The best of times, the worst of times

We see Western hopes for a peaceful, democratic and neo-capitalist world dashed by the hard realities of the early twenty-first century.

A MAN watches images of North Korean’s leader on September 2nd in Seoul, South Korea. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MAN watches images of North Korean’s leader on September 2nd in Seoul, South Korea.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today we see Western hopes for a peaceful, democratic and neo-capitalist world, which were reinforced by the Western victory in the Cold War (1947-1987) and disintegration of the Soviet Union (1991), dashed by the hard realities of the early twenty-first century. In a number of places we see the rise of authoritarian, aggressive and even threatening countries.
In many ways this resembles the hope after World War I (1918) that was dashed by the rise of fascism in the 1930s and by the hope after World War II (1945) that was dashed by the rise of the Cold War in 1947. But this time at least there have been no regional or international wars.
Russia, which seemed doomed after the loss of 14 republics with 150 million people, defeat in the Cold War and withdrawal of its military from the Fulda Gap to defend Moscow and St. Petersburg, now is on the rebound despite a weak economy.
Since 2008 it has taken slivers of Georgia (Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia), Ukraine (part of Left Bank Ukraine) and Crimea, helped Syrian dictator Bashar Assad triumph over his enemies, and worried the Baltics.
North Korea with a weak economy and dated Communist regime has emerged as a regime with missiles and nuclear weapons threatening the West and Asia. Democratic South Korea and Japan, American allies without nuclear weapons, have now endured 19 North Korean tests this year of nuclear weapons that might devastate them.
Shi’ite Iran, with a nuclear program that goes back to the mid-1980s, continues in Friday services to call for “death to America, death to Israel.” Its close relationship with a nuclear North Korea and an aggressive Russia in Syria, and the creation of a Shi’ite arc in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Libya worry the Sunni Middle East and Israel.
Then there is the British desire to exit the European Union, the possible disintegration of the EU and the rise of strongly right-wing forces. This is occurring in France (The National Front, Marine le Pen), Germany (Alternative for Germany, Frauke Petry), Holland (Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders), Hungary (Fidesz Party, Viktor Orban) and Greece (Golden Dawn, Nikos Michaloliakos). Even in the United States we see the beginning of radical Right and Left groups.
So where is the good news? It comes from several sources. The center is holding, if tenuously, in key places. In Europe the election in France of the moderate Emmanuel Macron, in Germany the likely victory of the moderate Angela Merkel and the decline of the increasingly radical Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn in England are signs that not all is lost. Italy too is ruled by the center-left Prime Minister Paolo Gentriloni.
In the Middle East most Arab Sunni states are quietly lining up with the West and Israel against Iran. Saudi Arabia’s new heir apparent, the 31-yearold Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, strikes a more moderate tone on key issues from women to jobs to Israel.
In the US the economy is picking up and the two parties have begun to work together. The majority of top universities in the world are still in the US, the undisputed high-tech leader. Each year another million immigrants come to the US, far more than to any other country. America’s GDP of almost $19 trillion makes it the world economic leader as well as the undisputed military leader with over $600 billion in government spending on defense. This is almost four times more than China, which holds second place on the list.
In the Middle East there is one country that stands out. Democratic Israel, with less than nine million people, has won 12 Nobel Prizes, exported over $100b. yearly, rated first in drip agriculture, among the top five in high-tech and top eight in military power.
So, what is it, the best of times or the worst of times? It is our time as the impetus for a new world order died out in 25 years after the end of the Cold War. But thus far a tenuous peace has yet been maintained.
The author is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.