Lawrence Freedman. Foreign Affairs. Volume 71, Issue 1. 1992.
The United States has attained an international preeminence beyond challenge. As leader of the West during the years of confrontation with the Soviet bloc and, most recently, of the international coalition ranged against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it is now well placed to define both the character of this new stage in international history and the West’s role within it. Yet that task is proving to be extremely difficult and perplexing. Events since the conclusion of the Gulf War have qualified confidence in the ability of the United States and its allies to shape the future according to their values and interests. The task has become too frustrating and unrewarding. It has to be justified by a sense of responsibility as much as strategic necessity, but the nature of the responsibility still lacks clarity.
This is the year in which President Bush will need to justify an activist foreign policy if he is to be reelected. He must do this against those in his own party who are raising old isolationist banners and Democratic opponents who sense a popular theme in the proposition that, with the evaporation of the Soviet threat, it is now time to concentrate on the multiple domestic problems of the United States. The peace dividend is still eagerly anticipated, along with the associated and enticing prospect of a quiet life.
West European leaders profess to worry about an increasing introspection in American policy. They know that if events take a dramatic turn for the worse they will find it difficult to manage on their own. Yet there is also the thought that without the Soviet threat European security problems might be manageable without calls on Washington for assistance. That was the implication of the agreements on defense and foreign policy reached at the December 1991 European Community (EC) summit at Maastricht. These were carefully framed so as not to suggest an alternative to the Atlantic connection, but they did allow for a greater range of continental problems to be handled by the Community before handing them over to other institutions.
Maastricht also indicated another reason why a west European response to American introspection might be equivocal: the members of the Community are going through an introspective phase themselves. On the one hand, the language of the Maastricht communiques holds out the possibility of eventual EC membership to the newly liberated east European states. At the same time a not-too-implicit motive of the 12-nation Community is to maintain speedy progress toward full economic, monetary and political union and keep this project firmly on track—the risk being derailment caused by growing disruption in the east.
In the past the United States warned its European allies about the dangers of parochialism and urged the West as a whole to follow a more global approach to security questions. That was a more straightforward proposition when the West confronted a strategic opponent also capable of operating on a global scale. Following the loss of such an opponent no organizing principle has been identified as a replacement. Nonetheless the United States continues to put forward a global vision as the basis for the next stage of international politics.
The slogan for this vision is the “new world order,” proclaimed by President Bush during the early stages of the gulf crisis. He asserted that a set of opportunities for more harmonious and cooperative international affairs—made possible by the end of the Cold War—had been put at risk by Iraq’s act of blatant illegality. Despite the mockery and cynicism to which this slogan has been subjected, it seems as if it will last. To the current American administration it still conveys an appealing sense of international progress. It has become equally useful for critics: the persistence of old political vices is highlighted by reference to the virtue promised by “new”; selectivity when taking decisive action in support of international law is shown up by the universalist promise of “world”; while the prevalent disorder in so many regions contrasts neatly with the hopes for stability implied by “order.”
Certainly if the “new world order” is supposed to mean the triumph of liberalism and free markets, the rule of international law and an era of peace and prosperity, then the performance will be found wanting against the ideal. There are, however, two other interpretations that require more careful attention. The first is that the slogan reflects a presumption that international institutions and, in particular, the United Nations, will be taking a more active and important role in global management. This is reflected in many of the specific proposals put forward by the Bush administration to turn the vision of a new world order into a reality. In this sense the gulf experience may have been misleading.
The nature of that challenge to the most elemental principle of international law required an international response, and one was forthcoming. The United Nations worked as well as it ever had, and the crisis was followed by continued international supervision of Iraq, an international effort on the Arab-Israeli dispute and discussions among the five permanent members of the Security Council on the arms trade. The international stakes in future conflicts, however, may not be so self-evident and external involvement less easily attainable, except when the belligerents have exhausted themselves and are ready for a peacekeeping operation. Indeed the most striking feature of the global scene is its complex and untidy nature, so defying attempts to make sense of it through neat categories and simple formulas.
