The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth, Michael Mandelbaum. New York: Oxford University Press, (Forthcoming, March 1,) 2019.
Summary: Develops the thesis that 1989-2014 represented a singular period of widespread peace marked by absence of conflict between major powers, and what might lead to a return to peace in the future.
Michael Mandelbaum proposes that the period between 1989 and 2014 was a singular period in recent history of global peace. At first glance, I want to say, “you’ve got to be kidding.” My mind goes to Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, 9/11, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, just for starters. Yet each of these represented more localized conflicts rather than globe-spanning conflicts between superpowers.
During this period, the old Soviet Union was dismantled with the Eastern Bloc countries gaining autonomy, and in some instances, more democratic forms of government. Even Russia, under Boris Yeltsin took halting steps toward democracy and more of a capitalist system. In East Asia, the opening of commercial trade relationships with China eased tensions with its Communist government. In the Middle East, for a period after the Kuwait War, most or all accepted the U.S as a “benevolent hegemon” (at least until our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan).
Why did it all change? Mandelbaum traces the rise of autocratic nationalist leadership in Russia, China, and Iran, and argues that the ambitions of these leaders have brought us into a new era of global conflict, along with the added factor of North Korea in East Asia. With Russia, the economic setbacks of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure in office combined with the expansion of NATO to incorporate most of the Eastern Bloc but not Russia in a united Europe paved the way for the rise of Vladimir Putin. With the transition to Xi Jinping, and following the Recession of 2008, China took steps to strengthen its military presence, threatening other nations and the region and bringing it into increasing conflict with the U.S. North Korea’s young ruler, particularly feeling threatened by the U.S. presence in South Korea, also pursued a military buildup and nuclear program, one difficult to counter. Shia clerics in Iran seized on the weakening of Iraq and Afghanistan after U.S. intervention to extend influence on behalf of Shiite Muslims throughout the region and to pursue a nuclear enrichment program which could allow them to become a nuclear power in the region.
Mandelbaum considers the possibility to a return to such peace. His fundamental thesis is that peace is fostered by the rise of democracy, accompanied by economic capitalism, which discourages conflict with trading partners. He points to democratic movements in all three of the major powers (not so much in North Korea) as offering potential.
Mandelbaum’s thesis seems to rely on continued American greatness and “benevolent hegemony” combined with skillful relations that make it advantageous for these autocratic regimes to become more democratic and less belligerent. I have questions of whether such a continued role is sustainable for the U.S. given its burgeoning debt, fluctuating foreign policy and internal divisions. I also wonder whether democracy depends on worldview and cultural factors that cannot be addressed simply by implementing democratic processes, even if these powers were inclined to move toward them.
I’m far less sanguine than Mandelbaum and think we are in for some “heavy weather.” It seems to me that this new dangerous world order is a challenge for the United States to get its own economic house in order, to address the structural inequities that weaken its own democratic institutions, and to take the measure of these other powers in our diplomacy and military strategy for what they are rather than what we would like them to be. This will call for singular political leadership and national resolve–clearly absent in our currently divided political processes and national life.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.