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?
The predictable result was the mix of status-quo and laissez-faire thinking that brought about a breakdown of international order. Only now are we beginning to play catch-up. But our options are far more limited than they were two decades ago. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, spoke recently of being placed in the difficult spot of having to choose the lessons of either Munich (1938) or Sarajevo (1914), as if every single problem came down to driving a hard bargain and acting tough, or playing for time and appearing conciliatory. President Kennedy had Sarajevo in mind during the Cuban missile crisis; President George W. Bush reportedly saw Munich written all over Bill Clinton's Iraq policy.
Today, appeasing nervous financial markets or Kim Jong Il is considered wise policy, as is punishing aggressors in Georgia, Kosovo, Israel, or any number of other places, no matter the consequences. Who can say now whether any of these approaches are right? Neville Chamberlain in 1938 was hailed by many as a conscientious and effective leader.
The obsession with appearances and tactics is precisely what this latest postwar period has in common with its catastrophic predecessor. Like then, and in contrast to the years that followed the Second World War, there has been too easy an expectation that peace would take care of itself if leaders merely said the right things to the right people. Better international structures, norms, arrangements and bargains awaited genuine leadership. This has been true for the past couple of decades; many people around the world sense the aimlessness; and they have reacted accordingly. Hence our angst. As we enter what many of them are calling a new global era, it helps to remember that a few experiences of the past are worth revisiting.
Kenneth Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright Fellow in History at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.