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Clever conceits cannot hide the world’s jagged edges
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Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall politicians and pundits have been imposing patterns on the world. The search has been for something to replace the reassuring symmetry of the cold war. This undoubtedly noble endeavour has written a lot of speeches and sold a lot of books. We are little the wiser for it.

The myriad theories of the new global order (or disorder) share several characteristics: a yearning for tidiness; unshakeable certainty in their enunciation; and flimsiness in the face of predictably unpredicted events. Over two decades we have thus seen the world described and redescribed in perhaps a dozen different guises.

We started off, some will remember, with the end of history, a trite but beguiling phrase claiming the triumph of economic and political liberalism. We have since encountered, in quick succession, George H.W. Bush’s new global order, the US retreat from foreign entanglements, the unipolar moment, the American imperium and, more recently, the rise of the rest – the rest being the patronising label affixed to emerging great powers in Asia and Latin America.

In between times, we have had Americans landing from Mars and Europeans descending from Venus, the victory of hard power and the revival of soft power, the ineluctable march of democracy and the birth of the capitalist autocracies. Oh, and lest we forget, the return of the clash of civilisations in the form of the long war against al-Qaeda extremists. Now, courtesy of Robert Kagan, one of the most prolific and engaging of the aforementioned grand strategists, we have the return of history*.

The explosion of global theorising is explicable beyond the fact that it keeps political scientists in book sales. For all its existential insecurity, the confrontation with communism had the virtue of simplicity. The clash of ideologies mirrored a binary balance of power. It was them against us, or us against them, according to taste.

The collapse of the Soviet Union overturned the sense of system. Then, even as we sought to mark out the new landscape’s contours, the events of September 11 2001 and the rise of China and India saw the post-cold war order replaced in turn by the post-post-cold war disorder. All that in the space of a couple of decades. At this rate we will soon run out of “posts”.

By any objective criteria, today’s world is still a much safer place than that of the cold war, even with Osama bin Laden still hiding in the hills. In times that disdain ambiguity, however, the absence of a frame of reference makes it seem otherwise.

So it is also unsurprising that people look to the past to provide templates to fit a confusing present. History is very generous in this respect: look closely enough and you can always find some analogy or other that can be said to illuminate the here and now. Thus it seems only yesterday that whole libraries were being filled with learned tomes comparing the new American empire to that of Rome. Sadly, the metaphor could not be sustained much beyond the fall of Baghdad.

Another fashionable parallel has been between today’s rise of China and that of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany a little over a century ago. Delve deeper and the contest between the US and China in the 21st century might be said to promise more than a passing resemblance to Anglo-French rivalry during the 18th. And if we are looking at ways to ensure peace and order in a new age of great power competition, why not a Concert of Europe writ large? There must be a Metternich out there somewhere.

The problem with these theories is that most of them last only as long as the first imprint of the essay in which they appear. One moment democracy is deemed an unstoppable force; then it is said to be in headlong retreat. First the world is flat; next we can see nothing for the mountains.

All this speaks to the impatience of the age. Everything must be compressed. We are addicted to the new. The ease with which new theories are discarded is matched only by the conviction with which they are first proclaimed as eternal truths.

A friend in Washington explains it thus. There is an unquenchable thirst for explanation: say something serious, obvious, or even silly, in sufficiently portentous tones and you will be noticed. Think of a clever conceit for the cover and you have a bestseller on your hands.

Perhaps that is why the theories mostly share the same weakness. They project the present into an infinite future. Thus now that China and Russia have made authoritarian capitalism work for a while, we are asked to assume the model will endure. Bingo! Autocrats and oligarchs replace commissars as the new bogeymen in the west’s futile struggle to call a halt to history.

Well, no actually. Pace Mr Kagan, we do not know whether China and/or Russia can defy indefinitely the liberalising impulses of the market. Logic says that economic freedom and political repression are antithetical. What we do not know is for how long they can coexist. Either way, there is no reason now to reinvent the bipolar world of the cold war by lining up democracies against autocracies.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I enjoy all these books, quite apart from the fact that they keep me in columns. It is just that the upheavals in the global system since 1989 – the most profound for at least a century – are not susceptible to neatness.

We live in an era of jagged lines where established power structures are buckling, yet it is far from obvious what will replace them. Globalisation is weakening states just as the shifting balance of power promises greater stresses between states. It is enfranchising many citizens and making many others more insecure.

If there was a the unipolar moment it has passed. The US will most likely remain the pre-eminent global power for some time yet, but it is already an insufficient one. The multilateral system designed in the middle of the last century no longer fits geopolitical realities. New powers might be accommodated in a reformed system or they might choose to shun it.

Likewise multipolarity could foreshadow a new era of great power competition that might well have seemed familiar to the politicians of 18th century Europe. But the nature of interstate war changed irrevocably with the splitting of the atom.
Most importantly, nothing is pre-ordained. The shape of the (dis)order that eventually emerges from these tumultuous changes will be determined by the decisions and choices of statesmen and women, peoples and governments. As for history, well, it never went away.

By Philip Stephens

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