One of my earliest memories is of being taken in 1924 to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley on the outskirts of London. Although the Wembley Exhibition presented, with a banality that was widely commented on even at the time,1 an imperial dream that was already melting away, a surprising number of people in England still believed that the British Empire was the world’s only hope of order and decency. With the Depression quite a few serious people briefly saw the Soviet model as the best way forward, and in the mid-1930s others gave more than lip service to Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich.2
Dreams of world order come and go. After World War II there was a brief interlude when the United States led governments and peoples throughout the world in the belief that a new era of peace, disarmament, and the rule of law could emerge through working together in the United Nations. The cold war soon blighted that vision, and the world was frozen for forty years in the balance of nuclear terror. The end of the cold war and the demise of the Soviet Union caught most people by surprise, and they were followed by a brief period of euphoria in which optimistic notions circulated, many of them inspired by the apparent success of the first Gulf War. Among them were President George H.W. Bush’s “new world order,” Madeleine Albright’s “assertive multilateralism,” and a short-lived but widespread belief that the UN had at last come into its own. The century ended in general disillusionment over the prevailing disorder and violence. The events of September 11, 2001, and the reaction of the administration of President George W. Bush have so far dominated the twenty-first century’s discussion of world order and have already inspired a large and growing literature.
The United States is by far the richest and most powerful country in history, so its policies and actions are naturally of worldwide concern. Its newly proclaimed unilateralist doctrine of preventive or preemptive war, with no tolerance for potential military rivals, would have seized the world’s attention even if Washington was not already acting on it. The occupation of Iraq, a vast increase in US military spending, Washington’s rejection of important international treaties, and its unconcealed contempt for international organizations and conventions have created uproar and foreboding in many parts of the world. Words like imperialism and hegemony, however inappropriate, have regained their old currency; worldwide demonstrations have been organized, and jihads have intensified. Whether the Bush doctrines are likely, in the long run, to become more, or less, dangerous both to the United States and to other nations is as yet unclear. Experience in Iraq and elsewhere may already be diluting some of the enthusiasm of the Bush administration’s ideologues and modifying US policy on Iraq and North Korea; but the image of a unilateralist superpower that…
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