Almost 50 years ago and almost 75 years ago, our forebears exulted in their military triumphs and wrote of endings and beginnings. Filled with hope and cynicism, they sketched new international maps and institutions. Idealists and realists alike, most made the same basic error. Most assumed that the world had changed more than it really had.

The danger today is that we may commit the opposite error, namely that we will think or at least act as if the world has changed less than it really has. And by so doing, we will exaggerate old threats and minimize new ones, and thus finally find ourselves overwhelmed by the all-corrosive danger that stares us down daily - the teacup wars filled with countless bodies and horrors, the scourge of civil and ethnic violence.

If we fail to ameliorate and check this scourge, both the victims and the unpunished killers will undo much of what we value and undermine efforts to mold a just and stable international order. Without such an order, there can be little hope to tend the planet, nurture more tolerant societies, sustain economic progress, or contain the perilous spread of military and nuclear power.

Yet even as the physical traces of the Old World vanish, many still cling to its intellectual trappings. While the New World surrounds us and pounds us for attention, we answer mostly, though far more softly, with the old fears and the old strategies.

Though the Soviet Union lies in ashes, we almost expect and plan for the emergence of a new Russian empire. Though Germany has evolved as one of the most stable democracies in the world, we secretly dread its reversion to authoritarianism and militarism. Though the United States has never before been as entangled in the world as it is today, we fear its return to isolationism. Most policy experts still lean on the central strategy of the Cold War: keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. Only, we want to execute this strategy on the cheap, at bargain basement prices.

The Cold War's worries should not be tossed aside. On the contrary, we would be naive and irresponsible to ignore the possibilities of future Russian expansionism or German brittleness or the chaos of a world without American leadership. But we must examine these concerns with fresh eyes and judge anew whether they should remain at the core of Western strategy or be placed in different focus.

The issue of strategic focus is essential. No strategy can succeed unless it settles on the most compelling threat and defines it correctly. The strategy of containment zeroed in on precisely the right problem. For all the misjudgments and miscalculations committed in the name of halting the spread of communism, containment kept us pointed in the right direction. Now we must look again at the main elements of containment - Russia, Germany, and America - put them in their new context and see whether and how they still fit.

RUSSIA: NO ALARM

It is probably true that Russia today, as the Soviet Union before, has greater potential to disrupt and endanger the international system than any other nation. By its size and location, by its economic gifts and military and nuclear capacities, by its history and ancient ambitions and new nightmares, Russia could reconstitute itself as a Eurasian and even world-sized monster. But it would be rash or worse to assume such monstrous behavior, or assume that the proportions of a new Russian threat would rival the old Soviet one, or, more precisely, that containing such a possible threat should occupy the center of a new Western strategy.

No one envisions a Western-style democracy in Russia's near future. However, the collapse of the Soviet empire has loosed and created political and economic forces that will not bend easily to dictatorship. And while many of these democrats will be infected by historical Russian nationalism and seek to muscle their neighbors, they are unlikely to be old-fashioned militarists. Even new Russian nationalists understand that devouring their neighbors in the short run at least would make Russia itself weaker. Russians generally seem mindful that the new nations bordering their country will not succumb to Moscow's blandishments as easily as their predecessor states. In other words, even assuming the worst happens in Moscow, it would be many years before Russia could pose a serious threat to America's vital interests. For a long time to come, Russia will be a second-tier country with virtually useless nuclear arms, weighed down by a grotesque bureaucracy and pervasive crime, more self-destructive than dangerous to the West.

From this view of Russia as a sharply diminished power, several conclusions flow. First, deterring the possibility of a Russia once again bent on dominating Eurasia should not be at the heart of Western strategy. Such a threat, even if it were probable, is too distant. In any event, the West will have the time necessary to channel and parry future Russian challenges.

Second, while Russia is important and the West must be attentive to its needs, it is not sufficiently important for the West to give Moscow a veto over important policy decisions such as Bosnia and NATO. If the West decides to provide arms to the Bosnian Muslims, it should go ahead with or without Moscow's approval. If the West feels NATO's umbrella must be extended eastward to provide leaders there with confidence in their independence - just as the United States established NATO to give confidence to Western Europe's leaders - this, too, should go forward, albeit with due sensitivity toward Russia.

Third, the West should do all it can economically and politically to bolster Russian moderates and a variety of Russian power centers. But because of the immensity and complexity of Russia's problems, Western leaders would be well advised to recognize the huge limits of their influence in Russia's quixotic internal affairs.

Fourth, the West should continue the process of reducing and controlling nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. Here as well, there will be significant limits on what can be accomplished. We cannot buy a denuclearized Russia. To secure a place at the big-power table, a Russia in inner turmoil needs nuclear weapons as much as before.

GERMANY: STABLE

While the first goal of containment was to restrain Soviet influence, the second and unspoken goal was to keep Germany down and democratic. Westerners chose not to make this point publicly, for Germany had become an ally. But never far from mind was the fact that Germany had started three wars within a hundred years, and the last one, Hitler's war, was from Hell itself. The fear of a resurgent Germany remained so alive and potent throughout the Cold War that West and East long colluded on a central line of policy: to prevent German unification.

Now the deed is done. Germany stands again as one nation. Should it be feared as before? Should the West, and the East for that matter, continue to weave visible and invisible ropes of friendship to bind the German Gulliver and prevent him from once again trampling his neighbors? Yes, if necessary, but it is not necessary. German leaders are dealing with the problem themselves by weaving their own webs to Europe and America. Bonn leads in proposals to bind the German economy, its arms and aims into a larger Western universe, and to restrict its own military power.

