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.
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.
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.