Everything happens faster; everything takes longer
Much of the future will depend on whether we are capable of remaining resolute in the face of all of the bad actors who only need to "be lucky once".
It took just a matter of days for the Taliban to sweep through and take over Afghanistan. It was only mid-May when US forces rapidly left Kandahar Airfield, and the United States hadn't planned to complete the troop withdrawal from the country until the end of August. Yet the collapse of the country's formal government and uniformed armed forces happened in what seemed like an instant.
■ We live within a peculiarly modern tension: Everything destructive happens faster than ever before, but everything productive takes longer.
■ Example #1: Six of California's ten largest wildfires have happened since August 2020, and we are told that they are very likely being made worse by climate change. Yet we are told that no matter what we do about carbon emissions (including stomping on the brakes completely), "Global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least the mid-century".
■ Example #2: Covid-19 was first identified by the WHO on January 9, 2020, and it had killed more than 100,000 people in America alone by May 28th. While the first mRNA vaccine was designed within days of getting the first map of the virus's genetic sequence, it will probably take until the end of 2022 to supply vaccinations to every willing person on Earth.
■ Example #3: Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, under the promise that the "One country, two systems" policy would be respected for 50 years. But less than 25 years into that agreement, China has implemented a rapid about-face and turned a "security law" against democratic protest. It took just two years for the government in China to undermine democratic institutions and individual freedoms that took decades of practice to establish.
■ To observe all of this is not to be fatalistic. In his first inaugural address, more than 200 years ago, James Madison proclaimed that "The present situation of the world is indeed without a parallel and that of our own country full of difficulties." (Indeed it was, considering the War of 1812 would soon ensue.) Things have always gone wrong in human history, and recency bias generally makes us think that we're always living through the worst of times.
■ But it is also true that the pace of change is accelerating, and especially true that bad actors have access to the very same tools as good actors, and it's always easier to commit an offense than to keep up a perfect defense. After a failed plot to kill Margaret Thatcher, terrorists issued a statement saying "we only have to be lucky once; you have to be lucky always".
■ When it comes to Afghanistan (and, for that matter, to any other engagement around the world), the military and strategic options deserve a robust debate. What to do in cases of armed conflict shouldn't be the province of uniformed military or diplomatic experts alone. In a self-governed society like the United States, responsibility for the use of the military falls ultimately on the shoulders of voters. We get what we demand from the elected officials who act on our behalf. If they lack vision, or try to score short-sighted popularity points against one another, or demonstrate a wafer-thin understanding of global issues, they only do so because voters don't insist otherwise.
■ There is something desperately sad about people trying to score short-term points while people halfway around the world are dying to get out as their country descends into an illiberal nightmare. There is good that can still be done -- like the state of Maryland saying it will take in refugees from the crisis. The good, however, takes time.
■ It seems that everything bad is happening faster, while everything good is taking longer. The dichotomy may not be inevitable and it may not be iron-clad. But it does tell us that the future of a good civilization is going to require the cultivation of patience for long-term work that doesn't always pay off in obvious ways nor on satisfying timelines. Much of the future, though, will depend on whether we are capable of remaining resolute in the face of all of the bad actors who only need to "be lucky once". That sense of resolution can't be cultivated overnight. It takes longer.