History normally runs on rails, with one development following another in fairly obvious succession.
Colorful personalities and dramatic events abound, and it may seem like a roller-coaster ride at times, but 20 years later the outcome is just about what you would have expected at the start. Once in a while, however, history goes right off the rails, and this may be one of those times. We'll probably know for certain by the end of 2004.
Two years ago we were being told that the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States had changed everything. But that was just media hype. In reality Sept. 11 changed nothing except Americans' mistaken belief that they were invulnerable to foreign threats. Normally the "terrorist threat" would have faded into the background in a year or so, to be replaced in the headlines by some trendy new problem, but a hijack has occurred, and the course of history really may have changed. That would be very bad.
Americans are still largely invulnerable to foreign threats, but a tiny chink labeled "terrorism" has opened up in their armor. Both the U.S. government and the Islamist terrorists who planned Sept. 11 are working overtime to make it the central issue in global affairs. They are pursuing their own private agendas, of course, but the combination of huge American power and extreme Islamist violence has persuaded far too many people that the "war on terror" is what global politics is really about in the early 21st century.
The "war on terror" is a huge distraction from the real priorities that face the world. The human population of this planet has tripled in the past 60 years. Even if it never doubles again, it still puts enormous pressure on both resources and the environment. The pressure is mounting even faster because many of those who have been poor (including most Asians) are rapidly industrializing and raising their consumption levels.
Meanwhile, those who are left out of the prosperity, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, become ever more desperate and resentful. The tightly interconnected wealth-producing machine that is the globalized economy is tremendously vulnerable to environmental catastrophes, political shocks or even financial mismanagement. There is a full agenda that needs our undivided attention if we are to get through the next half-century without a really big blow-up.
Until recently, things were looking pretty hopeful because the biggest obstacles to global action on these issues had been removed one after another. The Cold War ended, and the great powers began to cooperate. Democracy spread around the world by nonviolent means, and with the help of global mass media something that you could call "world public opinion" began to emerge. Complex multilateral deals were made on difficult issues like trade and climate change.
During the 1990s, the way the world worked was changing fast enough that we seemed to have a chance of making it through the first half of the 21st century without a big smash and a massive die-back of the human population. Bad things happened in small, out-of-the way places like Bosnia and Rwanda, but the broad trend was reassuring. It still is, but broad trends have been dislocated by relatively local events in the past.
China was not doomed to go into centuries of isolation and stagnation in the early 15th century just as its immense wealth, technological prowess and ocean-going fleets had positioned it to dominate the entire planet. Europe didn't have to throw away a century of relative peace and rapidly rising prosperity in the needless cataclysm of World War I. If the emperor Zhu Di's favorite concubine had not been killed by the lightning strike that burned down the Forbidden City in 1421, or if Gavrilo Princip had gone home after failing to assassinate the Archduke Franz Ferdinand on his first try in Sarajevo in 1914, everything might have been very different.
Things would certainly be very different now if the al-Qaeda hijackers had been caught before they carried out the Sept. 11 hijacking, or if George W. Bush had not been awarded victory by the U.S. Supreme Court after the 2000 election. What we are living with now is a runaway fluke.
A small band of Islamist fanatics is trying to provoke a global confrontation between the West and Islam as a way of levering themselves into power in Muslim countries, and a U.S. administration dominated by neo-conservative ideologues is using this threat to justify their own project for global American hegemony through military power. Neither is likely to succeed, but between them they could wreck both the institutions and the spirit of multilateral cooperation that were going to ease our way through the real crises that are coming.
For every fluke that actually derails the train of history, hundreds do not. Both the United Nations and the NATO alliance are already in a potentially terminal crisis, but it is still too early to say whether this one will change our future for the worse. It could all be over by next year.
By this time next year, we will know whether the Bush administration's adventure in Iraq has succeeded or failed, and whether Mr. Bush himself has been re-elected or defeated. Without the neo-cons in Washington to inflate their importance, the Islamist terrorists would dwindle to a minor policy problem, and normal service would be resumed on all the important global issues. Decisive years are generally something you would prefer to avoid, but this is going to be one.
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