In the 1990s, an historian turned political scientist named Marc Trachtenberg remarked that we were going to miss the Cold War. He could not have foreseen the events of the last 25 years in any detail, but boadly speaking, he was right.
The Cold War from 1947 to 1989 was, I would suggest, the climax of the development of western civilization since at least the 18th century. Spurred by population growth, economic growth, technological progress and the Enlightenment, states had developed unprecedented power. They clashed during the two world wars, and two offshoots of the Enlightenment emerged victorious. One was the liberal capitalist vision of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the other the totalitarian Communism of Stalin's Russia. During the years after 1947 most (but not all) of the world adopted some form of one or the other of the two philosophies, one of which, it was believed on both sides, would eventually triumph. The competition between the two sides was political as well as economic and military, and the US, in particular, gave critical help to the nations of western Europe and the Far East to allow them to progress along lines similar to the United States.
The Cold War included many frightening moments, including 1950,. when the West saw the Korean War as the prelude to an attack upon Western Europe; the Taiwan Straits crises of 1954 and 1958, when the US was prepared to use nuclear weapons to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan; the prolonged Berlin crisis of 1958-61; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; and even, we now know, the Abel-Archer NATO exercise early in the Reagan years, which the Russians interpreted as preparation for war. But because both Washington and Moscow disposed of enormous resources, and because they both worked to strengthen the states within their spheres of influence, the world was relatively stable, both internationally and within individual states. The civil wars that took place during the Cold War era were proxy wars in which the two sides drew support from the two superpowers.
When Communism collapsed in 1989, many American policy makers and some intellectuals interpreted this to mean the triumph of liberal capitalist values and expected the world to make steady progress along the lines of American values. Among the neoconservatives who essentially ran foreign policy during the second Bush Administration, this meant that the the United States could safely dispose of regimes that stood in its way, confident that friendly, liberal allies would replace them. One dissenting view came from Samuel Huntington, whose book, The Clash of Civilizations, predicted a series of conflicts between regions based on different political and cultural values. He was half right--that is one feature of the world situation that is now emerging, but only one.
Today, as I write, Russia has fomented an uprising in eastern Ukraine which the Ukrainian government does not seem strong enough to put down. (In an interesting development, a mining magnate has called out his workers against the separatists in one major Ukrainian city, and the separatists have had to back down.) Vladimir Putin has specifically rejected the American model of "unipolarity" and is trying to expand Russian influence the former USSR, and use his oil and gas resources to build a new Asian bloc, including China, which will reject western attitudes towards intervention in other states. Europe will have to draw a new boundary between itself and the Russian sphere of influence, giving up the dream that its own sphere would naturally keep extending eastward. (It is not clear to me whether Eastern Europe, which lags far behind western Europe economically, will live comfortably within the EU. I hope so.) In the Far East, China and Vietnam are close to another armed clash (they last fought only 35 years ago) over Chinese pretensions in the South China Sea. Japanese-Chinese tensions are rising The Middle East is the scene of a prolonged religious war. (I intend to comment at greater length some time on this excellent New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins, which shows that we have replaced Saddam Hussein with a pro-Iranian Shi'ite dictatorship, led by former terrorists, which, like Saddam, arrests, detains, tortures and rapes suspicious citizens.) Nigeria, the largest nation in Africa, is torn by terrorism and religious conflict. Even the United States itself is really two nations with very different values. Red and blue states continue to deepen, not moderate, their colors.
And over all this hangs the ever-growing power of capital, of powerful economic institutions led by banks and energy companies, who everywhere now tend to hold sway over their governments. For the last month I have been discussing the economic effects of this situation, drawing on Thomas Piketty's new book. And while the western nations, such as the United States, have state organizations that dispose of more money than ever, most of that money now goes towards education, health care, and pensions. Those are worthy causes, but in a world in which third world populations continue to grow relative to the rest, they do not leave sufficient resources to intervene effectively in any of the conflicts taking place around the world. The American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, in my opinion, that even the strongest modern state lacks the manpower and political resources to impose order upon a conflict-ridden third world nation of tens of millions of people. One reason the American political order is in so much trouble is that we have wasted trillions of dollars on essentially futile enterprises, enterprises which did not increase confidence in the government.
John Kerry spoke at his Yale commencement in 1966 about an excess of interventionism. The other day he spoke of an excess of isolationism. It is true that the younger generations (which now means anyone under 53) are not showing their elders' appetite for American world power. But more important, I think, is our inability to affect the course of events around the world, either militarily, or by offering a compelling political example at home and a vision of international affairs to which everyone can subscribe. Franklin Roosevelt's genius, as both I in my book and my friend Nigel Hamilton in his complementary volume, The Mantle of Command, was to combine military power with moral purpose. This we no longer seem to be able to do--largely, in my opinion, because we have lost our broader moral purpose in politics at home.