To most of the world, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolized freedom, democracy, the end of tyranny. To a small band of cognoscenti in Washington, New York, and a few university towns, the fall of the Berlin Wall also symbolized unprecedented professional opportunity. From the moment it happened, the competition was on: Who would be the first to describe the new era? George Kennan had been the first analyst to describe what was to become the Cold War and the first to use the word “containment,” in a famous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,”published in 1947 in Foreign Affairs magazine. Who would name the new paradigm?
There were many contributions to this debate, but two became famous. One was Francis Fukuyama’s article on “The End of History,” published in the National Interest in 1989. The other was Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?” published in Foreign Affairs in 1993. (For those who don’t remember, Fukuyama argued—or was caricatured as arguing—that liberal democracy had now triumphed for good, ideological struggle was over, and universal peace was just around the corner. Huntington, on the other hand, argued that there were still fundamental civilizational differences, mainly between the West, the Confucian world, and Islam.)
No one, however, predicted the brevity of the post-Cold-War era. In essence, it lasted what might be called a long decade, from November 1989 to September 2001. During this long decade, America lacked a real organizing diplomatic principle. George Bush Sr. spoke of the “New World Order” but had no policy to fit the phrase. Bill Clinton had a clutch of policies but never found a neat way to describe them. “Nation Building” was the phrase sometimes used. “Democracy Promotion” is perhaps more accurate. In practice, this meant that all around the world—in China, in Russia, in Malaysia, all over Africa, and above all in Serbia—the United States lectured and scolded and promoted its system, complaining about the closure of opposition newspapers, protesting the incarceration of opposition leaders. The State Department issued annual assessments of other countries’ human rights records. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe threw itself into the business of monitoring elections. Madeleine Albright tried to organize a “democracy caucus” within the United Nations and pointedly wore miniskirts on visits to the Arab world.
But although there were some individual successes, Democracy Promotion will now be remembered as a failure. Professional diplomats hated it: One told me this week of the relief he feels, knowing he will no longer have to spend his days pushing American values down other people’s unwilling throats. Members of Congress hated it: They could never explain to their constituents where the American national interest lay in Kosovo. Ordinary Americans could never follow the intricacies of Democracy Promotion and have, as a result, consistently refused to read, think, or even speak about foreign affairs for the past decade. The business community couldn’t understand why the oppression of Tibet need disrupt their lucrative trade with China. Human rights activists hated the inconsistencies. Everyone knew that the United States complained far more about the anti-democratic policies of indebted Kenya than it did about the far nastier anti-democratic policies of oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Everyone knew that the United States put sanctions on India and Pakistan for possessing nuclear weapons, but not on Israel. Many have argued that the hypocrisy of America partly explains the hatred of America, particularly in the Muslim world. They are probably right.
That explains, in part, the breathtaking speed with which Democracy Promotion is now being dismantled and the mind-boggling rapidity with which the new paradigm, the War on Terrorism—the New New World Order—is falling into place. Already we have new allies (Russia, Iran, China), new goals (defense of the “homeland”), and a new military strategy. Already the fumbling attempts at morality, the naive human rights rhetoric, the teach-yourself-democracy schemes seem as hopeless and as charming as the League of Nations or the War to End all Wars.
And already we have an argument about whether all this is good or bad. Claudia Rosett of the Wall Street Journal has already written what will be the classic realist defense of the new paradigm: “[W]e cannot reliably reengineer other societies, and we risk enormous resentment when we try.” Slate’s William Saletan has already written an impassioned version of what will become the classic liberal attack: Just like the Cold War, the War on Terrorism puts us in bed with some extremely unpleasant regimes, whose unpleasantness will throw our claim to be fighting for “progress and pluralism” into doubt.
What worries me about the New New World Order is something different: how cleanly and easily it explains the world and how like an academic article everything suddenly appears to be. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorism will tell us everything about Abroad that we need to know: Who are our friends, who are our enemies, where our priorities lie. Like the Cold War, the War on Terrorism seems to appease both the idealism of Americans—we are, after all, fighting to rid the world of an evil—and the realism. No intellectual contortions are required to explain why the fight against Osama Bin Laden is well within the sphere of America’s national interest.
Yet as Saletan wrote, even the War on Terrorism is going to get morally complicated further down the road, just as the Cold War did. It is also going to require more concentration on the specifics of individual countries, just as Democracy Promotion did. What happens if we really do unseat the Taliban? I’m afraid we might be forced to engage in some nation building in Afghanistan, too. What if we destabilize Saddam? We’ll have to think about how to replace him, to ensure that we aren’t suddenly confronted with someone worse.
More to the point, have we really thought about what terrorism is? George Bush spoke of a war against “terrorism with a global reach.” I assume that means “terrorism that can reach the territory of the United States.” We are not, presumably, at war with the IRA, the Basque separatists, the Tamil Tigers, or Hamas. Not for the moment. But what if it turns out (as no doubt it will) that the terrorists we are fighting have made common cause with some of the terrorists we are not fighting? A few months ago, IRA members were discovered in Colombia, happily exchanging bomb-making information with Colombian guerrillas. (See this “International Papers” for more on this.) It isn’t hard to imagine Osama Bin Laden’s men involving themselves in clandestine exchanges of information as well. When we find out that they have, this too will draw us into the intricate, complicated, internal politics of faraway countries.
There are other complications. Terrorism has the same organic relationship with organized crime that communism had with the secret police: You can’t have one without the other. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists make use of the same shell companies, the same off-shore accounts, and the same money-laundering operations as the various branches of the mafia. Unraveling all of that necessarily involves us in the financial affairs of other nations. I predict we will also find ourselves more interested in other people’s immigration and asylum policies; other people’s police forces; even other people’s education systems. The Taliban, after all, are the product of the Pakistani madrasahs, the Islamic school system. Hamas is kept going partly thanks to the hate rhetoric taught in Palestinian schools.
Alas, the real world isn’t like an academic article. It is certainly comforting to have one big idea around which all other policies easily fall into place, and it is easy to see why everyone is so relieved. Even I am relieved. But I am also afraid that in the complicated, interlinked, globalized modern world, one big idea isn’t going to be enough.