Seeking Order in a Disordered World

January 08, 1995

The United States must cope with problems in every part of the world in this new year, without a theory for explaining them that is acceptable to most Americans or that dictates obvious solutions. The Cold War, and the doctrine of containing Soviet communism, offered a psychological protection. We always knew where we stood. Now that odd comfort is gone.

The world is improved in many respects. Most of it is friendly. Democracy is growing where it was recently unknown. Intellectual freedom is asserted where heretofore it could only be dreamt. Thanks to discipline imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, most countries are adopting economic systems compatible with our own. The world is shrinking through communications technology and cheap air fares. Nowhere is remote from satellite observation and few places remain beyond the reach of Internet.

The United States has active friendships with countries that only a few years ago were adversaries. The great advances in trade -- GATT, NAFTA and, for Europeans, the EU -- have brought economic life along behind technology's advance. This brings some adjustment problems but opportunity for all that was unimaginable earlier.

Yet the United States is unable to impose order on the world. Problems and conflicts long attributed to the Cold War have outlived it. New explanations for them must be sought. The Soviet Union crippled itself through overspending on the military. But the United States, too, overspent its resources and is too deficit-ridden to wield the real power it formerly exercised, economic muscle. We must live with reduced influence instead.

That leaves the problem of nationalisms, newly freed from shackles, in collision. It leaves rogue regimes whose only hope for foreign exchange is in sales of illicit weaponry to other rogue regimes bent on aggression or intimidation.

It leaves societies breaking down from the evil of enemies within, whether in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti or Cambodia. It leaves social breakdown, in Russia or Nigeria, a threat ultimately to us. It leaves the contraband in narcotics and the corruptibility of our own society as the most promising economy in too many places. It leaves those dispossessed by modernism crusading against it, citing the Prophet to rationalize violent extremism.

None of these problems equals the threat that Soviet hegemony and power and subversion posed. None of the adversaries commands anything like the destructive power that Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev did. But we lack the keys to turn problems off. We lack a doctrine that makes clear when to intervene and when to turn a blind eye.

And, though to a much smaller extent than Russia, we have weakened our own power to reorder the world. Knowing what can be done in the quest of a better world environment for American life, and what should, is the elusive challenge of U.S. foreign policy for 1995.

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