The holidays are over. No, not just the seasonal celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas, and the new year, but the vacation from serious thinking about foreign policy that Americans have enjoyed for the better part of two years. Ever since the Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution of August 1991 put an end to the Fifty-Five Years’ War against totalitarianism, public opinion (encouraged by weary, shortsighted, and/or cowardly political leadership) has assumed that the only issues of consequence in world affairs are economic: thus, amidst rapid and in some cases cataclysmic change throughout the world last year, the key 1993 foreign-policy battle in American public opinion and in the Congress was over the North American Free Trade Agreement.
But the world of high politics has not gone away, and events have conspired to make Carvilleism—”It’s the economy, stupid”—an inappropriate, indeed dangerously myopic, approach to thinking about America’s responsibilities in world affairs. If everything breaks the wrong way in 1994 (and it does not require an especially lurid mind to imagine that many things will), a disastrous war in Korea will be winding down, a year from now; the Middle East will be in turmoil from Algiers to Tehran; and Russia will be ruled by a neo-fascist lunatic with imperial ambitions that make the czars look modest by comparison. None of these disasters has to happen; but lack of American leadership in world affairs over the past two years—perhaps better, a lack of American seriousness about world affairs—has helped make their possibility a sobering reality
The post-Cold War period should have taught us at least three things, and rather quickly. First, the world remains a very dangerous place. There are still grave security threats to American interests in the world; and these threats, rather than being ameliorated, may in fact have been exacerbated by the new flexibility in the international system caused by the breakdown of Cold War bi-polarity. North Korea’s well-advanced nuclear program, and the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferating to outlaw regimes like those in Iraq, Iran, and Libya, exemplify the hard fact of life that weapons of mass destruction and ballistic-missile technology have rendered the notion of “Fortress America” a sad (and perilous) joke.
Second, genuine pluralism and civility-amidst-diversity remain exceptions in human affairs at the end of the twentieth century. Internationally, the collapse of bi-polarity has given ancient ethnic, religious, and cultural conflicts new sway in world politics, and these conflicts cannot easily be resolved by appeals to reason. The carnage in southeastern Europe, and the immense difficulties that have been encountered in implementing the Israel-PLO deal, have made this dramatically clear.
Third, and by way of a summary lesson, there is nothing inevitable about the advent of a “new world order” characterized by the rapid triumph of liberal democracy and the free economy. Events in central and Eastern Europe have shown that the political, economic, and cultural institutions of a free society will develop at different rates in differing political-cultural circumstances. What has been possible in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Hungary over the past two years may take a lot longer to achieve in Russia, in Ukraine, and in other parts of the old Warsaw Pact. Moreover, the turn toward democracy and the market throughout central and Eastern Europe could be delayed or even halted, if no security framework is established that makes the continent safe for peace, freedom, and prosperity.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.