Remember when the Cold War ended just a few years ago?
There was great rejoicing in most of the world and especially in the United States of America. I watched with great satisfaction the Berlin Wall come down and the Warsaw Pact disintegrate. I watched the Soviet Union fall apart and chuckled to myself, "Reagan was right -- into the dustbin of history with your accursed communism!"
Pundits of all kinds issued shrewd philosophical observations on the occasion. The most famous came from the pen of Francis Fukuyama who opined that, "At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy."
Boy, was he wrong! History is back, folks, and with a vengeance. The Russians have invaded the tiny state of Georgia, and it looks like they are prepared to stay there for a long time. The Bear is on the move again. He looks like he wants to get back his empire. And people told me that there was a "new world order" just around the corner.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Where did we go wrong? We made some naive assumptions.
First, we assumed that with the fall of communism, there was no more cause for war in the world. We were wrong. We forgot about that ancient phenomenon called nationalism -- "ethnocentrism" if you want to show off your vocabulary -- which has caused wars since humans invented politics.
Second, we wagered that since Russia and China were getting rich experimenting with capitalism and free enterprise, they would slowly turn democratic. We hoped that rising prosperity would very likely produce political liberalism in those former communist nations. We hoped that those folks would become nice progressives, at home and abroad.
We were wrong again. The growth of the Russian and Chinese economies has not produced the political liberalization we expected. It was rather naive of us to believe that rising prosperity inevitably produces political liberalism. The autocratic regimes of Russia and China have discovered the secret of allowing free enterprise while suppressing political activity. Enrich yourselves, but don't join the Falun Gong, and by all means don't flaunt your Christianity! You are free to get rich, up to a point, but don't demand any other freedoms. The government controls all newspapers, TV programs, movies, books, journals and the Internet.
There are certain times in history when a nation decides that democracy is not the main thing it wants. National pride is more important. Vladimir Putin is popular in Russia for handling the problem of Chechnya. Now he is reaching for a greater prize: the restoration of the Soviet Union. How convenient that some Russian nationals were left in Georgia, so that Putin could complain about their mistreatment by the Georgians and have a pretext for invasion. We recall that Adolf Hitler used the same tactic in 1938 just before he took over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told news sources that he was tired of being "bullied" by Washington. "We know there is only one superpower," he said, "but we don't need to be hit over the head with it every day." National pride.
So what can we do? Not much right now. We are tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan. The European Union, the body that should have the greatest interest in Georgian independence, is poorly equipped to respond to a problem such as this. The Europeans never expected to face this kind of challenge at the "end of history." But something must be done. We can orchestrate a lot of noise in the U.N. We can work to get Russia expelled from the G8 group and to prevent them from joining the World Trade Organization.
In the meantime, as Oliver Cromwell advised: "Trust in God, and keep your powder dry!"
Arlie J. Hoover is a professor of history at Abilene Christian University.