In the United States, and much of Western Europe, the 1990s have often been remembered as a decade of triumphant stability, while the expected somnolence of the 2000s too often appeared marred by crises and upheaval. Consequentially, there has been a lot of handwringing amongst historians of the recent past and other political and social prognosticators searching for the moment of change. Questions about whether or not there was a tipping point, when it occurred, and what the transition from stability to instability consisted of, continue to plague writers looking at the last two decades. Yet a partial answer to questions about the location and nature of the point of inflection between stability and instability after the Cold War begins to emerge in Daniel Yergin’s latest book, The Quest.
The Quest for All-encompassing Theories
Enshrouded in the fog of the present, observers turned to competing theories about the nature of great politics within the labyrinth of international relations, to define the sources and to prognosticate the longevity of Western ascendency at the end of the Cold War. Arguments about the durability of the Pax Americana and the triumph of liberal democracies in general were initially framed as a contest of ideas between the triumphalism of Francis Fukayama, best articulated in his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, and his fierce debate with his critics from within the political science community, Samuel Huntington and John Mearsheimer.  On the one hand, Fukayama argued that the success of an alliance of liberal democracies, which emerged out of the wreckage of the Second World War, in their decade long struggle with Communism showed decisively that a fundamental truth of human nature was the quest for freedom and the realization of respect for the individual, and that these values could best, and perhaps only be actualized in capitalist, liberal democracies. One of the core implications of Fukayama’s argument was that the very human quest for self-realization would inevitably compel individuals, and consequentially whole societies, to build liberal democratic states, which shared a universal set of core values out of which a new harmonious and cooperative international order could be constructed. 
As we gear up for the long winded and jingoistic zeal of the American electoral season, there are plenty of reasons to worry that international conflict could once again break out in the Middle East. After all 2011 and long Arab Spring have revealed new fault lines throughout the Middle East, and the very fragility located at the core of the regional pax Americana established by the signing of the Camp David Accord in 1979. As Americans rejoice in the relative success of their involvement in the Libya mission, fidget nervously about the outcome of Egypt’s elongated electoral season, ignore the internal political conflicts playing out in Iraq after our withdrawal, and fret indecisively about the ongoing civil wars festering unattended in Syria and Yemen, to say nothing of the border conflict between the two Sudans, most Americans attention has shifted to the Gulf and America’s standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The ongoing reality television series that the Republican debates have become, feature nightly invocations about the existential danger that Iran poses to this nation, even as bluster over new sanctions targeting Iran’s petroleum industry and saber rattling in the Straits of Hormuz highlight the danger of war.
See an activist from within Syria and my colleague at Princeton Karam Nachar describe the state of war which exist inside of Syria today. Listen to this video and find out more about the role of international monitors, the Syrian protest movement, social media and the role of the Syrian diaspora and exile communities. Both analysts provide precious insights into which communities have moved away from the regime and which communities remain loyal.
As 2011 comes to a close it is time to reflect on the year. What have we learned about world politics and what still eludes us? Without a doubt the principle dramas of 2011 concerned revolution and political turmoil. And the unrest unfolding throughout the year has again and again caught even the most sure-footed analysts off balance. While, we all knew that the Mubarak regime had to end, who last January could predict that the regime would crumble so easily and so soon?
Why were we so often wrong and caught off guard? What about the ways in which we see the world has held true and what has been proven false? One way of getting at this problem is to refer back to the questions and assumptions we asked about the revolutions and uprisings of 2011 during the year that has just ended. We have to ask how and why we framed our discussion of the events of 2011 in the ways we did? Continue reading →
It has become common for the foreign policy elite to think of Omar El-Bashir–the dancing dictator– as a fool, idiot or a buffoon. See the video for an illustration of New York Times coverage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bXb5_WWtCQ
Or just witness the recent references to Omar El-Bashir in Condelezza Rice’s memoirs. In the excerpts released to the press, Secretary Rice says of El-Bashir that, “he looked as though he was on drugs.” When the image of El-Bashir as a buffoon is combined with his status as a fugitive from the International Criminal Court: wanted for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, it becomes easy to dismiss El-Bashir, and by association the ruling NCP, as little more than an incompetent, backwards and irrational ruling junta with no strategic vision–except, perhaps, of the most vindictive and vicious nature, usually directed against its own citizens. (None of this is to argue that the NCP has not committed horrible crimes, usually against its own people, or even that Bashir’s regime has governed well.) Yet, the solidification of caricatures is always dangerous, especially when the caricature itself becomes the explanation.