Nor should the West be preoccupied by the nightmare of Germany succumbing to another bout of Nazism. Everyone will be watchful, but as far as the eye can see, Germany is and will remain a stable democracy. That is as true of united Germany as it was of West Germany alone.

Our main concern about Germany should be that we are asking its people to do too much. West Germans are already transferring massive wealth to their East German brothers. Germans provide more aid to Russia and Eastern Europe than any other nation. Bonn along with Paris leads the drive for European unity. Bonn along with Britain continues to hold Europe close to America. The strain on German politics is enormous, particularly at this time of structural economic change.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that Germany's economy is only half as large as Japan's and one-quarter the size of America's. Western nations must relieve the German load in dealing with East European refugees and the economies of Eastern Europe generally. Yet the West tends to demand too much of German leadership in Europe and elsewhere. At best, this pressure on Germany to deliver is premature. At worst, it will cause democratic German leaders to fail and open the doors to demagogues with easy answers.

It is impossible not to harbor nightmares about a resurgent Germany. But it is dangerously unrealistic to retain this as a preoccupation of Western strategy.

WAITING FOR LEADERSHIP

Neither Germany nor Japan, nor both, can be expected to assume or be pushed into the primary leadership role in the post-Cold War era. Only the United States can and must bear this burden, as before. Are Americans up to it? Yes. Must the West worry again about American isolationism? No.

America's involvement in the world is deep, growing deeper, and irreversible. A huge proportion of the American economy is now tied to international transactions, almost double two decades ago. With leadership from President Clinton, Congress approved the North American Free Trade Agreement and will likely approve the new world trade treaty. Washington maintains over 100,000 troops in Europe and a similar number in Asia. Few question American commitments to Europe and Asia. Nor has the United States shrunk in recent years from deploying ground forces to remote places such as Somalia and Macedonia or air power to Bosnia.

Of course, Americans do not like sending their sons and daughters abroad for combat. But they never did. What country does? It is remarkable how readily, despite internal opposition, Americans will fight for others if the cause is just and rightly explained - even in the absence of an overriding threat from the Soviet Union.

Americans are not turning inward. They are waiting for their president and others to chart a compelling international course. If Americans are to sacrifice when nothing seems to threaten their survival directly, they want to know why and how. Public opinion polls demonstrate not the return of isolationism, but good old American pragmatism.

Americans will not embark on a new crusade to make the world safe for democracy and free markets. These aims are worthy. But most Americans now understand that democracy is a state of grace not readily attained and not within their power to impose. Nor are they eager to expend lives and treasure to transform sinkholes into free enterprise paradises. Americans also understand that lofty goals do not help us decide what to do in Somalia, Eastern Europe, Haiti, Bosnia, or the Persian Gulf.

FOCUS ON CIVIL WARS

Thus discussion circles back to where it must begin - to divining and defining the new core problem in post-Cold War politics that a new strategy must address. Nuclear proliferation, Russia, Germany, new Chinese ambitions, trade wars - all are serious. But the core problem is wars of national debilitation, a steady run of uncivil civil wars sundering fragile but functioning nation-states and gnawing at the well-being of stable nations. The stronger states tend to minimize their stakes in stopping or containing internal wars. Such wars, it is argued, are ruinous to the combatants themselves but not to outsiders. Or outsiders can do little or nothing to quell these domestic fires, it is said, except at unacceptable cost.

Yet the costs of trifling with these wars of national debilitation could prove high. While some of these wars would erupt in any event, many are fueled by a copycat phenomenon, by seeing that guilty parties elsewhere get away with murder and conquest. Thus, Haitian and Rwandan killers shout "Somalia" and "Bosnia." These wars also have a spillover effect. Their victims - 50 million now - stream across international borders and become expensive and disruptive wards of their neighbors. The Balkan refugees flooding into Germany are a case in point. Another 50 million displaced persons hover within their own lands far from their own homes. Some civil wars also create vacuums that suck in and entice larger neighbors. Russian troops in Georgia and elsewhere are examples.

For the United States and the West, these wars present a constant challenge to their leaders, demanding attention and drawing off time and funds from important domestic priorities. There is an even more damning cost to stable democracies. The failure to deal adequately with such strife, to do something about mass murder and genocide, corrodes the essence of a democratic society. If democratic leaders turn away from genocide or merely pretend to combat it, their citizens will drink in the hypocrisy and sink into cynicism.

In sum, democracies have a large practical as well as moral stake in finding reasonable responses to wars of national debilitation. The range of responses is no mystery: stronger multilateral organizations, standing peacekeeping and peacemaking forces, preventive action, and, above all, more clear-sighted and courageous national leadership.

NATO needs to be remolded and strengthened as a regional organization. Washington also must nurture a greater sense of cooperation among Latin American and African regional groups for their neighbors. The very long process of shaping a more effective and responsible United Nations must begin. This will require some sacrifices of sovereignty. But sovereignty has already been compromised in the new world. It is impossible for Washington to contemplate unilateral military action in most consequential situations. The Persian Gulf War is a prime example; tiny Haiti is another. Multilateralism, for good or ill, almost always requiring American leadership, has descended on the world. It is a fact not to be debated, but absorbed into American strategy.

The main strategic challenge for the United States is to develop plans for multilateral action to stem civil wars without drowning in them, and to do what it reasonably can to give victims of these wars a chance to live in peace without making them permanent wards. This, and not a bargain basement strategy to contain old ghosts, is what our leaders must refashion from the bricks of the fallen Berlin Wall.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now