The prospect of a nuclear-armed North Korea led by the irrational Kim Il-sung or his heirs would have unhappy consequences for the security of East Asia, and would almost certainly lead, in short order, to the nuclearization of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. These are not developments that the United States—or, better, a U.S. government serious about its international security responsibilities—could ignore. Nor could we remain blithely indifferent to the victory of radical Islamic forces in Algeria and Egypt, or to the acquisition by Syria, Iraq, or Iran of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles capable of raining death on Israel and much of Europe.
But urgent as these matters are, it is the question of a new, post-Cold War security system in Europe that poses the greatest challenge to creative American strategic thinking, and to effective American diplomacy, right now. Why?
Because the Eurasian landmass remains the geopolitical center of the world; and thus its control by a hostile power, or its descent into chaos, would pose tremendous threats to peace, freedom, security, and prosperity throughout the globe.
Because Russia—the only country that could conceivably re-position itself as an aggressively hegemonic power in the heart of the Eurasian landmass, or that could, by imploding, lead the descent into chaos—retains thousands of strategic nuclear weapons and the capacity to “deliver” them (as the euphemism has it) to targets from Seattle to Miami.
Because the failure to meet aggression in the heart of Europe has twice led to global conflicts in this century: a circumstance that would be virtually certain to repeat itself were imperial aggression to destabilize central and Eastern Europe yet again.
Because the culture of freedom that sustains democratic polities was born in Europe, and its failure in the heart of Europe would have profound, and almost certainly baleful, consequences for the cause of freedom throughout the world.
We are, in truth, at a historic crossroads. Will the victory of the forces of freedom in the Fifty-Five Years’ War against totalitarianism be completed, such that Europe (including Russia) enters a prolonged period of peace and security, marked by political freedom and economic prosperity? Or will that victory be frittered away—by indifference, blindness, or lack of political will on the part of the West—thereby launching central and eastern Europe on yet another cycle of chaos and violence, into which the rest of the West will inevitably be drawn?
These are the stakes in play as 1994 opens. The holidays are indeed over.
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.