The devastation of Europe and Asia in 1945 left two states with inordinate influence on the future course of international affairs – the United States and the Soviet Union. These were the only two countries to emerge from the Second World War stronger than before they entered it. They had mobilized their vast resources for maximum effect: building more weapons and placing more citizens under arms than ever before in either nation’s history. They had also expanded their territorial control and influence far beyond previous limits. When US President Harry Truman and Soviet General Secretary Josef Stalin met in Potsdam, Germany in July 1945 most observers recognized that the decisions of these two men would determine the future course of world history.
(The world the superpowers made, Jeremi Suri, University of Wisconsin, Madison at
War among the great powers was a common, if not constant, occurrence in the long periods of multipolarity from the 16th to the 18th centuries, culminating in the series of enormously destructive Europe-wide wars that followed the French Revolution and ended with Napoleon’s defeat in 1815.
The 19th century was notable for two stretches of great-power peace of roughly four decades each, punctuated by major conflicts. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was a mini-world war involving well over a million Russian, French, British and Turkish troops, as well as forces from nine other nations; it produced almost a half-million dead combatants and many more wounded. In the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), the two nations together fielded close to two million troops, of whom nearly a half-million were killed or wounded.
The peace that followed these conflicts was characterized by increasing tension and competition, numerous war scares and massive increases in armaments on both land and sea. Its climax was World War I, the most destructive and deadly conflict that mankind had known up to that point. As the political scientist Robert W. Tucker has observed, “Such stability and moderation as the balance brought rested ultimately on the threat or use of force. War remained the essential means for maintaining the balance of power.”
(Adapted from ‘Why the World Needs America’ by Robert Kagan, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution at
A case could be made that all conflicts between nations happen because the world lacks an ordered and fair way for governments to resolve differences collectively. This view motivated both Woodrow Wilson to found the League of Nations after World War I and the Allies to form the League’s progenitor, the United Nations, after World War II.
(‘The World America Made’: Robert Kagan for the defense by Mark DeSantis at )
It is often wondered how the superpowers achieved their position of dominance. It seems that the maturing of the two superpowers, Russia and the United States, can be traced to World War II. To be a superpower, a nation needs to have a strong economy, an overpowering military, immense international political power and, related to this, a strong national ideology. It was this war, and its results, that caused each of these superpowers to experience such a preponderance of power. Before the war, both nations were fit to be described as great powers, but it would be erroneous to say that they were superpowers at that point.
Roosevelt’s desire for a favorable post-war settlement appears to be naive at first glance. The post war plan that he had created was dependent upon the creation of an open market economy, and the prevailing nature of the dollar. He was convinced that the Soviet Union would move westward and abandon its totalitarian political system along with its policy of closed and internal markets. When seen from such a perspective, Roosevelt’s agreement to let the Soviet Union dominate half of Europe does not seem as ludicrous.
While the United States wanted to “eschew isolationism, and set an example of international co-operation in a world ripe for United States leadership,” the Soviet Union was organizing its ideals around the vision of a continuing struggle between two fundamentally antagonistic ideologies.
“The decisive period of the century, so far as the eventual fate of democracy was concerned, came with the defeat of fascism in 1945 and the American-sponsored conversion of Germany and Japan to democracy and a much greater degree of economic liberalism….” Such was the result of America attempting to spread its ideology to the rest of the world.
The United States believed that the world at large, especially the Third World, would be attracted to the political views of the West if it could be shown that democracy and free trade provided the citizens of a nation with a higher standard of living. United States’ Secretary of State James F. Byrnes said, “To the extent that we are able to manage our domestic affairs successfully, we shall win converts to our creed in every land.” It has been seen that Roosevelt and his administration thought that this appeal for converts would extend into the Soviet sphere of influence, and even to the Kremlin itself.
The American ideology of democracy is not complete without the accompanying necessity of open markets. America has tried to achieve an open world economy for over a century. It was the adoption of the Marshall Plan that allowed Western Europe to make its quick economic recovery from the ashes of World War II. The seeds of the massive expansion of the military-industrial complex of the early fifties are also to be found in the post war recovery. Feeling threatened by the massive amount of aid the United States was giving Western Europe, the Soviet Union responded with its form of economic aid to its satellite counties. This rivalry led to the Western fear of Soviet domination, and was one of the precursors to the arms-race of the Cold War.
