Uncharted waters

Posted: Feb 26, 2003 12:00 AM
When those planes knocked down the World Trade Center towers they created world-political reverberations of which we are only beginning to take the measure. Inevitably the United States was going to act. And, given our military, economic, diplomatic and cultural strength, inevitably, the rest of the world could not help but to react to our action. Now, 17 months on, we are still at the early stages of that action-reaction process. But it is not too early to judge that the September 11 event has created a historic discontinuity in the international order that may well turn out to be of the magnitude of the French and Russian Revolutions or the First and Second World Wars. The long-term strategies and relationships of the world's greatest nations, which only recently seemed timeless, suddenly have become dysfunctional. Smaller countries are scrambling to avoid danger, or grabbing at quick opportunities. It is not surprising that even the senior statesmen of the major nations are performing unevenly -- even unsteadily. In the last few weeks, for example, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer lost his temper in a public meeting with Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In the U.N. Security Council a week and a half ago, Sec. of State Colin Powell became overheated in his extemporaneous comments. French President Jacques Chirac lost all control last week in an EU meeting, striking out wildly at closely allied nations (and experienced commentators got swept up in their comments on such events). These are all vastly experienced, world-class statesmen who, however they may act in private, are too professional to let down the mask in public. And yet they did. Apparently, they couldn't help themselves. They appeared to be unnerved by the fast-shifting events and newly unfamiliar national relationships in which they found themselves. I don't mean to denigrate their behavior. Even Winston Churchill admitted in December 1940, when he was speaking to his old school, Harrow, that during the height of the Battle of Britain that past summer, he woke up in dread of his day's responsibilities. The fact is that these waters are uncharted -- and are likely to remain uncharted for several years to come in this journey in which the world finds itself. It is an oddity of history that in such moments as these -- when world history is shifting under our feet -- that even the most experienced statesmen are, effectively -- inexperienced. Consider Dwight Eisenhower in 1942. He had been a peacetime army colonel in Washington who had never seen combat -- a speechwriter for General MacArthur. Within months he was a four-star general responsible for beating Hitler while he managed such personalities as Stalin, Churchill and DeGaulle. Or consider President Franklin Roosevelt: a well-born former assistant secretary of the navy and good-times governor of New York called on to lead the country through the Depression and WWII. Certainly Abraham Lincoln, a railroad lawyer and former congressman who had no professional experiences to match his stunning responsibilities to save the union and fight a civil war. They, and others, had personal qualities that saw them through their great responsibilities. But they didn't have experience for managing unprecedented world historic events -- no one did. These outward losses of composure by Chirac, Powell, Fischer and others almost certainly reflect an inner uncertainty about their calculations and judgments. The estimable British Premier Tony Blair, who only a few months ago was considered the most politically secure and effective European leader, is dangerously close to being deposed from office by his own party. France and Germany, who seemed destined to dominate the European Union, suddenly find their hegemony contested by the United States -- of all countries. We are slipping into the old British strategy of keeping the continent divided by aligning with the weaker powers of the continent against the strongest. (For centuries Britain would ally with Germany against France or France against Germany, or Holland against Spain or Austria against Russia, etc.) Now, under Sec. Rumsfeld's Old-New Europe gambit we are aligning with Eastern and Central Europe, Spain, Italy and Britain against France and Germany. The United States never before has been forced by events to make such diplomatic calculations. It is unclear whether Sec. Rumsfeld stumbled or marched into the new strategy. Whether it is a new strategy or a temporary situation, no one knows yet. Whether the United Nations and NATO can be salvaged -- and whether that is important -- remains to be seen. It is in the nature of such unfolding events that every country and all of its leaders and opposition parties are making it up as they go along. Under such circumstances, we should allow for the inevitable miscalculations and intemperate remarks -- and not necessarily assume the worst. Regretfully, neither can we assume the best.