a long while and will likely continue beyond our time.
This is not the normal condition of the world. Think of the 2008 financial crisis and the great movement of global power that it incited, with China staggering economically and Europe fragmenting politically. These are not moments but rather unfolding trends. Nothing is settled, even when things come to a standstill, as they appear to be now. Nothing is leading to anywhere. Trade wars continue without coming to a head, nuclear talks lead nowhere, gestures of power remain gestures, and ancient animosities continue to show themselves. And the politics of the time plod on, resembling a haka more than any great historical moment.
In one sense, it has always been this way, the blood and fury flowing while humanity goes on. At other moments, they are the signs of a period that has exhausted itself. That is what our current moment looks like. What 2008 created has run its course, and the world is waiting for the next act in the never-ending drama. But such moments of meaningless paralysis can continue a long time; in retrospect, they are good times, but in the moment, they frustrate those who aspire to great things. It is a moment of mediocrity, in which the haka challenges the course of history, but it does not capture the moment that is coming.
The problem is that once the haka has been danced, eventually the game begins. We seem to be in the haka interlude, with dances meant to inspire terror being performed and onlookers seeing the performance as merely odd. But the period of gestures will end. Where the future war will break out is truly unclear. At the moment, none of these hakas warrant war. But wars never seem to warrant violence until they are underway.
The world, as always, is filled with genuine issues that affect nations profoundly. In due course, the gestures end and the issues are settled. Some of the lesser issues can be resolved with calm discussion. It is the most significant ones that transit from the gesture to the conflict. It is rare that all explode at once. But equally rare that none explode at all.