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The Arc of the Moral Universe Just Wobbles Around

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

No one knows whether last weekend's Wagner Group uprising means the end of President Vladimir Putin's control of Russia, just as no one knew before the last few weeks of 1999 that Putin would replace Boris Yeltsin and become Russia's leader for the next quarter-century.


But everyone knows that the widely shared optimistic expectations of that time, which I call the Nineties Projection, have not come to pass. Back then, national economies, electoral democracy, human rights and the rule of law were all on the upswing. In the years since, not so much.

The Nineties Projection was that Russia, freed from Soviet communism and with electoral democracy and economic growth, would develop a growing economy and strong civil society. What Russia got instead, and most Russian voters ratified, was a single ruler controlling government and big business in a corrupt petrostate. That's in the tradition of Josef Stalin, Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible.

The Nineties Projection was that China's double-digit percentage economic growth would produce a middle class that would push the Chinese Communist Party, with its leaders limited to a 10-year term, toward the rule of law and individual rights. What China has gotten instead is President Xi Jinping, who jailed political rivals, expanded China's reach toward the Pacific, and ditched term limits. That's in the tradition of Mao Zedong and the long-ruling (1735-1796) Qianlong Emperor, who scornfully rejected a British envoy's manufactured trinkets.

The Nineties Projection for Latin America, as Brazil, Argentina and Chile emerged from military dictatorship and Mexico from one-party rule, was dubbed the Washington Consensus -- freer trade, privatization of government firms, electoral democracy. Today we see left-wing governments emerge along the cordillera north from the Strait of Magellan and a Mexican president seems to be reinstalling the pre-1990s one-party corruption.


In the United States, the Nineties Projection was for surging, low-inflation economic growth and entitlement reform along the lines of the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich deals that produced balanced budgets. A nation that was sharply reducing violent crime and welfare dependency would be able to adjust immigration to meet labor market demands and promote cultural diversity.

Believers in the Nineties Projection failed to foresee this century's disasters and disappointments. Virtually no one anticipated the violent Islamist terrorism that produced 9/11. Very few expected that Clinton and Bush policies encouraging cheap mortgages for Hispanics would result in the mispriced mortgage-backed securities that produced the 2008 financial collapse. Few media outlets predicted or reported the upsurges in violent crime that followed the Black Lives Matter movements in 2014 and, much more, in 2020. No one foresaw COVID-19.

The Nineties Projection was, and should have been recognized as, a set of optimistic scenarios, subject to disruption in domestic affairs and frustration in foreign policy. Domestically, they probably distracted leaders from downside risks.

But in foreign policy, a case can be made for leaders for acting on optimistic assumptions. Encouraging positive developments in previously hostile nations like Russia and China, if successful, would produce outsize gains. One could argue the courses taken by Putin and Xi were not predictable and that it was not delusional to act for some time on the basis of the Nineties Projection.


Nor is it clear that appeasement-minded policies, including the nonexpansion of NATO and abandonment of Taiwan, would have prevented those leaders' moves. Russian troops might be attacking farther west or Chinese ships might be building new islands farther east. In any case, the Nineties Projection did not come to pass.

Something like this has happened before. Western leaders in the 1920s did not anticipate the 1930s worldwide Depression. They did not anticipate the democratic German foreign policymaker Gustav Stresemann would die in 1929 at age 51 and that Adolf Hitler, then 40, would maneuver into power four years later. They did not anticipate that a series of assassinations would bring aggressive military leaders to power in Japan.

The consequences of those developments, unforeseen during the high hopes of the middle 1920s, proved very much more dire than the likely consequences of these recent developments, unforeseen during the high hopes of the late 1990s -- at least absent the horrors of an East Asian war.

At the moment, Putin's Russia seems weaker than in early 2022, Xi's China seems no stronger and Latin America may be recoiling from leftist extremism. Former President Barack Obama liked to say that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but Americans may be forgiven, after the last quarter-century, for thinking it just wobbles around, not always predictably, and that getting things right requires not just wisdom and energy but also a dollop of good luck.



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