Is the Wall Street Journal Right That the World Is More Unstable Than It’s Been Since the 1970s?

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July 15 2014 6:14 PM

Wall Street Journal: The World Is Falling Apart on Obama’s Watch

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Firefighters extinguish fire from Baghdad's historic Shorjah market after it was hit by two bomb blasts on Feb. 13, 2014, killing at least two people and wounding at least 11.

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

According to a news analysis by Jay Solomon and Carol Lee in the Wall Street Journal, the world is coming apart at the seams on Obama's watch:

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn't been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.
In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.
Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), in a CNN interview Sunday, said the world is "in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime." 
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That list actually leaves out a few alarming current conflicts, including Libya, where violence is worsening, ongoing fighting and humanitarian catastrophes in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, the Pakistani military's latest offensive in North Waziristan, and the worsening drug violence in Central America that's the main cause of the current crisis at America’s southern border. 

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

All the same, as undeniably grim as the last month’s headlines have been, I think it’s worth questioning this narrative a bit. First of all, John McCain was alive during World War II and fought in Vietnam. And the article seems to fit into a pattern of odd conservative nostalgia for the simpler bygone era where the U.S. and Russia stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation. (The phrase "the U.S. has faced" also irks me, implying that the violence impacting millions of people should be seen primarily as a U.S. politcial issue.)

The recent historical high point in armed conflict was actually not the late 1970s but the early 1990s, the era of the Gulf War, Black Hawk Down, the wars prompted by the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, brutual civil wars in West and Central Africa, and the Rwandan genocide.

Is the world at its most unstable since that point? Well, perhaps. But it's worth remembering that the mid-aughts included the worst years of violence in Iraq, the Darfur conflict, the Israel-Lebanon war, the Russian invasion of Georgia and numerous smaller conflicts. It wasn't the most tranquil time.

As for the examples cited by the Journal to demonstrate a departure from the norm, the current Gaza crisis is not a new conflagration but the latest chapter of a grim and predictable years-old cycle of violence. The continuing (and recently worsening) violence in Ukraine is disturbing, but also remember that it hasn’t been all that long since Russia launched full-scale ground invasion of another country and fought a brutal war against separatists in Chechnya. The Iran nuclear talks do indeed seem to be stalled, but at the very least, the prospect of military conflict between the U.S. and Iran seems a lot less likely than it did just a few years ago.

The underlying critique in the Journal story is that a more muscular U.S. foreign policy would keep this wave of instability from spreading. “The renewed instability in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent weeks is rekindling criticism that the White House hasn't pushed hard enough to maintain a U.S. military presence in these countries,” the authors write.

But in the case of Iraq, it’s worth remembering that what’s so disturbing right now is that violence is returning to levels not seen since the U.S. had troops on the ground there following its invasion of the country.

As for Afghanistan, the overall level of violence in the country remains grim, but it appears, according to reporting by the New York Times today, that some last-minute diplomatic intervention by the Obama administration at least temporarily defused an electoral crisis that risked plunging the country into civil war.

The situation in Syria is undeniably a historic catastrophe, almost solely responsible for the recent uptick in global battlefield deaths as well as main driver behind the disturbingly high population of refugees in the world right now. It’s also one area where I think the criticisms directed at the Obama administration’s tentative policy response are fair.

I think it’s a stretch for the president’s spokesman to say in response to the story that Obama's actions have “substantially improved the tranquility of the of the global community.” I also don’t want to be Pollyannaish about the state of global conflict. The carnage in Syria could still metastasize and draw in more countries. We’re certainly nowhere near through with the after-effects of the upheavals that swept through the Middle East in 2011. A miscalculation could lead to one of China’s ongoing territorial disputes erupting into a shooting war. Fights over resources in a warming world could drive more instability.

There’s a lot to be worried about in the world right now, and the U.S. still has an important role to play in containing conflict. But from Central America to Libya to Iraq, American firepower doesn’t have a great recent record of promoting stability.