Not the worst of times
The world seems very messy these days, which might be an occasion to examine the broad forces producing the turmoil. But in Washington, of course, it becomes one more opportunity for partisanship. “I do believe that the things we’re seeing in the world today, [which is] in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime, [are] a direct result of an absence of American leadership,” said Sen. John McCain last weekend on CNN.
Really? McCain has had a long and distinguished life and I’m sure he remembers what happened in, say, 1973, the year he and 590 others were released from imprisonment in Vietnam. That year, in Vietnam alone, several hundred thousand people died as a result of the war.
And that doesn’t include the tens of thousands who died in the Yom Kippur War, also in 1973. The effect of that war was that, in retaliation for America’s involvement, the major oil-producing countries announced an oil embargo against the United States and its closest allies. Within a year the price of oil had quadrupled and the industrialized world was plunged into deep economic crisis, forever losing its access to cheap energy from the Middle East.
All this happened under the shadow of a potential nuclear war. The superpowers had almost 45,000 atomic weapons aimed at each other. During the Yom Kippur War, U.S. forces were put on high alert — DEFCON 3. The only time they had been placed at a more serious state of readiness, DEFCON 2, was during the Cuban missile crisis.
I could have picked 1956, the year the Soviet Union brutally suppressed a Hungarian uprising, France’s control of Vietnam collapsed, the French, British and Israelis mounted a failed invasion of Egypt, and Sino-American tensions over Taiwan continued to simmer, tensions that a few years earlier had Washington contemplating the use of nuclear weapons.
Today’s world is unpredictable, but it doesn’t compare with the kinds of geopolitical dangers that existed for decades during the Cold War, not to mention before that period. Still, it’s worth understanding what is producing this instability today.
In Eastern Europe, the key driver is that the Ukrainian people have decided that they do not want to live under the Kremlin’s thumb. That has produced tensions, but it is because people are demanding genuine independence from an old imperial system. That’s a positive development, however much it complicates life.
In East Asia, we are witnessing one of the oldest stories in history, the rise of a new great power. Is it really so surprising that China, the world’s second-largest economy, is seeking more political influence in its region?
In both these cases, the Obama administration has handled the challenges reasonably well, pushing back in a careful but determined manner, coordinating policy with allies and ensuring that the tensions do not get out of hand or spill over into active conflict.
It has been less successful dealing with the larger Middle East, the area of greatest turmoil. As the Yom Kippur War reminds us, this is not a new phenomenon. Zbigniew Brzezinski spoke of an “arc of instability” during the 1970s that looks remarkably similar to the area of unrest today. The Iran-Iraq war produced more than a million casualties in the 1980s. And then there were the two U.S.-led wars against Iraq, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, two intifadas and so on.
The forces creating the present instability are deeper than ever before. The old order of the Middle East rested on two related facts — superpower support and repressive dictatorships. Both have weakened and, as a result, long-suppressed forces — of Islam, ethnicity and democracy — are bubbling up. The notion that Washington can stabilize this situation easily is foolish, as its long, costly experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan surely demonstrate.
For all the problems, let’s keep in mind that we live today in a world with considerably fewer dangers. Nuclear war is unimaginable. The Russian-American nuclear arsenals are down to one-fifth their size in 1973 and at a much lower level of readiness. In 1973, Freedom House published its first annual account of political rights around the world. At the time, countries listed as “not free” outnumbered “free” countries. Today that is inverted, with the number of “free” countries having doubled. Open markets, trade and travel have boomed, allowing hundreds of millions to escape poverty and live better lives.
Of course there are crises, problems and tensions around the world. But no one with any sense of history would want to go back in time in search of less turmoil.