Commentary Magazine

Against the New Pessimism

The end of the cold war has brought about a remarkable consensus between former hawks and doves—at least those professionally involved in some fashion with international affairs, whether they be journalists, academics, or politicians—to the effect that the world has become a much worse place since the demise of the Soviet Union. The pessimistic analysis runs roughly as follows:

In 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, everyone was filled with euphoria over the collapse of Communism and believed that the entire world was turning to democracy. But this expectation proved extraordinarily naive: the collapse of Communism led not to democracy but to the unleashing of virulent nationalism and/or religious passion. Now, about four years later, we see that the world is not progressing toward the “global village” but retreating into atavistic tribalism, whose ugliest expression is the “ethnic cleansing” witnessed in Bosnia.

Nor, according to the pessimistic account, is the former Yugoslavia an isolated case. Rather, Yugoslavia demonstrates that modernity is a very thin veneer indeed; what has happened there portends the resurgence of ethnic passions throughout Eastern Europe and the former USSR. And not just in that region. Even among the apparently stable democracies of Western Europe, attacks on foreign residents and immigrants are just the tip of a larger racist iceberg.

Our international institutions, by this same account, are woefully inadequate to the job of maintaining global order. The United Nations, which many people hoped would become far more effective after the cold war than it was in the days of the Soviet veto, has gotten overextended and is now presiding over policy failures in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti. The fecklessness of the European Community (EC) and NATO in failing to stop the slaughter in Bosnia shows how laughable was George Bush’s concept of a “new world order.” Instead of order we have a world far more dangerous and insecure than that of the cold war. Just as in 1914—so the pessimists conclude—the Balkans in our own day may serve as the tinderbox for a larger European conflict.

This litany, promoted by media and academic pundits around the world, makes the present situation sound very, very bad indeed. But I would argue that it misses the deeper reality of the contemporary situation, and vastly exaggerates the problems we face.

One reason it does so is that the pessimistic outlook is held primarily by Europeans or by Americans focused on European affairs, and represents a highly Eurocentric view. For a “return to tribalism” is not a helpful formula for understanding much of the rest of the world.



Let us begin at home. After having come through a bruising recession, the United States now leads the industrialized world in economic growth, hitting a rate of close to 4 percent in the fourth quarter of 1993. This latest recession performed the positive function of all recessions: it forced corporations to trim fat and focus on productivity, leaving American companies leaner and more competitive than they have ever been (albeit at a cost in certain jobs). Many of the productivity-enhancing innovations introduced in the 1980’s, mostly related to information and communications technology, are now finally showing up on corporate bottom lines, particularly in the service sector. Who today would trade the American semiconductor, computer, aerospace, banking, or biotech industries for their Japanese counterparts? Or, for that matter, the American automobile industry for the German one?

As Henry S. Rowen of Stanford has pointed out, the new reality of the 21st century is that many poor people around the world are going to get rich. This is nowhere more true than in Asia, a region that is hardly descending into tribal violence. Its problems are, rather, ones of adjustment to newfound prosperity. China, the world’s largest country, grew an astonishing 13 percent in 1993, and every other country in the region (with the exception of Japan) forged ahead at comparable rates despite the recessions in other parts of the world.

Just as the proponents of modernization theory predicted in the 1950’s, democracy has been following in the wake of economic development: the election of Kim Young Sam in South Korea last year represents a final break with that country’s authoritarian past, while Taiwan will hold its first completely free elections in the near future. The most remarkable development is occurring in Japan. Despite Karel Van Wolferen’s protestations that nothing ever changes in Japan, the Japanese political system is slowly moving away from the corrupt machine politics of the past couple of generations toward a more genuinely pluralistic democracy.

There are, it is true, serious security problems in Asia, the most important being North Korea’s nuclear program. Further, the whole region will have to adjust to a very large and dynamic China, which in a decade may have an impact on regional politics comparable to the emergence of a unified Germany after 1871. But the likelihood seems low that in ten years China will still be a unitary, purposeful, authoritarian superpower with external ambitions, given the massive and rapid socioeconomic transformation it is now undergoing. A fragmenting or unstable China would also cause serious problems for the region, but not a balance-of-power threat.

In general, the character of international relations in East Asia is remarkably different from that of Europe: security concerns have for some time now taken a back seat to economic issues as the chief preoccupation of the region’s best minds. This perhaps explains why the countries most directly threatened by North Korean nuclear weapons—South Korea and Japan, as well as China—are decidedly more relaxed about the problem than is the distant United States. They believe that North Korea is one of the world’s weakest states, economically and politically, and they maintain that its erratic behavior is the product of weakness rather than strength. Since time is working against the Kim II Sung regime, it is in their view better dealt with through patience.

