The themes of international asymmetry and global dysfunction seem to crop up frequently at conferences, cocktail parties and in the media these days. This is perhaps not surprising, given the present preoccupation with the perils of an integrated global economy and the near complete absence of consensus, even among experts, on remedial prescriptions. The gulf between the world's most pressing issues and our collective ability to respond is rather unsettling.
This is certainly a sea change from the heady days of the late 1980s. Remember those riveting images of the Berlin wall coming down, statues of Lenin toppling, Red armies moving eastwards, elections occurring everywhere? Reform, democracy, development, freedom? And, of course, the triumph of capital and the apparently limitless potential of unrestricted trade and investment to create and distribute wealth in the world marketplace.
In the past few years doctrinal certitude, once almost epidemic, has been shaken. Events have not unfolded quite as scripted, and the late twentieth century finds the society of nations careening disjointedly from one crisis to the next. Russia staggering. Clinton under siege. Kosovo burning. Europe self-absorbed. China restive. Japan adrift. Iraq, again. The thaw at the end of the cold war loosened the corks in all kinds of old bottles, and a gaggle of malevolent genies has popped out to wreak ethnic and religious havoc.
As we approach the millennium, there is a sense in much of the world of uncontrolled spin, rising chaos, and leadership vacuum. Globalization has produced a veneer of familiarity and coherence, but just beneath that delicate surface is a fragmented and increasingly polarized world marked by the declining popularity of co-operative endeavour of any kind. On an individual level, collapsing currencies, job insecurity, and the combination of relentless resource reductions and technological advance make many feel that they are being spread more thinly over an ever expanding surface. The minutiae of everyday life protrudes insistently into each waking hour. Among publics and polities, incessant demands and rising uncertainty have found expression in a siege mentality, and in recourse to escapist pursuits.
In this stressed environment it is difficult to sustain a focus on critical, long-term issues. Diversions - celebrity gossip, political spectacle, sensational prose - come easily. Contemplation and deliberate action to address profound threats to peace and prosperity do not. Among the issues suffering from neglect is that hardiest of the policy community's perennial cacti - nuclear weapons.
The demise of superpower rivalry and the implementation of a series of highly publicized nuclear and conventional arms control measures in the early 1990s led many to believe that the doomsday clock had been rolled back. The threat of intercontinental war receded from most people's consciousness, overtaken by more personal preoccupations. The lines of individual moral concern and engagement have been redrawn, often in relation to matters much closer to the front door: health, education, income security, family.
Political fashions have also changed. The public sector has become suspect, and many of the defining elements of traditional national policy, such as economic regulation and social welfare, no longer command a consensus. The wholesale retrenchment and retreat of governments throughout the 'nineties, and the commensurate shift towards the private and the corporate, is largely complete. Unfortunately, the implications have not been fully thought through; in some areas of endeavour - arms control comes immediately to mind - there is little scope for market solutions. Yet as a result of budgetary reductions there are fewer arms controllers, fewer officials committed to the nuclear builddown, fewer people able to undertake high quality international analysis. Much of the most …