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. 
Looking at events since January 2012, it has at times been hard to tell if we are witnessing a simple pricing dispute or a total divorce between the newest neighbors in northeast Africa.
There is some truth to Alex De Waal’s recent statement at the Royal Africa Society that “it all looked so good just over a year ago.” A year ago there was a euphoria of independence, but few hard decisions had been made about the future relationship of the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan. Omar al-Bashir, and a cadre of his close associates within the National Congress Party, surely believed that they would be rewarded with a peace dividend for their decision to allow the South to progress smoothly towards independence; while, the leaders and people of South Sudan, nestled securely within the warm glow of international applause celebrating the victory of their liberation struggle, undoubtedly believed that the exercise of sovereignty was the first step on a long journey towards a better standard of living and national self-respect. 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.
What have we learned from the death of Qaddafi and the end of his 42 years in power about the international system? My answer is very little. However, this flies in the face of two popular narratives about the present. One narrative argues that we have now entered a new age of multilateral humanitarian interventions, of if you are cynical “right to protect” imperialism by the usual Western suspects. Another storyline about the Arab Revolutions is that we are witnessing a democratic shift based on a revolution in information and communication technologies that should make all dictators quake in their feet.