“To put it mildly,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said the other day, “the world is a mess.” With crises in the Ukraine and Gaza and Syria and Iraq, among other places, it is hard to quarrel with Ms. Albright’s assessment.
Which raises the question: Why? What is it that accounts for a marked rise in the level of disorder in the world?
Let us consider first those possible explanations that emphasize the American role in this growing disorder. The premise here — and it is one I think is substantially valid — is that the United States has played such a pivotal role in the creation and management of the order of the world since World War II that anything that damages the American performance in that role can readily ramify into problems in the international order.
One theory is that this disorder is the result of the inept conduct of foreign policy by the man who has been president of the United States for the past five and a half years, Barack Obama.
This is the theory pushed by the Republicans, of course. But as I argued in a recent piece, “You Can’t Tell Time by a Stopped Clock, we can discount whatever the Republicans say against this president, because they attack him over everything.
However, it is not only Republicans who have expressed criticisms of Obama’s handling of foreign policy. Other more honest critics have faulted his handling of the Israeli-Arab problems– and if one ends up distrusted by both sides, that does seem a sign of less than brilliant diplomacy. Criticism from serious people has also been directed at Obama’s handling of the Syrian civil war.
My own assessment — as one who worked in the international relations field in an earlier era, but who does not have in depth knowledge of world affairs currently — is that Obama’s performance has been adequate overall, if not masterful. (I’d guess he deserves something like a B-.) It has rarely been obvious to me that, whatever the difficulties with the course the president has taken, there were any better options available to him.
In any case, Obama’s performance in navigating the United States in world affairs has plainly been far superior to that of his predecessor, George W. Bush (and his for-a-while de facto foreign-policy-president Dick Cheney).
The mention of the Bush-Cheney presidency brings us to a second possible explanation: the destructive impact of the terrible Bush presidency on the international order remains with us and I suspect it is far from trivial.
Under Bush, the United States — which had throughout the 20th century (except for the interwar isolationist period) been the main leader in the creation of the international order — itself seriously ripped a great tear in the fabric of that order with its invasion of Iraq against the clear will of almost all its friends around the world, and of the world community generally.
One should not under-estimate the impact on a system when a leader among nations, trusted for more than half a century, discredits itself. Opinion polls showed that, for example in Western Europe, America went from being overwhelmingly regarded as a benign force in the world to being overwhelmingly seen as a threat to peace.
Obama’s assumption of the presidency reversed that perception– at least superficially. But I suspect that the serious damage that Bush’s arrogance and aggressiveness inflicted upon other nations’ perception of “the leader of the free world” left America’s standing diminished.
In almost all nations around the world, Obama is held in much higher esteem than was Bush. But that doesn’t mean that the shocks of the Bush era have left no enduring harm.
And consequently, the role available to any post-Bush president was probably less powerful than the world had accorded American presidents since FDR.
I would add one more component to the residual destructive role of that dangerous force that’s arisen on the right: thanks to the unprecedented Republican obstructionism during the Obama presidency, America is now seen as a nation that cannot manage well its own affairs.
And if a nation cannot manage its own affairs in a worthy way, why should we expect other nations to grant it an undiminished role in ordering the affairs of the world?
Perhaps, then, one factor in the world’s current disorder is that the world’s “leading nation,” its “indispensable nation” (to quote Ms. Albright again), no longer commands the respect and influence that previously helped hold things together.
But perhaps this is not about America. Perhaps in the world system there are forces of an altogether different sort that foster disorder. If so, what might they be? Here are some possibilities:
** The Cold War imposed a kind of order onto the geopolitical scene for more than 40 years. Perhaps the ramifications of having that tight rubric removed are still unfolding.
** The Muslim world is clearly in a profound struggle to find its way into the modern world. Much of the disorder in the world in these times concerns this region– the struggle against corrupt and rigid regimes, the aspirations of the masses, the residual effects of national borders drawn by colonial powers, throwing disparate groups together into “nations,” a reaction against modernity in the context of a religious tradition that never went through a “Reformation,” etc.
** Climate change is beginning to put additional strains on nations to meet their needs for water,food etc. (It has been proposed that climate change may be involved in the catastrophic conflict in Syria.)
The system of nations interacting on this finite planet is hugely complex. We can see video on our TVs that shows the eruption of disorder in Iraq or in eastern Ukraine, or in Gaza. But whatever are the forces at work beneath the surface — that might lead at a given time to these eruptions — these are scarcely visible to us.
Why is the world a mess? It is a question as essential for us to ask as it is difficult for us to answer.
It is to raise this question, and to share some tentative explorations, not to provide an answer that I submit these reflections for consideration.