Academic journal article Policy Review

End of Dreams, Return of History

Academic journal article Policy Review

End of Dreams, Return of History

Article excerpt

THE WORLD HAS become normal again. The years immediately following the end of the Cold War offered a tantalizing glimpse at a new kind of international order, with nations growing together or disappearing altogether, ideological conflicts melting away, cultures intermingling through increasingly free commerce and communications. But that was a mirage, the hopeful anticipation of a liberal, democratic world that wanted to believe the end of the Cold War did not end just one strategic and ideological conflict but all strategic and ideological conflict. People and their leaders longed for "a world transformed." (1) Today the nations of the West still cling to that vision. Evidence to the contrary--the turn toward autocracy in Russia or the growing military ambitions of China--is either dismissed as a temporary aberration or denied entirely.

The world has not been transformed, however. Nations remains as strong as ever, and so too the nationalist ambitions, the passions, and the competition among nations that have shaped history. The world is still "unipolar," with the United States remaining the only superpower. But international competition among great powers has returned, with the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, and others vying for regional predominance. Struggles for honor and status and influence in the world have once again become key features of the international scene. Ideologically, it is a time not of convergence but of divergence. The competition between liberalism and absolutism has reemerged, with the nations of the world increasingly lining up, as in the past, along ideological lines. Finally, there is the fault line between modernity and tradition, the violent struggle of Islamic fundamentalists against the modern powers and the secular cultures that, in their view, have penetrated and polluted their Islamic world.

Creating and sustaining the unipolar world

HOW WILL THE United States deal with such a world? Today there is much discussion of the so-called Bush Doctrine and what may follow it. Many prefer to believe the world is in turmoil not because it is in turmoil but because Bush made it so by destroying the new hopeful era. And when Bush leaves, it can return once again to the way it was. Having glimpsed the mirage once, people naturally want to see it and believe in it again.

The first illusion, however, is that Bush really changed anything. Historians will long debate the decision to go to war in Iraq, but what they are least likely to conclude is that the intervention was wildly out of character for the United States. Since the end of World War 11 at least, American presidents of both parties have pursued a fairly consistent approach to the world. They have regarded the United States as the "indispensable nation" (2) and the "locomotive at the head of mankind." (3) They have amassed power and influence and deployed them in ever-widening arcs around the globe on behalf of interests, ideals, and ambitions, both tangible and intangible. Since 1945 Americans have insisted on acquiring and maintaining military supremacy, a "preponderance of power" in the world rather than a balance of power with other nations. They have operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory. They have declared their readiness to "support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation" by forces of oppression, to "pay any price, bear any burden" to defend freedom, to seek "democratic enlargement" in the world, and to work for the "end of tyranny." (4) They have been impatient with the status quo. They have seen America as a catalyst for change in human affairs, and they have employed the strategies and tactics of "maximalism," seeking revolutionary rather than gradual solutions to problems. Therefore, they have often been at odds with the more cautious approaches of their allies. …

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