The Way We Live Now

We are witnessing the dissolution of an international system. The core of that system, and its spiritual heart, was the North Atlantic alliance: not just the 1949 defense treaty but a penumbra of understandings and agreements beginning with the Atlantic Charter of 1941 and spreading through the United Nations and its agencies; the Bretton Woods accords and the institutions they spawned; conventions on refugees, human rights, genocide, arms control, war crimes, and much more besides. The merits of this interlocking web of transnational cooperation and engagement went well beyond the goal of containing and ultimately defeating communism. Behind the new ordering of the world lay the memory of thirty calamitous years of war, depression, domestic tyranny, and international anarchy, as those who were present at its creation fully understood.

Thus the end of the cold war did not make the postwar order redundant. Quite the contrary. In a post-Communist world the fortunate lands of Western Europe and North America were uniquely well placed to urge upon the rest of the world the lessons of their own achievement: markets and democracy, yes, but also the benefits of good-faith participation in the institutions and practices of an integrated international community. That such a community must retain the means and the will to punish its enemies was effectively if belatedly illustrated in Bosnia and Kosovo (and, in the breach, in Rwanda). As these episodes suggested, and September 11, 2001, confirmed, only the United States has the resources and the determination to defend the interdependent world that it did so much to foster; and it is America that will always be the prime target of those who wish to see that world die.

It is thus a tragedy of historical proportions that America’s own leaders are today corroding and dissolving the links that bind the US to its closest allies in the international community. The US is about to make war on Iraq for reasons that remain obscure even to many of its own citizens. The war that they do understand, the war on terrorism, has been unconvincingly rolled into the charge sheet against one Arab tyrant. Washington is abuzz with big projects to redraw the map of the Middle East; meanwhile the true Middle Eastern crisis, in Israel and the Occupied Territories, has been subcontracted to Ariel Sharon. After the war, in Iraq as in Afghanistan, Palestine, and beyond, the US is going to need the help and cooperation (not to mention the checkbooks) of its major European allies; and there will be no lasting victory against Osama bin Laden or anyone else without sustained international collaboration. This is not, you might conclude, the moment for our leaders enthusiastically to set about the destruction of the Western alliance; yet that is what they are now doing. (The enthusiasm is well represented in The War over Iraq by Lawrence Kaplan and William Kristol, which I shall discuss below.)

The Europeans are not innocent in the matter. Decades of American nuclear reassurance induced …

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