Finally, Latin America’s prospects look brighter than at any time since the first decades of the century. Despite recent setbacks in Haiti and Venezuela, three of the region’s large economies—those of Chile, Mexico, and Argentina—have liberalized substantially over the past decade, and have experienced low inflation and high growth. The code to economic development—a liberal one—has been cracked (or, more properly, relearned after decades of Marxist and Keynesian confusion), and those countries that have mustered the political will to follow its dictates are being rewarded.

Indeed, one of the great slanders of last fall’s debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was Ross Perot’s assertion that Mexicans were desperately poor people who could not afford to buy anything. In the next generation, Americans will have to get used to thinking about Mexico not as a political and economic basket case, but as an avid consumer and increasingly aggressive competitor. Even Peru, by most measures one of the world’s most troubled countries, has seen a flood of new investment and positive economic growth since the Fujimori government’s arrest of Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Shining Path guerrilla movement. With the passage of NAFTA and the successful conclusion of the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the foundations have been laid for another generation of economic growth in Latin America.



Now let us turn to Europe. There, it is clear, nationalism and ethnic violence have been worse than anyone expected four years ago. Civil or interstate wars have been raging in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan, with many other potential conflicts just beneath the surface. But the chief indictment of the new world order centers, of course, on Bosnia, a horror the like of which has not been seen in Europe since the Holocaust.

The Bosnian conflict has four possible implications for the broader security of Europe. The first is that the war there could spread and involve other Balkan countries, and then the great powers of Europe. The second is that Yugoslavia will set an encouraging precedent for new conflicts among other intertwined ethnic groups in the former Communist world—Hungarians and Romanians, Poles and Lithuanians, Russians and Ukrainians. The third is that ethnic cleansing will legitimate racial and ethnic intolerance even in the apparently stable democracies of Western Europe, undermining their political fabric at a particularly delicate moment. And lastly, the ineffectiveness of international organizations like the EC, NATO, and the UN in dealing with the Yugoslav crisis will damage their credibility and encourage further aggression.

These fears are real, and should not be dismissed lightly. On the other hand, each one can and has been greatly overstated.

Take the question of escalation. The scenarios by which the Yugoslav civil war could lead to a larger conflagration tend to be rather nebulous. Other Balkan countries could indeed get involved if conflict spreads to the Serbian province of Kosovo, or to Macedonia. But of the interested outside powers, Albania—Europe’s poorest and most backward country—wields virtually no power, while Greece would likely side with Serbia in crushing Macedonian independence.

Far more important than local Balkan considerations, however, is the absence of a larger great-power rivalry in Europe. In 1914, Europe was divided between two hostile alliances, and if war had not broken out over the Balkans, it could just as well have been sparked by Tangier or the Baghdad Railway. Today, the great powers of Europe are, if anything, struggling to avoid messy foreign entanglements as they try to deal with pressing domestic economic problems. Regional conflicts were of concern during the cold war because the superpower competition left open the constant possibility of superpower intervention and ultimately escalation. But the absence today of larger great-power rivalries means that sectional strife will remain regionalized in its impact, however horrendous the consequences may be for local populations. The ironic result is that even as the world is being united through communications technology, it is being regionalized and disconnected politically by the absence of a global great-power rivalry.

The second fear, that the Yugoslav example will be replicated among other ethnic groups, has already been realized in many places. But most of these conflicts, such as those in Transcaucasia and Central Asia, can and have been safely ignored by the outside world. (The only one that will pose direct security concerns for Europe is between Russia and Ukraine, an issue that will be dealt with below.)

The truth is that the mutual hatred of Yugoslavia’s constituent groups is in many respects an extreme and atypical situation, and other parts of Eastern Europe look much less bleak. Economically, recent news is encouraging. Virtually all East European countries that have engaged in shock therapy or some variant of radical market reform have seen their inflation rates come down and their production bottom out and then rebound. Poland’s GNP stopped falling in the second half of 1992 and is now rapidly on the way up. While recent elections in Poland brought back to power a left-wing coalition including the former Communists, this does not represent a rejection of reform so much as a desire to modulate its pace.1 Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, and Latvia are similarly poised for economic turnarounds, much like Western Europe in the early 1950’s.



The third fear—that Bosnia will undermine tolerance and democracy in Western Europe—is supported by the wave of anti-immigrant violence in Germany, Italy, France, and most recently Austria. Nevertheless, the embourgeoisement of West Europeans has gone very far, and their situation is quite different from that of the rural Serbs and Croats driving the current struggle in Yugoslavia. If one scratches the typical Italian, German, or Frenchman of today, one is unlikely to find a vicious nationalist itching to come out. Such individuals certainly exist in Western Europe, but they have thus far been segregated at the margins of their societies. With any degree of sensible leadership, and in the absence of new discontinuities like war or depression, there is no reason to think they will not remain there.

