The paradox of contemporary world politics is that a
world no longer haunted by the paralyzing fear of a looming all-out war between
great powers now faces a series of challenges every bit as threatening and as
potentially unmanageable. Globalization has simultaneously enlarged the
responsibilities and expanded the issues to be confronted. In a prosperous and
stable period of history, when confidence in peace and economic growth was
high, and his administration was still in office, former U.S. President Bill
Clinton found it necessary to warn that “profound and powerful forces are
shaking and remaking our world. And the urgent question of our time is whether
we can make change our friend and not our enemy.”
The changes in recent years have spawned transnational threats to world order, in addition to the resurgence of nationalism, ethnic conflict, failed states, and separatist revolts. These include acid rain, AIDS, H1N1, other contagious diseases, drug trafficking, international organized crime, ozone depletion, climate change, obstacles to gender equality, energy and food scarcities, desertification and deforestation, financial crises and collapsing economies, and neo-mercantile trade protectionism.
The potential impact of these additional threats is formidable, as emerging trends suggest that nonmilitary dangers will multiply alongside the continuing threat of arms and armed aggression in civil wars, as well as interstate wars in particular regions and terrorism almost any place and at any time in the world. The distinction between geostrategic issues of security that pertain to matters of war and peace and global issues related to economic, social, demographic, and environmental aspects of relations between governments and people may disappear.
Change, as we have seen, can be abrupt or slow. It moves constantly, but at its own pace; and history reminds us that the evolutionary direction of global change is uncertain. Many trends are unfolding at the same time, and their impact in combination can move the world along an unexpected trajectory. In addition, trends can reverse themselves, and each trend that moves forward advances at its own rate. Some trends move incredibly slowly in an evolutionary process that can only result in dramatic transformations over many centuries, whereas others exhibit short bursts of rapid change, interrupted by long periods without much change. To appreciate the diverse ways trends may combine to affect each other, it is helpful for you to construct your images by both using memories of the past and by being inspired by visions of the future. In 1775, American revolutionary Patrick Henry underscored the importance of history, observing that he had “but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past.” Decades later, in 1848, another patriot, Italian political leader Guiseppe Mazzini, stressed the importance of futurist thinking when he observed, “great things are achieved by guessing the direction of one’s century.” All of us need both perspectives, constructed with keen awareness that our images of history and of the future must avoid the temptation to see ourselves and our own country as we wish to be seen without taking into account how differently others might view us and our state.
The future of world politics also rests on the outcome of a race between states’ ability to cooperatively act together and their historic tendency to compete and fight. Only concerted international cooperation stands in the way of slipping back into military conflicts and ruthless competition. To meet the global challenges of the future, and to make wise decisions to implement needed changes for bringing about a world that is more secure and just, vision is required.