This suggests—on the second interpretation—that the phrase “new world order” is merely descriptive, requiring no more than acceptance that the current situation is unique and clearly different in critical respects from the one that obtained just a few years ago. Instead of self-serving optimism, this use requires recognition of the need for some framework to help make sense of the “new order” and guide efforts to shape it.
A starting point for this attempt should be recognition that the current situation represents as much a continuation of the post-1945 trend of decolonization as a sharp break with the Cold War. Traditional balance of power models are not much help, for there is now a marked lack of a clear strategic imperative, to inform the policies of the remaining great powers. The major policy question increasingly concerns the appropriate approach for the relatively prosperous and ordered societies of the West toward poverty and disorder elsewhere. Without a strategic imperative the United States will feel increasingly able to limit rather than extend its international liabilities.
The previous order was frequently described in terms of bipolarity. The two poles were the superpowers to which all other states were obliged to relate for security purposes. Because neither pole could defeat the other, their antagonism could not be resolved and so acquired a sense of permanence. The global reach of both superpowers, and their tendency to interpret developments in all regions in terms of their underlying antagonism, resulted in bipolarity coming to be held as the defining feature of the contemporary international system.
In Europe, where it was first established, bipolarity depended on a military equilibrium between two opposed forms of social organization. The unusually rigid balance of power produced by bipolarity provided a welcome contrast with the much more fluid balances of previous eras, which had ended in catastrophic wars. Bipolarity, however, was upset as a result of the dynamics of internal change in a key component. The postwar order contained the seeds of its own destruction, for it depended on the continuity of a system—the communist bloc—that was not only repressive but also chronically inefficient.
So long as the bipolar political framework appeared durable, security focused on the military aspects of the equilibrium. There was good reason to believe that fear of nuclear war was an important source of stability. It encouraged toleration of an inconclusive standoff as opposed to high risk attempts to resolve the fundamental ideological conflict. In this way nuclear weapons helped to regulate the consequences of dynamic change. But they could do nothing about the internal threats to the Soviet state; its subsequent breakup poses the greatest challenge yet to the regulatory system for nuclear weapons, a context rarely mentioned in all the voluminous literature on nuclear stability, based on the need to remove incentives for first strikes or the possibility of accidental launches. Confidence in bipolarity had been reinforced because of a preoccupation with the wrong source of instability.
The determination in both Washington and Moscow to prevent the logic of confrontation from leading to a catastrophic conclusion meant that the bipolar system depended on tacit cooperation and understandings as much as pure antagonism. Outside Europe bipolarity’s influence had been declining steadily. For a while bipolarity was pervasive and shaped the politics of many regions, but gradually this became less true as a result of the inexorable processes of decolonization.
The 1950s saw the first celebration of “nonalignment” as an explicit attempt to escape from the logic of bipolarity. In the 1960s more regimes were released from colonization and, with others, sought to assert their independence from “imperialism.” By the 1970s this trend had been consolidated and was reflected in such developments as the rise of OPEC and the presumption that the East-West confrontation was being superseded by one based on the even greater geographical simplification of “North-South.”
The superpowers, meanwhile, were learning the hard way about the dangers of involvement in particular regional conflicts, where each believed it must block a strategic advance by its adversary. In a misguided attempt to take advantage of American hesitation following the Vietnam disaster, the Soviet Union supported a series of notionally left-wing regimes, none able to assert its authority effectively and most a drain on Soviet resources. This culminated in the Afghanistan intervention, which persuaded Moscow thereafter to steer clear of further such commitments. Although the introduction of superpower rivalry into regional conflicts was seen to carry the risk of escalation to something much worse, in practice growing superpower caution meant that this risk declined.
Bipolarity continued to make sense only in Europe, but even there is was coming under severe pressure. At first it appeared that if anything the West would break first as a result of the hard-line policies of the Reagan administration; the determination of West Germany to protect its relations with the East; and the drive by the more enthusiastic members of the EC to create an institution fully competent in defense and foreign policy, as well as trade. However in the mid-1980s, the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union acknowledged the stagnation of the system over which he presided. Mikhail Gorbachev was offering the slogans of perestroika and glasnost, which were designed to promote a reformist option.
The belief in the West that the significance of “new thinking” in the Soviet Union had to be judged against the military balance meant that the security debate tended to be cast in familiar terms. Until the failed Soviet coup of August 1991 it was still possible for NATO officials to frame strategy in terms of the dangers of a resurgence of traditional Soviet power.
