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.
Why did all this happen? Many are quick to blame the United States and its alleged propensity for historical amnesia. There may be some truth to that, but it is neither a necessary or sufficient explanation. The failure to construct a new world order on the basis of a systemic collapse cannot be the fault of any single country, even one as big and powerful as the United States. The failure, rather, was morewidespread and was the result of the late-20th-century zeitgeist itself.
The 1990s really were a euphoric period, like the 1880s or 1920s, during which few people in the world's richer states thought hard about the future and planned accordingly. Their mindset was wrapped up in the status quo, which appeared to be infinite. It was not the case, then, that doing the hard work necessary to build consensus around proactive international policies was not considered and, in a few cases, initiated, as in coping with climate change; rather, it was seen to be less urgent that it otherwise should have been. Why not just put it all off and relish the moment?