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Mon, Oct. 21

America, Korea and the New World disorder

Back in 1990, thanks to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet empire, and the spread of democracy around the world, the future looked better than we had ever dreamed it could be. But right then a Cassandra appeared.

The Atlantic Monthly published a cover story with the title: "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War." It was like hearing from your travel agent that you'd be happier spending January in Duluth than in Puerto Vallarta.

But today, it's really possible to feel nostalgic about that golden era when all we had to worry about was thousands of nuclear-tipped missiles pointed at us by an aggressive totalitarian enemy. At the same time the U.S. is trying to run down Osama bin Laden and eliminate Saddam Hussein, we find ourselves confronted by North Korea – which has a huge army, a belligerent leader and, apparently, a nuclear arsenal. Trying to cope with all the threats that have arisen in recent years is like trying to shovel frogs into a wheelbarrow.

The person who saw all this coming was John Mearsheimer, a foreign policy scholar at the University of Chicago. He explained that though peace is nice, the Cold War had the great virtue of imposing order on an anarchic world. With the Soviet Union and the United States locked in a stare-down, most countries found themselves obliged to take one side or the other – and to accept reduced freedom of action as part of the deal.

Back then, we didn't have to worry about Iraq giving us trouble because it was a Soviet ally, and Moscow wasn't about to let its allies pick fights that it might be drawn into. Terrorists had fewer places to operate because much of the world was under 24-hour lockdown by totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships.

North Korea, dependent on the Soviets and the Chinese, posed a danger mainly to South Korea, and that threat was manageable. As a rule, Moscow and Washington could each count on the other side to keep its friends in line.

When it comes to keeping things tidy, one superpower is not as good as two. Today, there is nobody but us to control our enemies, and we can't even control our friends. As Mearsheimer wrote in 1990, "If the Cold War is truly behind us, the stability of the past 45 years is not likely to be seen again in the coming decade."

Lately, among countries that have been our allies, the surest route to political success is to bash the U.S. It worked for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in his re-election bid and, last week, it worked for Roh Moo Hyun in his campaign for the South Korean presidency.

Think of it. During the Cold War, the countries that relied most on our protection were West Germany and South Korea. Today, they're the ones most eager to defy us.

The North-U.S. dispute? A lot of South Koreans now see us as part of the problem, not part of the solution. If the people living within range of North Korean shells don't feel threatened, it's a bit awkward for us to act against the threat.

Despite its spelling, the new president's name is pronounced "No." But these days, isn't every foreign leader's?

E-mail Steve Chapman through the Creators Syndicate web page at

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