The Western debates of the early Gorbachev years—over, say, whether successful perestroika would mean simply a more efficient Soviet threat—seem astonishing now if only because of the lack of understanding about the utter rottenness of the state socialist system. The results of reform were predictable: if the centralized command structure was asked to pretend to be a free market, then the outcome would be neither a center nor a market; if the leading role of the Communist Party could not be guaranteed, then it would have no role at all; if the Warsaw Pact were to be held together by consent rather than coercion, then consent would not be forthcoming—and the same also turned out to be true for the Soviet Union itself. In the end the collapse of both political self-confidence and economic control at the center triggered the end of the last European empire.
The start of the 1990s has thus witnessed the culmination of the decolonization process that began at the same time as the Cold War and has now pushed it to one side. Fifteen years after the last Western empire—the Portuguese—collapsed, the post-1945 Soviet acquisitions were liberated, with the finale coming in an implosion of the old Russian Empire. Similar fragmentation is occurring in other postcommunist states, most painfully in Yugoslavia, but potentially also in Czechoslovakia.
From an oasis of stability in an unstable world, Europe has become among the most turbulent of continents. Old states are falling apart and new ones are being created, all sharing economic fragility but varying greatly otherwise in culture, tradition and potential international weight. There is the prospect of isolated famine and mass migration. In some areas violence is becoming endemic and routine. A long-locked cupboard, packed full of old worn ideologies and prejudices, has suddenly burst open. In this way problems that once in Europe. Meanwhile the former Third World is also influenced by these developments.
The conclusion of the postwar program of decolonization transforms all the categories with which international politics are habitually discussed. States that were once bound together by a shared anticolonial impulse now find other issues more rejection. Each of these poles acts as a regional magnet—the United States for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, Japan for East Asia, the EC for central and eastern Europe and, to some extent, North Africa.
In each region political life appears no longer as a dialectic between imperialism and national liberation, or capitalism and socialism, but of order and disorder, with the relatively orderly states by and large characterized by liberal democracy and market economies (although one must take care in disentangling cause from effect here) and the disorderly suffering from fragile economies and often deep social and political tensions.
For each Western pole the main priority lies in its own region, where it will feel the most direct effects if disorder takes too strong a hold. This explains the American preoccupation with Central America. It also indicates the challenge for the EC in its encounter with the neighborhood to the east, where there was a rigid order in the past where now there is increasing instability.
A number of regions lie outside the immediate influence of a Western pole. Some of these are generally well ordered and fully integrated into the international community but others, such as the bulk of Africa, are not. These disconnected areas represent the major losers in the new order, because their appeal to the West has to be made largely on the basis of altruism rather than self-interest. They can no longer play the superpowers off each other. And the ideological basis of the South’s earlier demands—for a radical shift of wealth and power from the North—has been weakened by the declining credibility of all socialist interventionism following the failure of its greatest experiment and the continued vitality of the Western economies.
Those countries that sought a socialist route to development found this was a recipe for large, inefficient corrupt bureaucracies and for foreign support for grand capital projects (dams, steel plants and such), but not the growth of enterprise. When they did battle against multinational companies and “selfish” Western countries, they lost. When, for instance, oil producers succeeded temporarily in turning the terms of trade against the major industrial states, they soon realized that their new wealth created a stake in the economic health of those industrialized democracies, and they had to moderate their demands accordingly.
The South was never a coherent power bloc with a capacity for serious coercion; it was a rhetorical construct. Anticolonialism was undoubtedly a potent rallying cry, but the experience of colonialism is now more than a generation away in most countries and even further in many others. There is no obvious ideology to take its place, nor for the matter obvious remedies for the multiple problems these countries confront. Institutions in which they could once expect a sympathetic hearing are also now becoming oriented toward the West. During the Gulf War there were regular expressions of unease over the way the United Nations had been co-opted by the Western powers. With diplomatic energy and spare economic resources being directed toward postcommunist Europe, a sense of frustration at international neglect and indifference is growing.
