Twenty-First Century Limited

The popularity of the idea that we have arrived at the “End of History” coincides strangely with the popularity of its direct opposite—the view that a wholly new and unsettling era has opened. For forty-five years many Europeans felt geographically, culturally, militarily, and economically trapped between the two competing superpowers. Now we seem to have a tripolar world, anchored on the US, Japan, and the European Community. This is a world whose history is about to begin, and whose future is entirely unpredictable, at any rate by contemporary social science.

“Tripolarity” can be a slogan that spares us thought in much the same way as “the end of history,” however, and never more dangerously than if it suggests that the main parties to the new historical order understand their future roles, and are ready to play them. Recent events in fact suggest that our three leading actors are in considerable disarray. The US and Japan are just too engrossed with domestic problems to attend to anything else. But Europe is in disarray along several dimensions simultaneously; the European Economic Community has thirteen members, and this is visibly both too many and too few—Britain, Italy, Greece, and Portugal can’t keep up with the economic policies demanded by their membership of the common monetary system, while the struggling ex-comecon countries such as Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, and Bulgaria, which are infinitely less capable of full membership, nonetheless have to be brought into some association with the Community if they are ever to catch up. Every one of these relationships has its own complications, and while the problems of the pound and the lira are hardly in the same league as the social and political disintegration of the former Soviet bloc, British and Italian politicians might be forgiven for feeling that if the EC can’t cope with the former, it is unlikely to do better with the latter.

There are innumerable European institutions besides the EC; indeed, Europe has an “alphabet soup” of overlapping and competing organizations. The Council of Europe has existed since 1948 to promote democracy and human rights throughout Europe and it already embraces many more countries than the Economic Community—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia are members, and Russia and Ukraine will probably join soon. On the security front, the Western European Union is as old as NATO; the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is another umbrella that has now been opened to take in the former Soviet dependencies. But none of these organizations has been any use in meeting the military challenge of the civil wars in Bosnia and Croatia; none offers much prospect for doing better in Moldavia or Armenia, and none has helped to concentrate European efforts to relieve starvation in Somalia. They may do more for the political and legal education of the former Soviet dependencies, but whether in time to stem the disintegrating effects of economic and political disillusionment is another matter.

The concept of tripolarity is indeed more hope and expectation than description, a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.