America's most famous diplomat reflects on a very revolutionary 2011, the rise of China, and the prospects for a new Cold War.
The Obama administration exaggerates the impact of its rhetoric [on the Arab revolutions] but does not have a clear sense of the kind of world they'd like to see and how they want to make it come about.
Usually, the impetus of revolution is a relatively small group with positive goals but also a larger collection of people with resentments. The next challenge is to organize a new set of obligations, and that cannot be deduced from the proclamations of the originators of the revolution. The American Revolution was a rare exception, as it was an attempt to vindicate an existing set of institutions.
Some of [these Arab revolutions] may take undesirable directions. I don't have any specific nightmares, but I could imagine a growing irrelevancy of the United States in the region.
In 1848, almost all of the revolutions failed in the end. In France, democratic forms led to the rise of an emperor, so the particular aspirations of governance were not realized. Then, later in the century, the idea of universal suffrage developed under conservative governments and was later realized under liberal leaderships. So it's not clear which way [the Arab revolutions] will go.
New technologies make it much easier to acquire factual knowledge, though they make it harder in a way to process it because one is flooded with information, but what one needs for diplomacy is to develop a concept of what one is trying to achieve. The Internet drives you to the immediate resolution of symptoms but may make it harder to get to the essence of the problems. It's easier to know what people are saying, but the question is whether diplomats have time to connect that with its deeper historical context.
Will China Really Evolve?
One can tell the impact of [reformist Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping in the economic field. Inevitably, China will have to evolve political institutions that reflect that change. A country of the magnitude of China that develops the capacity to operate globally will impinge on the kind of world that we have been familiar with in the postwar era, which was substantially dominated by U.S. conceptions. On the other hand, I think the extent of U.S. dominance was always overstated. It will require a real adjustment of our thinking, and the challenge is whether we and China will develop the wisdom to do this in a parallel way or whether it will devolve into a Cold War-like situation.
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello for FP