The contemporary period—datable at one level from the economic and political shifts in the West at the turn of the eighties; at another from the collapse of the Soviet bloc a decade later—continues to see deep structural changes in the world economy and in international affairs. Just what these have been, and what their outcomes are likely to be, remains in dispute. Attempts to read them through the prism of current events are inherently fallible. A more conjunctural tack, confining itself to the political scene since 2000, involves fewer hazards; even so, simplifications and short-cuts are scarcely to be avoided. Certainly, the notations below do not escape them. Jottings more than theses, they stand to be altered or crossed out.
I. The House of Harmony
Since the attentats of 2001, the Middle East has occupied the front of the world-political stage: blitz on Afghanistan—sweep through the West Bank—occupation of Iraq—cordon around Iran—reinvasion of Lebanon—intervention in Somalia. The us offensive in the region has dominated the headlines and polarized opinion, domestic and international. A large literature has sprung up around its implications for the flight-path of American power, and of the direction of world history since the end of the Cold War. In the us establishment itself, fears of a debacle in Iraq worse than that in Vietnam are not uncommon. The analogy, however, should be a caution. Humiliating military defeat in Indochina did not lead to a political weakening of the global position of America. On the contrary, it was accompanied by a tectonic shift in its favour, as China became a de facto ally, while the ussr sank into a terminal decline. Little more than a decade after the us ambassador fled from Saigon, the us president landed as victor in Moscow. In Vietnam today, American companies are as welcome as missions from the Pentagon. Historical analogies can never be more than suggestive, and are often misleading. But such reversals are a reminder of the contrast that can exist between depths and surface in the sea of events.
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