In a speech that previewed the quadrennial National Intelligence Estimate, published last month, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell painted a dire picture of the future in which, "out to 2025, the probability for conflict between nations and within nation-state entities will be greater," as will the likelihood of "large-casualty terrorist attacks using chemical, biological, or, less likely, nuclear materials."
To cap it off, he noted, "In terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power now underway...from West to East is without precedent in modern history...these sweeping changes will not trigger a complete breakdown of the current international system, but the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks and many, many challenges."
Tough words, even from a man whose job it is to worry. Of course, they are only predictions. But they point to an important realization, not necessarily about the future but about the present and the recent past. There has not been another 9/11-style attack, or anything worse, on the United States since 2001; there are hardly any more serious alerts. Iraq and Afghanistan are far from peaceful, but the numbers of American casualties are not growing. The United States, as a whole, despite the severe economic crisis that is underway, is by not gripped by doom and has just elected a most optimistic new president.
Yet all is not well. The tenor of the election, apart from being genuinely celebratory, was less gleeful than cautiously hopeful. There remains, in other words, widespread angst among many Americans, who appear to worry that, no matter what happens, the future, especially the long-term future, will never be as bright as the past. To understand why, we must look more broadly at this moment in some historical context.
By most accounts, the "post-Cold War era" began in the late 1980s-early 1990s, but it was, and remains, a far murkier period than the one that preceded it. Blind optimism about the triumph of liberal capitalism gave way to fears of global disorder, tribalism, and other manifestations of radicalism, as the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted all too well in his underappreciated book at the time, Pandaemonium.
The world has survived the most dire predictions of the late 20th century, but most of us do not feel better off than we were a decade ago—namely because there is still no clear sense of where we are heading. As McConnell's warnings suggest, we suspect it that it does not bode well in our favor. There has been a return to what was once lampooned as "declinism"—a periodic affliction of the powerful. Gibbon, Spengler, Toynbee, Paul Kennedy, and Samuel Huntington all are back in fashion. Why, then, not a countervailing look at positive precedents?
One of the questions that historians may ask someday about the collapse of the short-lived post-Cold War order, such as it existed, is why the lessons of previous postwar experiences were not heeded more closely. In European history, at least, the lessons are driven into the heads of every schoolchild: The Thirty Years' War and the subsequent Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 established the principle of state sovereignty and forbade what we now call interventions in the internal affairs of other states for moral, religious, or ideological reasons. The Napoleonic wars and the subsequent Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 laid down the principle that a balance of power—underwritten by Britain and Russia—required a subordination of the interests of smaller countries to those of larger ones.
The First World War and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, although violating a couple of the above lessons in the name of self-determination, established the rule that open diplomacy and international institutions, and not naked power alone, were to be the basis of world order. The Second World War and the subsequent treaties of San Francisco (1945), Washington (1949), Rome (1957), and Helsinki (1975) made possible the promotion and protection of universal human rights within carefully defined regional spheres of influence. The latter formulation proved temporal; the former, permanent.