- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
I was supposed to have lunch with a friend on Monday. But he had been in England for a visit with friends and family and I got a plaintive email on Sunday evening that explained that he had been trapped there. Record snow he said. Chaos at the airports. Flights cancelled. Europe paralyzed.
Naturally, my first reaction was to go to straight to the Internet. Because, of course, my first assumption when people cancel on me is that they hate me, can’t bear the thought of another meal with me and are manufacturing an excuse to avoid getting together.
I was therefore delighted to see that in fact perhaps as many as 500,000 people had been stranded across Europe. Heathrow, barely functional in good weather, had been stopped up worse than an aging vegan after a long night at Sammy’s Romanian Restaurant (a schmaltz palace on New York’s Lower East Side). That was hardly surprising. But even the efficient Germans were laid low by the weather. So too were the Belgians. Although based on my experiences in Belgium, my guess would be that they sometimes cancel or delay flights in or out of the country just to toy with and aggravate foreigners.
Worse still were the reports that a Lady Gaga concert in Paris had to be postponed when the trucks carrying equipment couldn’t make it over the icy roads to the City of Light. Lady Gaga apparently was so distraught that she tweeted all her awaiting little monsters (petites bêtes?) with an apology. She would give them the Bad Romance they were pining for just as soon as she was able. I felt for the Parisians left to another night of listening to old Vanessa Paradis muzak and wondering what it was that Johnny Depp saw in her.
But worst of all were the reports that delays and cancellations might continue until after Christmas. Why did I care? After all these were just Europeans (to be left to their own devices according to would-be president John Bolton’s op-ed in today’s WSJ). I cared because my family is scheduled to spend the holidays in Paris. A delayed lunch is one thing. But this was to be a chance to see my daughter Joanna who has been studying in Paris since the summer. And to see my Lauri, my other daughter, who has been studying in New York but who might as well have been in Paris given how infrequently we get to see her. And to celebrate the holidays by eating cheese and be condescended to by waiters.
I called Jo in Paris. Groggily she got up and toddled over to the window. Nope, no snow falling she reported. No storms. She didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. After all she goes to school in Vermont where anything under four feet of snow is considered an afternoon in the springtime. She felt sure all would be well and that within no time we would be munching macaroons at Laduree and hoping that the French have suspended the use of the subjunctive for the holidays.
Still, it left me wondering. Five inches of snow and a little freezing had shut down Heathrow. Brought the world’s largest economy to its knees. Snow. Frozen droplets of water. In every airport building in Europe millions in high tech equipment was humming along trying to stop terrorists and yet apparently no one had figured out how to manage the technology necessary to cope with a regular, predictable occurrence of Mother Nature. (Sure, I know it has been an unusually rough winter so far…but there are plenty of places in the world ready to handle far worse conditions. It’s not that tough to do.)
I’d gloat but when it snows in Washington, the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth cower under their beds counting the batteries they will need to operate their flashlights after the lights go out as they inevitably will because no one has figured out that sometimes ice brings down tree branches on power lines. Or that at other times of the year wind does the same thing.
We worry about x-factors and long-tail events and are regularly surprised by the predictable…by snow and by heavy rain, by crowds of travelers overburdening systems on the holidays, by seasons, by the fact that markets go both up and down, by our own biology. Perhaps we ought to prioritize. Maybe we ought to figure out how to deal with the white swans before we get too caught up in the mysteries of the elusive and unlikely black ones.