The Duck of Minerva

Which New Year’s Eve would you rather celebrate?

31 December 2009

Dan Drezner and Bill have both flagged Randy Schweller’s new piece in National Interest. I’ve just finished reading the piece and I agree with them – it’s really a depressing read. But, it’s the type of piece that we see periodically – it tries to take stock of the state of the global politics and IR scholars’ understanding of it. In many way, it reads a lot like Mearsheimer’s “Why We Will Miss the Cold War” or Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations?” It aims high and tries to explain large systemic events by using a lot of broad generalizations to develop the core argument that we live in a world of disorder.

But, it got me to thinking (and since we’re all making lists of one sort or another as we end the first decade of the 21st century), how does this New Year’s Eve (and the transition from this decade to the next) compare to the past ten or so decade transitions. How unsettling is our current era relative to others? Which New Year’s Eve on the brink of a new decade would you rather celebrate?

Here’s how I’d rank mine:

1. 1999 -2000: Post-1989 but pre-9/11. Ah, the days when our biggest threat was that Y2K was going to destroy us all. Cool Millenium concerts.

2. 1989 – 1990: The fall of communism in Eastern Europe – the only real question was how would it end in Moscow. Democratization’s third wave was snowballing….

3. 2009 – 2010: Is unipolarity and American hegemony really a bust? Environmental degradation, resource scarcity, demographic stress all sound scary but many of these threats are distant while terrorism and proliferation do not seem to convey the existential threat we experienced during much of the Cold War.

4. 1959- 1960: End of the Eisenhower era and we had settled into the Cold War; but I still wouldn’t trade tonight for 1959 — kids were practicing duck and cover in school and tens of thousands of Americans were building nuclear bomb shelters in their backyards. (I grew up in North Dakota and we still had the duck and cover drills in the late sixties — remember kids, even a piece of paper can help shelter you from fallout…)

5. 1979 – 1980: Collapse of Détente and a renewal of the Cold War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Nicaraguan revolution, the Iranian revolution, global economic recession, oil price spikes, persistent claims of US in decline — sucked to be us.

6. 1969 – 1970: Escalation of the Vietnam War — 40K+ Americans already dead as well as several hundred thousand Vietnamese; a spiraling of the arms race and social tensions in much of the West.

7. 1949 – 1950: The eruption of the Cold War with a series of crises/war scares from 1946 to 1949 culminated with the Soviet detonation of an atomic weapon in August, 1949 and the Chinese revolution in October. State S/P was drafting NSC-68 = scary.

8. 1929 – 1930: U.S. stock market collapse in October, 1929 fueling the global depression, collapse of the global trading system, etc…

9. 1919-1920: Early post-WWI recovery – refugees, property destruction, grief, a generation of young men perished, feuding among the allies, the promise of Versailles was history… Not a happy time.

10. 1939 – 1940: WWII begins in September, 1939. Enough said

I’d just add one note that I hadn’t fully anticipated before my developing my list, but my ranking goes from unipolarity, to bipolarity, to multipolarity. Hmmm…. Happy New Year’s!