A Grave New World

America's post-Cold War dream of global peace and prosperity has dissolved into a nightmare of ethnic conflict, religious strife and international terrorism

March 10, 2002|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Even Pollyanna on a good day might have been a bit down listening to the news that greeted the start of this past week - Israel and the Palestinians descending into a state of even grimmer warfare, rising casualties in a major offensive in Afghanistan, hundreds dead in religious fighting in western India.

With Americans becoming inured to such reports in the months since Sept. 11, it is easy to forget that only a decade ago the vision of the future was quite different.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought forth the end of the Cold War, the tension of a generation of life under a nuclear sword of Damocles vanishing in a victory celebration for freedom and liberty.

Then the Persian Gulf war of 1991 gave rise to confident predictions of a New World Order as lawful, civilized nations united to drive back the illegal actions of Iraq and its rogue president Saddam Hussein.

This was supposed to usher in the great Pax Americana.

Instead, we got the a bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia, Somalia, Congo, Colombia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Hope for peace sputters and stalls in Northern Ireland. It disintegrates in the Middle East. It explodes in lower Manhattan and the mountains of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein - the object of the wrath of the original New World Order - remains atop his Iraqi regime, his presence celebrated by many who see it as a heroic defiance of American domination.

Stephen David, who studies international security issues at the Johns Hopkins University, says many academics in his field feared they might be out of a job after the Cold War ended. "In many quarters, there was a sense that the world had now become peaceful with the exception of some marginal areas like Somalia," David says. "Those in the security area faced a struggle to convince universities that they were still relevant."

Even after the gulf war, David says, many assumed the important question would be "how much of our blood and treasure would we be willing to spend to help other people whose plight did not pose a threat to us?"

This would include interventions in places such as Somalia, Rwanda and, yes, Afghanistan. Though warning signs were all over the place, it took Sept. 11 to make the nation realize that chaos in these far-off regions was a threat to the United States. That made intervention - militarily and monetarily - politically acceptable.

In some ways, what went wrong at the end of the Cold War was that the United States and its allies thought they had fought the good fight and won. So they relaxed and turned inward. Forays into the international arena were seen as altruistic missions, whether they were to Somalia or Bosnia. But there was little interest in taking the money saved from the reduction in military budgets and spending it alleviating the poverty - both economic and political - that underlay such problems. And no recognition that these problems could eventually threaten our well-being.

John D. Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland says that the proxy battles of the Cold War gave way to internal conflicts within states, "the origins and character of which, I think it is fair to say, are fairly mysterious to us."

"The international community is very belatedly and very reluctantly learning that it has a stake in these matters," he says.

Gerard Toal, a political geographer at Virginia Tech, agrees.

"I think you can make a number of arguments about how the Cold War disguised the nature of the world, gave us a false understanding of it," he says. "In the Cold War, we knew who the enemy was and what the conflict was about.

"It was very territorial so we knew where the enemy was. And there was also a certain order that came from this geopolitical antagonism between two states," Toal says. "Particularly ethnic conflicts within states tended to be to a certain extent stabilized by the Cold War itself."

In the case of Yugoslavia. Toal says, since communism was anti-democratic, once it disappeared there was no democratic tradition to turn to, so the alternative became ethnic identity.

Toal says similar threats are present in every country to one degree or another, that the challenge of the post-Cold War era is to realize that threats are not geographic, but can come from anywhere.

"That's what I think from a political geographical perspective, the term `axis of evil' is not very helpful because it projects the problem as out there and territorial," he says.

Toal laments what he terms "geographic ignorance," seeing it as a cause of many conflicts in the world. It basically means not understanding where the other countries and peoples are coming from - their history, their cultures, their traditions, their problems, their grievances.

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