(Adapted from ‘World War II: the Rise of the Superpowers’ at
The USA and the USSR became suspicious of each other because they had different beliefs.   The Soviet Union was a Communist country, ruled by a dictator, who cared little about human rights. The USA was a capitalist democracy which valued freedom.  The superpowers’ different lifestyles caused suspicion of each others’ motives and actions. This caused friction because the two sides did not understand each other.  They believed that their way of life was better, and tended to despise the way of life of the other side. They wanted to prove that their way of life was superior – this again caused them to do things which caused confrontation.
The Soviet Union could not forget that in 1918 Britain and the USA had tried to destroy the Russian Revolution. Stalin also thought that they had not given him enough help in the Second World War. At the same time, Britain and the USA could not forget that Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany in 1939. These long-standing hatreds from history made both sides suspect each others’ motives and actions. There may have even been an element of revenge for the past. Finally, because neither side trusted each other, events made them hate each other more.  The Yalta Conference (Feb 1945) caused problems because, although on the surface, the conference seemed successful, behind the scenes, tension was growing.   After the conference, Churchill wrote to Roosevelt that ‘The Soviet union has become a danger to the free world.’   At the  Potsdam Conference (Jul 1945) the arguments came out into the open – Russia and America openly disagreed about the details of how to divide Germany, the size of reparations Germany ought to pay, and Soviet policy in Poland.
In the late 1980s the communist world collapsed, and the Cold War international system became history. In the post–Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural. Peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic question humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.
(The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel P. Huntington at
Throughout history, American citizens have been inspired by their political, religious, and economic freedoms to act as ambassadors of liberty. Yet as one nation in a world of nations, the United States has also had to practice diplomacy towards other governments. The Founders understood that America’s principles must be reflected in its relations with other nations. For them, diplomacy was not merely a means of negotiating America’s interests.
America has a unique understanding of statecraft, because the United States’ foreign policy has always been accountable to the American people through their elected representatives. The monarchies and empires of Europe did not recognize the “unalienable rights” of human liberty. Their diplomacy served the interests of their rulers, and did not reflect the consent of the governed.
The Founders believed that America’s role in the world would be limited by constitutional government. It would also be inspired by a sense of justice. That was why George Washington recommended a foreign policy of independence and strength, a policy that would allow America to “choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
(What Is America’s Role in the World? by Marion Smith at
On December 31, 1945, President Truman’s Secretary of State, James Byrnes, told a radio audience that “mobilizing the nation for war is a small job compared with the effort to mobilize the world for peace.” But mobilize, organize, institutionalize, subsidize, integrate, underwrite, and manage the United States did. In the years after World War II, the United States led the world in creating a far-flung liberal multilateral order and Cold War alliance system that still exist today. Between 1944 and 1951, American leaders engaged in the most intensive institution building the world had ever seen – global, regional, security, economic, and political.
The UN, Bretton Woods, GATT, NATO, and the U.S-Japan alliance were all launched. The United States undertook costly obligations to aid Greece and Turkey and reconstruct Western Europe. It helped rebuild the economies of Germany and Japan. With the Atlantic Charter, the UN Charter, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it articulated a new vision of a progressive international community. In all these ways, the United States took the lead in fashioning a world of multilateral rules, institutions, open markets, democratic community, and regional partnerships — and it put itself at the center of it all. This was an extraordinary and unprecedented undertaking by a major state. It marked the triumph of American internationalism after earlier post-1919 and inter-war failures. It marked the creation of a new type of international order – fusing together new forms of liberalism, internationalism, and national security. It marked the beginning of the “long peace” – the longest period in modern history without war between the great powers. It laid the foundation for the greatest world economic boom in history. In almost all important respects, we still live in the world created during these hyperactive postwar years of internationalist order building.
There were six groups of ideas and grand designs competed for dominance at the end of the war:
1. One was a loose set of idealist aspirations for “global governance.” Some proposals were advanced by scientists and other activists seeking international control of atomic weapons and new global security institutions. Others were seeking new forms of global governance to deal with industrial modernism and rising economic interdependence. Nation-states were seen as no longer capable of dealing with the technological and economic scale and scope of the modern world. Prominent “one worlders,” such as Albert Einstein, Cord Meyer, Norman Cousins, and Emery Reeves, put forward passionately felt hopes and visions of a great leap forward toward world government. These groups and ideas existed mostly outside of the American government and remained peripheral to the politics of postwar order building – although the founding of the UN was seen as a partial achievement.
