The study of politics has been fixated on place. Geopolitics focuses on the importance of routes, sea-lanes and movements of armies. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, can simply be explained by its need for access to warm-water ports. With the acceleration of time through enhanced technology, more attention has turned to chronopolitics, the relation of time-perspectives to political decision-making. And last week demonstrated some of the best and the worst of the implications of political time.
Conventional wisdom says that the first 100 days of any US presidency sets the stage for the next four years. If the president does not start well, experts say, the rest of his mandate will not be successful. The same experts tell us that the end of the second mandate finds the president in a lame duck situation, unable to get his programs moving forward since the members of Congress will be looking ahead to the next election cycle.
President Obama has proven all of this wrong. He has had three stunning victories and a fabulous presentation at the very moment when people (including me) thought he was a very lame president. What did he accomplish? First, he convinced the Congress to give him the power to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a huge trade agreement that even many Democrats were against for fear of job losses. Second, the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act was constitutional, guaranteeing Obama’s place in history. Millions of people who had had no health insurance will now be covered. And third, the Supreme Court ruled that in all states homosexual marriage is legal as a federal right.
For whatever happens in the Iran nuclear deal or the Middle East, these three accomplishments will guarantee President Obama’s legacy. In addition, his speech eulogizing the Reverend Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina will also go down in history. For the first time in his presidency, Obama truly spoke and sang from the heart. In a moving presentation, he rose to the moment, expressing both the grief and belief of those in the church and the African-American community at large. He moved the congregation; he moved the nation, speaking forcefully as the first African-American president.
All of the above go against predictions. Time was not on the president’s side. But his concept of time is different from conventional wisdom. As he said in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker: ”And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have…” Changing the large ship of state is not simple.
But just as President Obama confounded traditional time elements, the recent terrorist attacks in France, Kuwait and Tunisia re-inforced the idea that a Pandora’s box of violence has been opened that will not be easily closed. The expression War on Terror no longer has meaning. Wars have enemies and sides. Individual acts, especially in France and Tunisia, cannot be directly traced to one source. Indirectly yes, directly no, at least for the moment. We cannot see how these violent acts will be stopped. We can only imagine that they will get worse. Individuals, so-called lone wolves, will continue to carry out acts of violence inspired by certain organizations but by and large acting on their own.
How to stop these acts of violence? How long will they go on? Even if more military power were exercised against the Islamic State or its subsidiaries, there is no guarantee. Policemen in every hotel in Tunisia will not stop random violence there or in other countries. We are living through a period of accelerated violence that could go on and on. Time will stretch on, and we will have to learn to live with these violent acts. September 11 and its ramifications, like the ramifications of the Iraq War and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, will not go away. Time is not on our side. There are no potential deadlines to be met.
Barack Obama defies traditional wisdom. His sense of time is not the next news cycle of 24/7 reporting. Terrorist acts stretch ideas of finite time. We can’t see how these acts can be definitely stopped. The best and worst of chronopolitics reflect the limitations of geopolitics and the necessity of finding new ways of factoring time into contemporary politics.