In practice Western policy toward the former South may be just an extreme version of a developing policy toward the former communist bloc. If there is no pressing need to accept responsibility for the problems of Africa or south Asia, why need it be any different in the Balkans?
The current decolonization is unique in one key respect. When independence was achieved from the old European empires a high priority was given to developing distinctive non-Western political and economic institutions. Now in postcommunist Europe the Western powers provide the inspiration and the model for the decolonizers; it is state socialism that is being rejected.
There is no doubting the Western interest in a successful transition from socialism to capitalism: it is not only ideologically flattering but also opens up new markets and possibilities for growth in the global economy. The spread of democracy should provide a net plus in terms of the managements of both regional conflict and conflict within individual states. Failure in this project, if it leads to widespread destitution and conflict, will impose severe strains on the West, with one emergency following another: distress on a massive scale, growing indebtedness, various types and levels of violence, refugees and so on.
What is unclear is at what point such developments might raise “vital” interests for the West. The terrible problems faced by many postcolonial states elsewhere are deeply regretted in the West but not to the point where they are accorded a high policy priority. To what extent will mere proximity increase the sense of obligation to the postcommunist states? There is no evident strategic reason, relating to a fundamental threat to the continuity of Western states, why these interests should be deemed truly vital.
This observation has an encouraging as well as discouraging aspect to it. The lack of strategic imperative explains why the current situation is different from that of the first decade of the century, with which it is often compared. Then—as now—there were Balkan problems, but then—unlike now—the dominant strategic issue was the tendency of the great powers to enhance their position in the continental balance through intervention, thereby producing the deadly combination of active alliance formation and political instability. There is now no incentive to forge new alliances or take on extra security commitments in any serious form. This lack of interest in expanded commitments figures prominently in the debates within NATO on future membership. NATO is exploring ways of addressing the security concerns of postcommunist states but, in practice, its major contribution to the new order is to freeze the Western alliance system in its 1989 pattern, thereby reducing the risks associated with both an extension of security commitments and of existing allies becoming rivals for strategic influence. The problem in terms of the security concerns of the postcommunist states is not one of excessive great power interest in their affairs but of insufficient interest and confused signals.
The old colonial powers learned about decolonization the hard way. Once they determined that this was an irresistible force and acknowledged that in most regions of the world they were far from immovable objects, they relinquished their empires. Almost with relief they slipped back to the apparently more manageable problems of their own regions. This retreat no longer affords escape; the problems have followed yesterday’s colonizers to their doorsteps. They can still recognize the symptoms of chronically weak economies and fragile political institutions and still fear getting sucked into intractable intercommunal quarrels.
There is thus a tension at the heart of Western policy. An understanding of the need to dampen growing disorder on the one hand; awareness of the difficulty and risks attached to intervention on the other. When the identification of vital interests has become so problematic, then might vital principles become more reliable guides?
Identification of “vital principles” as a basis for policy is even more difficult than that of “vital interests”. Those who have long asserted that an honorable foreign policy must rest on a firm moral foundation may derive hope from the widespread adherence to Western political values following the collapse of the alternative value system based on Marxism.
The first requirement of a more idealistic foreign policy, including pressure on others to be equally principled, is consistency. The traditional failing of this approach has always been its vulnerability to charges of double standards, as the weak are required to live according to a high moral code while the more powerful are able to get away with all manner of terrible things. The West must thus take care to proclaim values to which it is ready to adhere, even when their implications become troubling. For example, it once urged freedom of movement and ideas. The prospect of mass immigration into western Europe has led to a qualification—only ideas will be allowed to move, while people should stay put.
Such contradictions lead to a fundamental problem: the politically confused situation confronting the West is producing a confusion in values. At the moment there is some consensus with regard to the rights of states in relation to each other, that is, nonaggression, and with the rights of individuals in relation to states, that is, basic political liberties. But there is growing confusion with regard to the rights of groups in relation to states and in relation to each other. The starting point is often a humanitarian impulse to assist a persecuted minority. Minorities appearing as the victims of overwhelming state power, such as Kurds and Croats, have their own political agendas, and it is difficult to limit intervention on their behalf to humanitarian concerns without addressing in some way the underlying political conflict. In this way the principle of “noninterference in internal affairs” is increasingly being honored more in the breach than in the observance, and much is being done in the name of self-determination.
