It's clear now to even the wildest-eyed optimist that the recent Middle Eastern uprisings might not augur a spree of democratic revolution. Where they will lead is uncharted territory, but one thing they seem to signify, for now, is a further breakdown of the world order, a fracturing of global power into still more jutting and jagged shards, another round of the unraveling that started when the Cold War ended.
There is room for hope here. Disorder can be a positive force. The newly toppled dictators deserved their toppling. The societies they helped keep stagnant were in need of upheaval. And the Cold War, whose demise unfroze the tides of history, was of course a time of dread.
But the Cold War also spawned a system of international security. Most nations, willingly or not, fell into one of the two superpowers' camps. Most conflicts were seen, and dealt with, in the framework of that larger competition—at least in the eyes of superpowers themselves, whose main goal was "stability," which often meant the preservation of their control.
Once the Soviet Union crumbled, so did this entire system. If the dissolution hadn't happened, it's hard to imagine that today's revolts would have been allowed to get started, much less get out of hand. Within the Cold War matrix, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and the rest would be seen—again in the superpowers' eyes—as chess pieces on the great game board, vital chips in the measure of the balance of power. A challenge to, say, President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt would be taken (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) as a proxy war for that chip—and so, in the interests of a stable balance, the challenge would be co-opted or crushed well before it grew too serious. (For an illustration of this calculation at work, on a small but drastic scale, see the Saudi tanks rolling into Bahrain.)
The phrase "post-Cold War world" isn't some hollow cliché (though sometimes it's bandied about as if it were). In the context of what's going on in the Middle East and northern Africa, it means that local and regional forces—political, social, economic, and cultural—are playing out according to their own dynamics, unshackled from the jackboot of superpower rivalry.
Another feature of this post-Cold War world—and here we get to one of the great paradoxes of our time—is that the United States has, in an important sense, less power than it did when the Soviet Union was still around.
This is so for two reasons. First, during the Cold War, many nations outside the Soviet bloc sometimes went along with America's wishes, even if doing so was at odds with their own interests, because the alternative—the bear across the horizon—was too unsettling. Now the bear is dead, and these countries feel freer to go their own ways. Second, and more important, for the entire last half of the 20th century the United States defined—and built up—its power to meet the rules and requirements of the Cold War competition. We won, but now that the game is over, and the tools of power that we spent all those years amassing and refining are less relevant (not irrelevant but less so) to the challenges and threats of today.
And so we find ourselves in the unusual situation—unprecedented in the lifetime of nearly every American breathing today—of watching from the sidelines as world-historical transformations unfold. Protesters all across a "vital region" took to the streets, in some cases brought down once-immovable regimes, with almost no reference to, or care about, what the United States or any other "major" power thought about it. (The notable exception, the rebels of Libya, requested and received attention because of the humanitarian emergency. And even then, President Obama—perhaps understanding this shift, certainly having learned from Egypt and Tunisia that national revolutions are best waged by their own people—responded only as part of a Euro-Arabian alliance, and in a subordinate position at that, at least publicly.)
The fate of all these uprisings is certainly a matter of U.S. interests—arguably, in the case of Egypt and Yemen, our vital interests. Yet there's little we can do to direct their paths. And even if there were more, the factions that might best serve our interests don't want our direction (not openly, anyway).
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