2. A second group was concerned with the creation of an open trading system. The most forceful advocates of this position came from the State Department and its Secretary, Cordell Hull. Throughout the Roosevelt presidency, Hull and other State Department officials consistently held the conviction that an open international trading system was central to American economic and security interests and was also fundamental to the maintenance of peace. Trade officials saw liberal trade as a core American interest that reached back to the Open Door policy of the 1890s. In the early years of the war, this liberal economic vision dominated initial American thinking about the future world order and became the opening position at the U.S. engaged Britain over Lend-Lease and the postwar settlement. Bretton Woods and the GATT system were the eventual result.
3. A third American position on postwar order was primarily concerned with creating political order among the democracies of the North Atlantic region. The vision was of a community or union between the U.S., Britain, and the wider Atlantic world. Ideas of an Atlantic union can be traced to the turn of the century and a few British and American statesmen and thinkers, such as John Hay, British Ambassador to Washington Lord Bryce, American Ambassador to London Walter Hines Page, Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, and Henry Adams. These writers and political figures all grasped the unusual character and significance of Anglo-American comity, and they embraced a vision of closer transatlantic ties. These ideas were articulated and rearticulated during the following decades. During World War II, Walter Lippmann gave voice to this view, that the “Atlantic Ocean is not the frontier between Europe and the Americas. It is the inland sea of a community of nations allied with one another by geography, history, and vital necessity.” The failure of the League of Nations reaffirmed in the minds of many Americans and Europeans the virtues of a less universal security community that encompassed the North Atlantic area. Others focused on the protection of shared democratic values. These ideas were famously expressed by Clarence Streit’s 1939 book, Union Now. In the years that followed, a fledgling Atlantic Union movement came to life. American and European officials were willing to endorse principles of Atlantic community and unity – most explicitly the 1941 Atlantic Charter – but they were less interested in a supranational federation.
4. A fourth set of ideas focused more directly on considerations of American geopolitical interests and the Eurasian rimlands. This is where American strategic thinkers began their debates in the 1930s as they witnessed the collapse of the world economy and the emergence of German and Japanese regional blocs. As noted earlier, the upshot of their thinking was clear – the U.S. must seek openness, access, and balance in Europe and Asia. This view that America must have access to Asian and European markets and resources – and must therefore not let a prospective adversary control the Eurasian land mass – was also embraced by postwar defense planners. As the war was coming to an end, defense officials began to see that America’s security interests required the building of an elaborate system of forward bases in Asia and Europe. Hemisphere defense would be inadequate. Leffler notes that “Stimson, Patterson, McCloy, and Assistant Secretary Howard C. Peterson agreed with Forrestal that long-term American prosperity required open markets, unhindered access to raw materials, and the rehabilitation of much – if not all – of Eurasia along liberal capitalist lines.” Some defense studies went further and argued that postwar threats to Eurasian access and openness were more social and economic than military. It was economic turmoil and political upheaval that were the real threats to American security, as they invited the subversion of liberal democratic societies and Western-oriented governments. A CIA study concluded in mid-1947: “The greatest danger to the security of the United States is the possibility of economic collapse in Western Europe and the consequent accession to power of Communist elements.” Access to resources and markets, socioeconomic stability, political pluralism, and American security interests were all tied together.
5. A fifth view of postwar order was concerned with encouraging political and economic unity in Western Europe – a “third force.” This view emerged as a strategic option as wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union began to break down. In 1943 and 1947, the world increasingly began to look as if it would become bi-polar, and “one world” designs for peace and economic order were less relevant. As officials in the State Department began to rethink relations with Western Europe and the Soviet Union, a new policy emphasis emerged stressing the importance of establishing a strong and economically integrated Western Europe. The idea was to encourage a multipolar postwar system, with Europe as a relatively independent center of power. This view of building Europe into a center of power was held by George Kennan and it was articulated with some vigor by Kennan’s new Policy Planning staff in 1947. Encouraging European unity also appealed to State Department officials working on European recovery. In their view, the best way to get Europe back on its feet was through encouraging a strong and integrated Europe – and this view informed the launch and funding of the Marshall Plan.
6. A final position was a full blown Western alliance aimed at the bipolar balancing of the Soviet Union. This strategy emerged reluctantly in response to the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe and the persistent efforts of Europeans to draw the U.S. into an ongoing European defense commitment. European reluctance to become an independent “third force” was reinforced by threatening developments in the East, such as the February 1948 Czechoslovak coup. The result was a quickening of European security preparations and an appeal to American involvement. It was not until the Berlin crisis in June 1948 that American officials began to favor some sort of loose defense association with Western Europe.
