04/24/2015 04:03 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2015

World Chaos

I recently attended a seminar in Washington where a defense expert who has enjoyed a long and distinguished career in a variety of senior national defense posts said he has never seen the world in such a critical state. It seems that just about everywhere you look there is chaos and destruction on an unprecedented scale. The agents of terror are out of control and no one knows what to do about it. Our military and foreign service people are challenged like never before.

The United States is trying to tamp down the violence but it is so widespread and intractable that our efforts are insufficient. We are reluctant to send our troops into harm's way, but there are limits to what we can do with aircraft and drones. It would require a massive infusion of "boots on the ground" to make a difference and there is little political support for that today, in large part because it offers such little likelihood of success.

The speaker offered no "silver bullet" solution, but he did draw an interesting analogy to African wildlife, specifically the differing ways zebras and buffalo deal with the ever present threat of hungry lions. When the lions isolate a zebra and take it down, the other zebras stand around and watch. But when the lions take on a buffalo, the buffalo band together, making a circle around the young and lame, presenting a united front that the lions (usually) cannot penetrate.

The civilized world - by which I mean coherent nation-states built on democratic processes that embrace tolerance and the rule of law -- can learn from the buffalo. Singly there is little the United States or any other individual nation can do against the diverse forces of anarchy bent on violence and destruction. We are the most powerful nation on the globe but we do not have enough military power, and especially the manpower, to police a world spinning out of control. Our only viable option is to band together with other civilized nations in order to present a united front against a common enemy.

A major aspect of the challenge we face is the lack of a consciousness of nationhood that exists in many parts of the globe. We are not dealing with nations so much as tribes, religious sects, extended family clans and diverse terrorist bands. Primitivism is taking civilization backward toward a new Dark Ages. The implications of this descent are grim. We cannot permit it to happen. We need an alliance committed to civilized values and willing to fight for them.

This would appear to be a task for the United Nations which was created at least in part to deal with disorder and anarchy, or perhaps the North American Treaty Organization could take the lead. But if neither the UN nor NATO can step up, the United States must take the lead and forge an alliance of nations willing to fight for survival of the modern world. We must decide whether to respond to this eadly threat like zebras or buffalo.

Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.