Self-determination worked well as an anticolonial concept; its application is less straightforward in the postcolonial era. In the early days of decolonization there was considerable sympathy for the view that the problem of minority rights was best tackled through development of secular states that would transcend old ethnic and religious differences. More recently, and perhaps as a result of internal developments within some leading Western states, a pride in a distinctive culture is well understood and its suppression regretted. The more individuals give their loyalty to groups rather than states, the greater the problems of political cohesion unless, hypothetically, every group has its own state, no matter how small or dispersed the group or how feeble its material base. This itself feeds into a debate becoming ever more pointed in western Europe over the meaning of statehood when the reality of everyday life is of interdependence. This can lead to undue emphasis on the symbols of sovereignty, whether they be a currency or nuclear arsenal. An obvious formula might be that natural limits of self-determination are found at the point when it can only be where it threatens the territorial integrity of a state. Neither the recognition of these points nor their validity is, in practice, straightforward.
These moral dilemmas are starting to infuse most key policy considerations. Many of the initial problems with Western policy toward Yugoslavia, for example, stem from placing a greater stress on holding the country together than on self-determination. This made a civil war more rather than less likely, to the point where eventually there was little of Yugoslavia left to preserve. Yugoslavia’s tensions were then aggravated by the West’s sudden switching to whole-hearted endorsement of self-determination without thinking through the immediate implications, including those for the now dissolved Soviet Union. Indeed one of the pressing tasks in dealing with the states emerging out of the wreckage of the Soviet Union is to establish guidelines for minority rights.
All this suggests that policy toward postcommunist Europe will reflect an awkward mix of values and interests, an awareness on the one hand that only the West can provide serious assistance with the most desperate problems versus a determination on the other to avoid futile and unwielding involvements. What are the mechanics of carrying out such an awkward policy mix?
In the immediate aftermath of the 1989 revolutions the debate over how to manage these tensions centered on new structures for European security—as if the natural response to a dramatic shift in the balance of power had to be a shift in the balance of institutions. The more pessimistic participants expected of institutions. The more pessimistic participants expected the liberating nationalism of 1989 to turn, in the naturally less stable states, into a narrow chauvinism and interethnic conflict; the more optimist believed that a security structure could be devised that would identify and diffuse any such tendencies before they caused lasting damage.
The reform of institutions has turned out to be a distraction. The reconstruction of the expanding Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe has been slight. The CSCE has been tarnished by failure with its first great challenge in Yugoslavia and by the fact that its major achievement, the treaty to reduce conventional forces in Europe, has been rendered largely irrelevant. Similarly the smaller European Community has devoted months to devising modest improvements to its established capacity for collective action—with a promise of more to come and barely a thought to the principles and interests that will guide this action—while its efforts to cope with the Yugoslav crisis have demonstrated that, even when it operates with determination and some ingenuity, its mechanisms are inadequate to cope with a vicious civil war. NATO, meanwhile, has devoted the bulk of its energies to nothing more than the development of rationales for its continued existence.
In practice the long-term shape of Western policy is emerging through short-term responses to immediate crises, in which the specific values and interests judged most relevant at the time combine to create more general precedents. This has already happened in the Persian Gulf, a crisis that enhanced the role of the United Nations and the principle of nonaggression, and in Yugoslavia, which enhanced but then qualified the role of the EC and exposed the limits on prudent intervention. It may also demonstrate that even in Europe the United Nations remains the organization best geared for peacekeeping operations.
As values and interests become clarified through practice, so too will be the quality of available policy instruments. The disinclination of policymakers to resort to military intervention has already been stressed. On the basis of their experience outside Europe they are well aware of the perils of getting sucked into quagmires of regional conflicts were allies are likely to be erratic and corrupt, interests vague and insubstantial, and best intentions wholly counterproductive. The preference is to follow traditional rules of peacekeeping, geared to sustaining a ceasefire already in place, rather than imposing a peace that is less than welcome to at least one side. Good offices might be offered to help reach a political settlement when the parties are ready for one, even though this approach inevitably is biased more toward might than right.
