William Bullitt accompanied President Woodrow Wilson to Paris to negotiate an ambitious peace treaty after the carnage of World War I. Reflecting on the handiwork of vengeful allies in the Versailles Treaty, Bullitt prophetically declared, “This isn’t a treaty of peace… I can see at least eleven wars in it.” The victors in World War II did far better, establishing a progressive international order that fostered economic progress and helped prevent wars between major powers for over half a century.
This international order is under great strain, challenged by pervasive anxiety, growing inequality, regional flash points, anemic economies, and ceaseless refugee flows from wartorn areas. Lesser despots have fallen, opening up ungoverned spaces, while secular strong men have arisen in linchpin states like India, Egypt, the Philippines, Israel and Turkey. Confident leaders have also taken up residence in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing, promising to cure national ailments while building up military capabilities. There is an ominous feel and bellicosity in domestic politics and world events.
For the United States, it has been a long downhill slide since winning decisive victories in the Cold War and easily toppling Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, 9/11 was a major pivot point. Overreach followed. Subsequent ill-advised and ill-executed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sapped America’s strength, treasury, and influence. President George W. Bush expanded NATO to Russia’s doorstep. His crusade to extend democracy worldwide is now a distant memory. Domestic cohesion has dissolved. Relations between major powers are strained, and U.S. alliances are shaky.
The greatest unsung achievement of the Cold War – diplomacy to control the nuclear arms race, reduce nuclear dangers and arsenals, and prevent mushroom clouds – has been forgotten. This body of extraordinary accomplishment – strategic arms reduction treaties, the Non-proliferation Treaty, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty — is unraveling. Nuclear dangers are growing in Central Europe, East Asia, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
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Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Defense One on February 15, 2017.