The fourth and final fear concerns the weakness of international institutions in dealing with the war in Yugoslavia. The international community’s single most important failure was actually an error of commission rather than omission—that is, the placing of a UN arms embargo on all the combatants in the civil war, and the subsequent failure to lift it so as to give the Bosnian Muslims a chance to defend themselves. An early ending of the embargo was the only policy option that had a chance of stopping Serb aggression at a reasonable cost to the outside world, and the fact that it was so bitterly opposed by the Europeans and so weakly advocated by the United States is both a moral failure and a political mystery.

On the other hand, the failure of various international organizations to intervene actively to promote order in the ways suggested by some does not reflect impotence so much as prudence. It is not self-evident that multinational, or even single-country organizations can intervene effectively and at reasonable cost in many conflicts that are primarily ethnic and/or civil in nature. Those, like Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who argue that appeasement of Serbia encouraged the nationalists in Russia to vote for Vladimir Zhirinovsky in last December’s parliamentary election should consider what lessons would have been drawn from a failed Western intervention.

The UN cannot function as a serious security organization except when it acts as a cover for unilateral American intervention, as in Korea or the Gulf. It has gotten into trouble in Somalia and Haiti because it did indeed outrun its mandate. As for NATO, it is an effective security organization, but primarily in those canonical big-war scenarios for which it was originally designed. Those who want to extend NATO’s functions to include ethnic peacekeeping and the like seriously risk involving it in contingencies for which it is not particularly well suited, thereby unintentionally subverting its ability to execute tasks it is better able to perform. It is true that the world community does not have an effective instrument to promote order and security in regions like Eastern Europe today; but if the chance of escalation is low, this lack will not be critical.



The gloomy Europeanist assessment of the implications of ethnic conflict would be more cogent if there were an ongoing great-power rivalry. And in fact, many do postulate that one exists, latently if not overtly. Thus, a view is currently coalescing that Russia is well under way toward restoring the old union, using the cause of ethnic Russians stranded in the “near abroad” by the breakup of the Soviet Union to bully and threaten the other Soviet successor states. Some, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, believe it is almost inevitable that President Boris Yeltsin will fall and that Moscow will go back to its authoritarian, expansionist ways. Others, like Henry Kissinger, believe that Yeltsin himself harbors great-power yearnings, while analysts like William Odom argue that Yeltsin has already sold his soul to the Russian military in return for its support in his showdown with parliament.

People who offer more sinister interpretations of recent Russian behavior point to Eduard Shevardnadze’s Georgia, as well as other examples. Having at first bolstered the breakaway Abkhaz republic against Tbilisi, the Russians subsequently switched sides and agreed to help Shevardnadze, on the condition that he return Georgia to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). In addition, the Russians used Ukraine’s extreme economic vulnerability to press for a very favorable deal over the Black Sea fleet; Russian troops are giving assistance to the Tajik government in its war against Islamic forces; Moscow has repeatedly threatened to slow down its withdrawal form the Baltic states unless the latter recognize the rights of ethnic Russians living there; and a Russian army, under the command of the bull-necked General Lebed, has in effect hijacked the region of Moldova east of the Dniester River and turned it into an “independent” republic.

The December 12 election in Russia, in which the neo-fascist Zhirinovsky won nearly a quarter of the popular vote, may help to make this interpretation a reality. Zhirinovsky, a Great Russian chauvinist, has unabashedly called for restoration of the old czarist empire, including Finland and parts of Poland.

Yet to write Russia off is still premature. Up to this point, Russia has been drawn, willy-nilly, into the affairs of the other successor states by a combination of two factors: first, the activities of local Russian forces, usually hard-line nationalists or former Communists bitterly opposed to the regime in Moscow; and second, the incompetence, weakness, and chaos prevailing in the neighboring states. But this is very different from saying that Yeltsin is following a thought-out expansionist master plan. In general, there is a fine line between a Yeltsin who caters to nationalist sentiment just enough to remain in power, thereby neutralizing more aggressive tendencies, and one who adopts the chauvinist agenda as his own. In the coming months the key task for American policy will be to judge which is which.

Ultimately, those who take a jaundiced view of Russian intentions have already written off Yeltsin’s democratic experiment. They argue—with much plausibility—that the political situation in Russia is unlikely to stabilize, or the economy to turn around, or democratic institutions to start putting down roots any time soon. Yet the policy question the United States faces is whether we want to be the ones to turn out the lights, especially when the new constitution adopted last December at least clears the way for a hyper-presidential regime that has some chance of promoting economic reform and a moderate foreign policy.