The United States has shown little interest in events in the Balkans and has been more than happy to hand responsibility over to the EC. The Community was initially delighted at this American indifference, because it allowed for a distinctively European solution to a European problem. When the “troika” of foreign ministers (from the past, current and next presidents of the EC’s Council of Ministers) was dispatched to Belgrade as the Yugoslav crisis broke in late June 1991, it was described as a “diplomatic rapid reaction force.” The subsequent experience will result in greater caution before EC officials embark on similar initiatives and will have reinforced the American view that these crises are best handled at arm’s length.
Russia is more likely to be part of the problem than the solution. Before central authority crumbled forever, Gorbachev was ready to send troops in Azerbaijan to protect Armenians. It is doubtful whether Russian President Boris Yeltsin might follow suit, even though the Armenian-Azeri conflict is getting steadily nastier. Not only would there be a reluctance to put Russian troops at risk, but sympathy for the Armenians also seems to be qualified by distrust for various separatist groups that are starting to make themselves felt in all the republics. Russia would likely get involved only if ethic Russians were at risk. This would immediately turn a local conflict into something much larger. Any assertion of Russian power in this way would revive anxieties among members of its former empire, even if it would be in support of principles that are not in themselves objectionable—thereby complicating Western policy further.
Outside and inside Europe influence will largely depend on economic measures—access to Western markets and various forms of assistance to reward political good conduct. Their denial and possibly punitive sanctions would follow unacceptable behavior. The general presumption that the problems in central and eastern Europe are best handled by political and economic measures, with military involvement avoided, suits the EC, for it already has the competence to take decisive political and economic measures. Its economic strength and cohesion provide a major source of leverage over those seeking access to Community markets and, ultimately, membership. For the same reason it suits the United States less, given its evident reluctance to spend large sums of external problems with domestic problems seem so pressing.
Nonetheless there are still major shortcomings to such an approach. The use of economic carrots and sticks for diplomatic purposes has an unconvincing track record. Economic conditionality depends, first, on sorting out the conditions and, second, on agreeing what should be done if these conditions are largely met. Sorting out the conditions simply raises all the problems of Western values and interest. Which is more important, free markets or political liberties? It is not inevitable that they will always go hand in hand. If countries perform badly against economic and political criteria, this does not mean the West can follow a strict policy of economic neglect, as this may aggravate a developing conflict and add to its potentially dire consequences.
As great a risk is that, even if conditions are met, the West will no deliver the economic rewards, and this could sow disillusion. It was one thing to look at how the West could assist Hungary and Poland in their pioneering efforts to liberate themselves from communism; it is quite another to contemplate the whole range of postcommunist states that have sprung up over the past thirty months and the need for significant boosts to each of their economies—especially when the major Western economies are suffering more from shortages than surpluses of capital. Indeed European material (if not rhetorical) support for postcommunist aspirations appears increasingly constrained as the numbers of aspirants, and their individual needs, multiply. At any rate there is little point in large-scale transfers of capital until the economic infrastructure is in place to receive and exploit it.
So while a degree of linkage between political performance and economic support is unavoidable, the basis for policy should be to reinforce positive trends in particular economies through support for investment and trade rather than subsidies subject to political fine-tuning.
This brings us to the most sensitive issue. The Community’s most substantial bargaining card is the offer of access to its internal market. This will make the most difference to the economic prospects of central and eastern Europe. If the Community is to play the role it claims for itself in shaping postcommunist Europe, it will need both to streamline its procedures for economic crisis management and accept that an imaginative external policy requires an imaginative approach to the Community’s own internal structures. As this requirement becomes more pressing there could be an interesting shift in the internal EC political balance. Most recently France and Germany have worked together in favor of an ever-closer union while Britain has acted as a brake. The motives in Bonn and Paris, however, have been quite different. France has sought to protect the Community from the pressures building up to the east and to hold Germany back from using its potential influence in the east to create its own power bloc. Germany, by contrast, knows that it cannot handle the problems of postcommunist Europe by itself and is looking to a closer union to gain support.
