“Had I been present at the creation, I would have given some useful hints for the better ordering of the universe.” King Alfonso X, Spain 13th Century
I’m a student of history. As a student of history, I believe in taking a long view regarding current events. I discount the accuracy of our perception of current events. I believe that we are too close to the ground to truly understand the import of events as they happen. Only with time and distance are we able to gather enough facts to make informed judgments. Only after we are dead will other people be able to write history in ink and close the book.
That’s why, against my better judgment, I write these words: We are currently experiencing a crucial moment in world history. We have a chance to be present at creation.
The force exerted on the present by the past is mostly irresistible. It is omnipresent. It constrains available choices in a manner that prevents the future from deviating too far from the course charted by the ghosts of our ancestors.
From time to time however the events of the recent past are so momentous that they briefly overwhelm the influence of events which occurred before them. These near-present events exert unusual influence upon the course of history because they provide the present with a wider array of choices than are normally available. They allow us more discretion in choosing the direction of the future than we would have without them.
This doesn’t happen often, mind you. In fact, it happens so rarely that I believe that there have only been three of them in the past sixty some odd years: The period between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War (1945-1950), the 1980’s when Gorbechov (and Reagan) took action to end the Cold War, and the period from September 11, 2001 to today.
With that last statement I risk doing what I say I don’t like to do: overemphasizing the importance of current events. I risk being labeled a “9/11 changed everything” person. This is not what I mean. I don’t believe that 9/11 changed everything.
What 9/11 did was provide impetus for the United States to look at the world with post-Cold War eyes. In the long run, I don’t think that the attacks themselves will be thought of much differently than the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand is today. Ferdinand’s assassination was a spark that lit a powderkeg.
September 11 was a spark which re-ignited the engine that drives the United States’ foreign policy. It re-invigorated the United States’ will to be fully engaged in world affairs. When the Cold War ended eighteen years ago (seriously? eighteen years ago?) the United States did not have the energy to clean up the mess that it had helped to create. Fighting the Cold War for forty some-odd years had left it exhausted. For the next dozen or so years, the United States and the world waited to see if the political remnants of the Cold War would go away with minimal international intervention. In fact, many of them did.
Many others did not however. The events of 9/11 taught the United States that its decade long policy of mostly sitting on the sidelines was not the best way to handle foreign affairs.
For a multitude of reasons that will be discussed in subsequent articles, I believe that the United States initial foreign policy steps after 9/11, invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, were largely the correct choices. I believe that we have a responsibility to put right some of the wrongs that resulted from our forebears actions and inactions over the last century. In order to do this however, we must first understand the world as it existed on September 10, 2001.
The world that existed on September 10, 2001 was the product of seeds that were sown over the course of centuries.
The world that existed on September 10, 2001 was the product of the rise and fall of European colonialism and the manipulation of the Third World for the benefit of Europe and the United States.
The world that existed on September 10, 2001 was the product of a depression, two world wars and a cold war between communists, fascists, capitalists, dictators and democrats.
The world that existed on September 10, 2001 was the product of centuries of bad intentions, good intentions gone wrong, fear, hatred, ignorance, powerlessness and opportunity. Rapid economic development mixed with intermittent economic crisis. The dissolution of old political alliances and the rise of new ones. The rise and fall of empires.
But, proximately, the world that existed on September 10, 2001 was the product of a United States that had decided in the 1990’s that it was too tired to actively de-construct a world order that it had just spent the last forty five years shaping.
I’m neither excusing nor condemning the series of events which led the United States to where it was on September 10, 2001. One over-arching idea that I’m trying to convey is that 99% of the time you have to take the world as it is given to you. Most of the time, there is little that can be done to significantly change the course of history. Given these restrictions, our ancestors have done a wonderful service to get us where we were that day. Over the last fifty years of the 20th century, the United States carried the bulk of the world’s water and they were able to: (1) rebuild Western Europe after WWII, (2) outlast the Soviet Union, (3) free Eastern Europe (4) and support Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Mexico as they gradually moved from one-party semi-democracies into stable, thriving two party democracies. They accomplished a number of other good to very good things along the way. But in my opinion those four are far and away the most important positive foreign policy accomplishments of the United States since World War II. I also hold hope that in time, the stabilization of the Middle East will be added to that list.
The Cold War is over. The world of our parents is gone. Today is the time of children. As Mikey said to Andy as she contemplated riding Troy’s bucket, “Our parents, they want the best of stuff for us. But right now, they got to do what’s right for them. Because it’s their time. Their time! Up there! Down here, it’s our time. It’s our time down here.”
The world is changing. We are becoming ever more integrated. Our generation is ever more aware of the impact our actions have throughout the world. Our generation is less burdened by the old politics and old alliances than any that has come before it. We are burdened by less political and economic threat than any generation in history. Consequently, we are burdened with greater choice than any generation in history. Choice of the methods we use to engage the world. Choice of the depth of that engagement. Choice of leadership.
This survey will argue that the United States was as or more responsible than any other nation for the geo-political order that existed on September 10, 2001. That geo-political world order was shaped by fifty years of action and ten years of inaction on the part of the United States. That the decisions made by the United States during that time were the combined result of self-interest, altruism and real politik.
This survey will also argue that the United States decision to invade Iraq can only be understood and justified in the context of the events which occurred in the sixty years previous.
This survey will also argue that the institutions and alliances which were put in place after World War II and which defined the Cold War have lost relevance and validity. While the United States will be required to continue playing a leading role in world events, emerging nations will be required to play a larger role in maintaining geo-political stability.
Finally, this survey will also argue that the 2008 presidential election is likely to put a close to a particularly unique time in human history within which to influence the future. That the last seven years have essentially been a long moment of creation. After the 2008 election, the foreign policy impetus provided by 9/11 will be greatly diminished and the moment of creation it afforded will likely be over.
|Articles In This Series:|
|Part 1: Introduction|
|Part 2: The Wrong Reasons to Support the Iraq Invasion|
|Part 3: Invading Iraq Was the Correct Choice|
|Part 4: America Must Remain Motivated to Engage the World|
|Part 5: The United States Has the Means to Lead the World|
|Part 6: The 2008 Election is a Historical Inflection Point: Will the U.S. Change Direction?|