At any given historical moment there are always ominous clouds on the horizon. The current nightmares of specialists in international relations—nationalism or fundamentalism run amok; immigration; a growing gap between rich and poor countries; uncontrolled nuclear proliferation; and the like—may not be as dangerous as they are portrayed. Others less discussed may be more urgent. I will pick just two problems, foreseeable now, that need to be addressed, one with domestic and the other with international ramifications.

The first problem arises out of the third-world success in achieving economic growth, and its impact on income distribution and job security in the United States. The U.S. was in a uniquely favorable position for the first generation or so after World War II, because the dominance of its manufacturing industries allowed it to reward relatively low-skilled manufacturing labor with relatively high wages. These are the “good jobs at good wages” that politicians like to champion. Today, the U.S. economy continues to be good at generating lots of high-skill, high-wage jobs, as well as low-skill, low-wage ones; what it can no longer do is protect, much less create, the kinds of low-skill, high-wage jobs it once did. The passionate resistance of unionized labor to NAFTA reflects the intense threat under which the traditional American working class feels itself.

In the best of all worlds, the United States would accept the loss of these jobs, while moving its workers up the skill ladder into higher value-added occupations. But most working-class Americans have little confidence in government-sponsored retraining programs, whose record has indeed been abysmal, and they fear that the public-education system will not provide their children with the skills necessary to avoid downward mobility in the 21st century. The global village, in other words, has a very harsh side, and America’s ability to live in it successfully will depend on its ability to reverse the slide in its educational system.

The second problem is one that we could be facing as early as this year. Because of their respective sizes and the fact that they are home to large numbers of nuclear weapons, conflict between Russia and Ukraine cannot be safely ignored. There is growing doubt as to whether Ukraine will be able to survive as an independent state. In December 1991 a majority of the ten million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine voted for independence, mostly on the ground that an independent Ukraine would have a better shot at economic reform than one still tied to Russia. These expectations have been sorely disappointed by the inept former Communists running the country, and it seems only a matter of time before the ethnic Russians there decide that it would be better to rejoin Moscow.

The Yeltsin government is not at all eager to see this happen: the Donbass coal-mining region, where many of the Ukrainian Russians live, is an economic albatross that Moscow would just as soon not have hanging around its neck. But if there is a general breakdown of the Ukrainian state, and calls on the part of ethnic Russians for a return to Russia, it will be very hard for any Russian government to turn its back on them. Moreover, a breakdown of the Ukrainian state may mean loss of centralized control over the nuclear weapons still on Ukrainian territory, something the Russians are not going to regard with equanimity. The temptation either to take part in the dismemberment of Ukraine, or to intervene militarily to gain control of those weapons, will thus become a real possibility.

A Ukrainian collapse would be easier to handle, in a way, if Russia itself were by then to have turned authoritarian and aggressive: the United States would simply oppose forceful Russian moves to reabsorb Ukraine, and we would return to an unfortunate, though familiar, polarization of Eurasia. There would then be a much stronger consensus to admit Hungary, Poland, and other threatened East European states into NATO.

But if Yeltsin were still in power and reform still on track, the U.S. would be faced with some extremely difficult policy choices. Russian motives might be mixed and not necessarily aggressive, but there would be a very strong inclination to interpret them in the worst possible light: we would not want to be seen acquiescing in the restoration of the former empire. Accordingly, the U.S. might be driven to break with a clumsy but still moderate Russia, thereby undercutting its democratic experiment prematurely and perhaps unnecessarily.



It would be very surprising if the collapse of the largest empire in the world had not caused enormous instability and confusion. We are obviously in the midst of a prolonged transition period as political, economic, and interstate systems transform themselves into something else. But it is vital not to take transitional turbulence for a permanent state of affairs, or to ignore the elements of order that exist while focusing on extreme cases of disorder in relatively unimportant parts of the world.

To be sure, it is primarily specialists in international affairs who are pessimistic; others, like investment bankers, who have to put money on the line behind their views of world order, tend to be much more sanguine. But among people professionally involved with international affairs, the liberals tend to be unhappy with the idea that the West won the ideological struggle of the cold war outright, and are eager to assert that the vindication of capitalism and liberal democracy is only apparent. Many conservatives, for their part, remain wedded to a dour view both of human nature and human institutions.

And then there is a simple matter of prudence: who, liberal or conservative, would not find it safer to be remembered as a Cassandra than as a Pollyanna? A Cassandra proved wrong (and there are many of them populating our TV talk shows and newspaper columns) is never held accountable; indeed, such people retain an aura of moral seriousness for their tragic sense of human history. Naive Pollyannas, by contrast, are routinely held up to ridicule. In the stock market, those who are unduly bearish are punished over the long run. The “market” for views on international affairs is, unfortunately, not quite so self-correcting.


1 See George Weigel's article, beginning on p. 37.—Ed.

About the Author

Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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