At some point this will mean addressing head on the divisive questions of the Community’s Common Agricultural Policy and enlargement of EC membership, and here Germany may well find Britain more supportive and France dragging its feet. General political and economic collapse in the east cannot but have a severe effect on the German economy and thus on the plans, recently agreed at the Maastricht summit, for economic and monetary union by the end of the decade. Rather than stability and prosperity being transferred from west to east, there are worries that instability in the east will deflect the west from its chosen path.
The Bush administration will argue for the continuing role of the United States as the center of the new world order. My purpose here has been to question whether this role can be as central as supposed. The rationale against active engagement in the problems of postcommunist Europe and, for that matter, the bulk of the non-Western world is likely to remain extremely influential. It might be argued that this is unfair and does slight justice to the range of “new world order” initiatives taken by the United States and its allies: to strengthen the role of the Security Council; to take decisive action in the Persian Gulf to uphold the elemental principle of nonaggression; to expedite nuclear disarmament; to control the arms trade; to push forward the Middle East peace process and a settlement in Cambodia; to organize humanitarian relief.
The importance of these initiatives should not be denied, but they need to be kept in perspective. By and large they reflect a hope that the new world order is one that can be managed from the top, and they therefore focus on problems that take on a global character. Thus discussion in Washington has focused on those aspects of the gathering disorder likely to have the most widespread effects, such as a loss of control over nuclear weapons or a dispersal of chemical weapons. On any scale those problems are about as serious as is possible to imagine, and it is sensible to take steps to reduce such dangers as a matter of urgency. But it must be recognized that the most probable scenarios come far lower down the scale, and that the real test of policy may be in responses to vicious but relatively confined conflicts or to evidence of economic and social breakdown that has yet to reach tragic proportions.
From a global perspective, conflicts only become relevant if one side attempts to resolve them by crudely aggressive means or if the spillover becomes impossible to ignore. In the future, because of the Iraqi precedent, an international response to such action is more likely than before. But the management of local conflicts that have yet to reach this stage, or that are much more ambiguous in their origins, is less pressing. If the absence of a profound strategic imperative is the hallmark of the new order, then there will be little incentive to take on new security commitments in any serious form. Old commitments—in the Middle East or Asia—may still be honored but no extra entanglements will be accepted.
A globalist approach makes possible an overview that more parochial approaches may lack, but it also tends to encourage the framing of problems in global terms and the calling of international conferences to agree on solutions. Just as the problems of the Third World appeared hopeless, when considered in aggregate as a global problem, but more manageable when considered as a series of local problems, so a selective approach to postcommunist Europe will be necessary if only to ensure that effort and energy are applied effectively.
The intensive process of fragmentation under way at the moment in Europe undermines any attempt to produce a grand strategy for the whole area; it can do little justice to the variety of conditions in which states find themselves. Each state’s relative success will depend on a combination of whatever residual natural and economic assets remain following the ravages of communism, as well as on its ability to decide on and implement effective policies. Western support can help—but not in the absence of workable policies. Those states making the most progress on their own will inevitably develop the most valuable relations with the West. In this way the new order will be created from the bottom up.
The yearning for a new order that could match the Cold War in durability and stability, while scoring higher on democracy and economic growth was reflected in the metaphors with which it was discussed. Words like “system,” “structure” and “order” conveyed a comforting sense of regularity and design. The aspiration of an engineered stability was reflected in the idea of a “security architecture” to be constructed, with firm “foundations” and strong “pillars.”
These attempts to make stability the central strategic value of the new age are doomed to continual disappointment. Any relevant framework must reflect the creative opportunities as well as the dangers inherent in perpetual instability. Policies and institutions are already coming to be judged by metaphors of adaptation and movement: flexibility, versatility, agility, resistance and pressure, pushes and drives.
In all this a crisis fatigue may soon set in, for the process will be frustrating and the results often dispiriting. It is by no means self-evident that the west Europeans have the staying power to handle even a selection of the challenges thrown up by the developing disorder in postcommunist Europe, let alone those left in the rest of the world. They may be tempted to concentrate on an essentially defensive posture rather than actively promote favorable economic and political developments. But they will find it hard to escape the consequences of conflict and distress in the neighborhood, and so an arm’s-length approach is less of an option for western Europe than it is for the United States. The evidence thus far suggests that this is the option the United States will be tempted to follow.