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Wed. June 26, 2019
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Book Excerpt: The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

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In this excerpt from THE RISE AND FALL OF PEACE ON EARTH, Michael Mandelbaum introduces the conversation surrounding the twenty-five years of peace following 1989, how and why that peace was established, and why it fell apart:

In what sense, the reader may well ask, can the quarter century following the fall of the Berlin Wall be regarded as uniquely peaceful? After all, inhabitants of the Balkans in southern Europe, the Congo in central Africa, and Syria in the Middle East died violently in large numbers. They died for the most part, however, because of civil war or the slaughter by governments or private militias of unprotected civilians, not as the result of the clash of the armed forces of the most powerful states, which is what makes historical periods the opposite of peaceful. Still, the great powers themselves have not, historically, fought one another unceasingly. What, therefore, distinguishes the post- Cold War era from periods when the strongest members of the international system were not engaged in open warfare?

The answer to that question may be found in perhaps the first and certainly one of the most famous descriptions of peace, from the prophet Isaiah in the Bible: “nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war anymore.” Historical eras when swords were not actively being used — periods lacking shooting wars — are common enough; but only in the post- Cold War era did many nations cease to “learn war” — that is, to anticipate war, to prepare for war, and to gear their foreign policies to the real possibility of imminent war.

Isaiah’s vision came to pass because of the presence of three features of the contemporary world that favor it: the geopolitical dominance of the United States; the growth of economic interdependence among almost all of the world’s nearly 200 sovereign states; and the spread of democracy throughout much of the planet.

The book’s first three chapters recount not only the establishment but also the demise of the postCold War peace. It came to an end in all three regions because one important country in each of them ended it through policies aimed at overturning the prevailing, peaceful, political, and military arrangements: Russia in Europe, China in East Asia, and Iran in the Middle East. They had a common motive: the need to generate domestic political support, a need that had become urgent in the face of declining prospects for a formerly reliable source of such support — economic growth — and with the most reliable twenty-first- century wellspring of domestic legitimacy, democracy, unavailable to their dictatorial governments. Aggressive nationalism destroyed the post- Cold War peace in all three regions; and in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, in Xi Jinping and his Communist Party’s China, and in the Shia clerics’ Iran, aggressive nationalism stemmed at least in part from the domestic needs of autocratic regimes attempting to survive in a democratic age. Autocracy destroyed peace.

The book’s final chapter shows that the key to a return peace on Earth lies in the advent of genuine democracy, including both popular sovereignty — free elections — and the protection of religious, economic, and political liberty in Russia, China, and Iran.

Alas, democracy cannot be imposed from the outside and there is no knowing when or indeed whether it will come to any of the three, let alone to all of them. The message of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth is thus both an optimistic and pessimistic one. Happily, the world has a formula for genuine peace; unhappily, the world has no way of ensuring that all countries embrace it.

 

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