On November 9, 1989, our era ended. The breaching of the Berlin Wall sounded the end of not merely the Cold War, but an epoch of global conflict that started with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. Now, with the twentieth century truncated, we are straining to discern the shape of the 21st.
We should remember that while there is of course always conflict and strife, not all centuries are as bloody as ours has been. The assassination in Sarajevo shattered an extraordinary period of economic, artistic and moral advance. It was a period when serious thinkers could imagine world economic unity bringing an end to wars. The conventional wisdom, as Keynes would later write, considered peace and prosperity "as normal, certain, and permanent, except in the direction of further improvement, and any deviation from [this course] as aberrant, scandalous, and avoidable."
If with benefit of hindsight this optimism seems wildly naïve, what will future generations make of the crabbed pessimism of today's conventional wisdom? Exhausted and jaded by our labors and trials, we now probe the dawning era for evidence not of relief but of new and even more ghastly horrors ahead. In particular, we have lost confidence in our own ability to shape the new era, and instead keep conjuring up inexorable historical and moral forces. Our public discourse is filled with guilt-ridden talk of global warming, the extinction of various species and Western decline.
Even so hardheaded a thinker as Samuel P. Huntington has concluded, "A West at the peak of its power confronts non-Wests that increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways." The conflicts of the future will be between "the West and the rest," the West and the Muslims, the West and an Islamic-Confucian alliance, or the West and a collection of other civilizations, including Hindu, Japanese, Latin American and Slavic-Orthodox.
This "clash of civilizations" does not sound like a pleasant 21st century. The conflicts will
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