(Creating America’s World: The Sources of Postwar Liberal Internationalism by G. John Ikenberry at
The present world order was largely shaped by American power and reflects American interests and preferences. If the balance of power shifts in the direction of other nations, the world order will change to suit their interests and preferences. Nor can we assume that all the great powers in a post-American world would agree on the benefits of preserving the present order, or have the capacity to preserve it, even if they wanted to.
(Adapted from ‘Why the World Needs America’ by Robert Kagan, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution at
Saddam to the gallows – It was an easy equation. Who could be more deserving of that last walk to the scaffold — that crack of the neck at the end of a rope — than the Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of the Tigris, the man who murdered untold hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis while spraying chemical weapons over his enemies? The US President will tell the people in a few hours that it is a “great day” for Iraqis and will hope that the Muslim world will forget that his death sentence was signed — by the Iraqi “government”, but on behalf of the Americans — on the very eve of the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the moment of greatest forgiveness in the Arab world. But history will record that the Arabs and other Muslims and, indeed, many millions in the West, will ask another question, a question that will not be posed in other Western newspapers because it is not the narrative laid down for the people by presidents and prime ministers — what about the other guilty men? No, Tony Blair is not Saddam. We don’t gas our enemies. George W Bush is not Saddam. He didn’t invade Iran or Kuwait. He only invaded Iraq. But hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead — and thousands of Western troops are dead — because Messrs Bush and Blair and the Spanish Prime Minister and the Italian Prime Minister and the Australian Prime Minister went to war in 2003 on a potage of lies and mendacity and, given the weapons used, with great brutality.
(Saddam Hussein: A Dictator Created Then Destroyed by America by Robert Fisk at
It is useful to look at what is highlighted in the major journals of policy and opinion today. Let us keep to the most prestigious of the establishment journals, Foreign Affairs. The headline blaring on the cover of the December 2011 issue reads in bold face: “Is America Over?”
The lead articles are on Israel-Palestine. The first, by two high Israeli officials, is entitled “The Problem is Palestinian Rejection“: the conflict cannot be resolved because Palestinians refuse to recognise Israel as a Jewish state – thereby conforming to standard diplomatic practice: states are recognised, but not privileged sectors within them. The demand is hardly more than a new device to deter the threat of political settlement that would undermine Israel’s expansionist goals.
The opposing position, defended by an American professor, is entitled “The Problem Is the Occupation“. The subtitle reads “How the Occupation is destroying the Nation”. Which nation?  Israel, of course. The paired articles appear under the heading “Israel under Siege”.
The January 2012 issue features yet another call to bomb Iran now, before it is too late. Warning of “the dangers of deterrence”, the author suggests that “sceptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to US interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease – that is, that the consequences of a US assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”
Others argue that the costs would be too high, and at the extremes some even point out that an attack would violate international law – as does the stand of the moderates, who regularly deliver threats of violence, in violation of the UN Charter.
(‘Losing’ the world: American decline in perspective, Political Realities at
The following timeline has three points of divergence from our reality. Each occurs at its own point in time and in a unique part of the world. The PODs are as follows:
1. 173 AD: During his tour of the Greek Provinces, Marcus Aurelius meets a promising young boy named Gaius Correlus Sulla. Endeared by the child’s intelligence, Aurelius adopts young Gaius and declares him the successor to the imperial throne over Commodus, the emperor’s biological son. Sulla becomes Caesar in 180 CE and with a clearer mind than Commodus, prevents the Empire’s tumble into centuries of unrest that would have ended in its collapse.
2. 394 AD: Quich’en Ch’onle Mayapan is born in a family from the mighty Maya city-state of Calakmul. Mayapan grows into one of the greatest minds in history, and unites the Maya city-states by 452, thereby creating the greatest empire ever seen in the New World.
3. 1185 AD: Genghis Khan successfully protects his wife Borte from Merkit raiders and the legitimacy of her son Jochi is never in question. The father and son grow closer than they otherwise would and Jochi is named the sole successor of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty when Genghis Khan dies.
The speculative goal of the timeline is to imagine the change that can be made by a single person. Two parts of the scenario place a genius at the helms of a country in a period of great potential, and a third gives a growing nation the leader needed to maintain its internal cohesion. If there is a plausible theory behind the events of this timeline it is that good leadership is a game-changer. It can be the difference between plunging a country into ruin and leading it into prosperity.


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