After 1991, the world seemed to enter a state of collective amnesia. The name for it was globalization, and it postulated that peace and prosperity could be enjoyed everywhere so long as governments and societies played by "global" rules largely established by the Western victors of the Cold War. To those who chose to flaunt the rules, the punishment could be harsh. Yet, the consensus over the rules themselves was quite thin and inconsistent, not only in matters of war and peace but also in business and finance. Just compare for a minute the rhetoric coming out of the West during the Asian financial meltdown a decade ago with what is happening today worldwide.
The world thus witnessed one apparent violation after another, not only of the post-Cold War rules but also of the lessons of previous postwar eras. "Human rights trumps sovereignty," Madeleine Albright famously declared during NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999, forgetting the central 20th-century lesson that human rights cannot be furthered anywhere in the absence, or in repudiation, of state authority.
Likewise, economic prosperity, which the great proponent of European unity, Jean Monnet, insisted must be guided by the not-so-invisible hand of political consensus across borders, became its own mantra, itsmeans and its own end, apart from any reasonable understanding of the cultural, institutional, and geopolitical conditions that further it.
Looking back, then, we see several important opportunities squandered. The biggest—which may yet come to bite us—is the failure of the then five declared nuclear weapons states (plus Israel) to devise a deliberate program of reducing nuclear inventories worldwide to a few hundred and, eventually, to zero. Former U.S. secretaries of state Baker, Kissinger, and Shultz, along with several others, have insisted that it's not too late to turn back the tide. But with a nuclear India, Pakistan, North Korea, and, on the near horizon, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and probably Algeria and Saudi Arabia, the prospects are bleak. We now face the brave new world that John F. Kennedy and others warned about before the advent of the nonproliferation regime: a world of 20-plus nuclear powers, all balanced precariously against all the others by the terror of total destruction within minutes.
The second lost opportunity has to do with the successor generations to the Soviet Union in Russia. The Russians themselves are most to blame for reverting to the stereotype of the sore loser, but there can be little doubt that their worst instincts were encouraged from the very beginning by an ill-considered combination of hypocrisy and condescension from the West. NATO enlargement, the Balkan interventions, financial collapse, and missile defense have followed upon one another like an anti-Russian barrage. Neither separately nor collectively do they amount to a deliberate Western plot against Russia or its interests; but to disregard the likelihood and consequences of such a perception among those who lost so much power so fast (at least on paper) is sheer strategic folly.
There has been very little in the way of constructive offers apart from anodyne declarations of partnership. If Monnet were alive today, for example, he would probably be pushing hard for a Eurasian Energy Community based upon a web of swap arrangements between Russian suppliers and their customers. Indeed, several Russians have proposed such an arrangement, but the Western distrust of them is matched only by the philosophical rigidity of the European Union against any kind of vertical market integration.
Meanwhile, Europeans and Americans continue to lecture Russians on the virtues of the free market while deploring the notion that energy-rich Russians now seek to buy shares of the energy distribution network in Europe and elsewhere. The once promising idea of a Europe whole and free—including Russia—now seems more remote than ever. That, in turn, makes dealing constructively with nuclear disarmament and any number of other regional security issues far more difficult.