THIS YEAR MARKS the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Presumably Putin's Russia won't be in a celebratory mood. The question is: should America be? While the former Warsaw Pact nations dropped their planned economies in search of fresh free-market identities, the collapse of communism failed to inspire a similar civilizational stock-taking on the part of the United States.
Might the past two decades--years fraught with wars of sanctions, occupations, and terror--have been different if it had? Precedent for paradigm-shifting change was at hand. A revolution in American foreign-policy thinking had followed the destruction of Nazi Germany; the old isolationism gave way to a rising liberal internationalism sustained by a powerful national-security state. The events of 1989 neither changed nor challenged that. Pentagonistas discovered, rather, a happy new lease on life in the Persian Gulf, the Balkan Peninsula, and elsewhere. The military mindset survived. Two decades on, this metaphorical American "wall" has yet to fall.
Some argue that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism made a post-Soviet peace dividend impossible. Yet even before 9/11, the U.S. reflexively sought monsters to destroy. In the early 1990s, a surging Asian economy alarmed both Wall and Main Streets, inspiring George Friedman and Meredith Lebard's vexatious Coming War With Japan. Soon after, the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia elevated the Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosevic to Der Fuhrer status in the West. "What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?" asked President Clinton as he sought to justify the intensive U.S.-led air assault on Milosevic's forces. "How many people's lives might have been saved, and how many American lives might have been saved?" Hundreds of Yugoslav civilians were killed in Clinton's sortie war.
And the beat went on. Looking, as he put it, to "rid the world of the evildoers," President George W. Bush put would-be nuclear-club crashers Iraq, Iran, and North Korea at the top of the country's "most wanted" list.
In 1989, the intellectual mood went against any rethinking of American militarism. That summer, The National Interest published Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?" a longue duree study contending that the ascent of political pluralism, market capitalism, and human rights prefaced a more peaceful world. The implosion of the Soviet empire appeared to make Fukuyama a prophet. But not everyone agreed. In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article entitled "The Clash of Civilizations?" Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington projected a divided planet rocked by ethnic and religious violence.
Neither thesis proved conclusive. The Gulf War, radical Islam, and the de-liberalization of post-Yeltsin Russia seriously challenged Fukuyama's claims, while Huntington's compartmentalization of dynamic cultures into static categories such as the "Muslim World" or "Western Civilization" invited sharp criticism and failed to explain such geopolitical realities as the lack of clash in U.S.-Saudi relations or the advent of democracy in India, South Korea, and Turkey. More problematic, neither Fukuyama nor Huntington confronted the American leviathan. In their respective analyses, inevitability took over--a future of assured peace in Fukuyama's case, a future of assured conflict in Huntington's. This let the U.S. empire off the hook. Either America led the way toward greater global ideological accord or it needed to circle the wagons and wait for the coming Chinese and Islamic challenges to popular government.
In retrospect, neither "The End of History" nor "The Clash of Civilizations" prepared the United States for the post-Cold War world. Yet a reliable school of creative thinkers existed--even if it did include a dead apostate or two. In the works of historians Charles Beard (18741948), William Appleman Williams (192190), and Christopher Lasch (1932-94) a cohesive assessment of the American predicament emerged. …