Wars are at least as likely today as any time over the past century. Of great importance is the end of Soviet hegemony in East Europe and Moscow’s restraining influence elsewhere. But the proliferation of nuclear technology and other means of mass destruction have also made large parts of the world far more dangerous. Deadly local wars with conventional weapons in Africa, the Balkans, Middle East, and elsewhere have multiplied since the 1960s. Europe, especially Germany, and Japan are far stronger and more independent than at any time since 1945, and China’s rapidly expanding economy has given it a vastly more important role in Asia. Ideologically, Communism’s demise means that the simplified bipolarism that Washington used to explain the world ceased after 1990 to have any value. With it, the alliances created nominally to resist Communism have either been abolished or are a shadow of their original selves; they have no reason for existence. The crisis in NATO, essentially, reflects this diffusion of all forms of power and the diminution of American hegemony. Economically, the capitalist nations have resumed their rivalries, and these have become more intense with the growth of their economies and the decline in the dollar – which by 2004 was as weak as it has been in over 50 years. These states have a great deal in common ideologically, but concretely they are increasingly rivals. The virtual monopoly of nuclear weapons that existed about a quarter-century ago has ended with proliferation.
Whether it is called a “multipolar” world, to use President Jacques Chirac’s expression in November 2004, in which Europe, China, India, and even eventually South America follow their own interests, or another definition, the direction is clear. There may or may not be “a fundamental restructuring of the global order,” as the chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council presciently reflected in April 2003, but the conclusion was unavoidable “that we are facing a more fluid and complicated set of alignments than anything we have seen since the formation of the Atlantic alliance in 1949.” Terrorism and the global economy have defied overwhelming American military power: “Our smart bombs aren’t that smart.”
All of the many factors considered – ranging from events in Africa and the Middle East and Afghanistan to the breakup of Yugoslavia – wars, whether civil or between states, remain the principal (but scarcely the only) challenge confronting humanity in the twenty-first century. Ecological disasters relentlessly affecting all dimensions of the environment are also insidious because of the unwillingness of the crucial nations – above all the United States – to adopt measures essential for reversing their damage. The challenges facing humanity have never been so complex and threatening, and the end of the Cold War, while one precondition of progress, is scarcely reason for complacency or optimism. The problems the world confronts far transcend the Communist-capitalist tensions, many of which were mainly symptoms of the far greater intellectual, political, and economic problems that plagued the world before 1917 – and still exist.
Whatever its original intention, America’s interventions can lead to open-ended commitments in both duration and effort. They may last a short time, and usually do, but unforeseen events can cause the U.S. to spend far more resources than it originally anticipated, causing it in the name of its “credibility” or some other doctrine to get into situations which are disastrous and which in the end produce defeats and will leave America much worse off. Vietnam is the leading example of this but Iraq, however different in degree, is the same. Should it confront even some of the forty or more nations that now have terrorist networks then it will in one manner or another intervene everywhere, but especially in Africa and the Middle East. The consequences of such commitments will be unpredictable.