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Berlin Wall opens

East Berlin citizens crowd the new passage at Bernauer Strasse in Berlin on Saturday, Nov. 11, 1989, where East German border police tired down segments of the wall. After the opening of the borders East Berliners flow into the western part of the divided city. (AP Photo/Rudi Blaha)

Ross Douthat’s Sunday column in the New York Times, about the cultural acme that was 1999, is well worth reading. Douthat mostly focuses on the cultural side of the equation, but this paragraph stood out:

“If you were born around 1980, you grew up in a space happily between—between eras of existential threat (Cold War/War on Terror, or Cold War/climate change), between foreign policy debacles (Vietnam/Iraq), between epidemics (crack and AIDS/opioids and suicide), and between two different periods of economic stagnation (the ‘70s and early Aughts). If you were born later, you experienced slow growth followed by financial crisis followed by a recovery that’s only lately returned us to the median-income and unemployment stats of . . . 1999.”

I am more than a decade older than Douthat, who is 39, but what caught my eye reading his column was the “between eras of existential threat.” I have wondered for a while now about whether age cohorts fashion common foreign policy worldviews because of their shared formative experiences.

For Generation Xers like myself who are used to ironic detachment, there is an oddity about my age cohort’s formative policy experiences. They all happened in the time between the late 1980s and late 1990s, which was an idyllic decade for American foreign policy.

Consider the state of the world when that decade started. A wave of democratization that had begun in Southern Europe had spread to Latin America, East Asia, and Eastern Europe. The Warsaw Pact had disintegrated, peacefully. Nelson Mandela had been freed in South Africa and apartheid rule was clearly going to end. Just as these countries were embracing democracy, they were also pivoting toward more open economies. The underlying trends seemed awfully darn favorable to the United States.

U.S. foreign policy during the 1990s proceeded on two tracks. The first consisted of efforts to lock in and expand the set of Cold War institutions erected by the West. The World Trade Organization was being negotiated into existence. Membership in bodies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank expanded to include countries that had avoided them because of outdated ideologies. “Containment” was replaced as a grand strategy by “reintegration.”

The second track was to focus aspects of U.S. hard power on the more resistant parts of the globe. The United States built a broad-based multilateral coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. To be sure, the U.N. intervention in Somalia did not work out, nor did the nonintervention in Rwanda. U.S.-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo seemed messy at first but successful in the main, however. Those interventions were quick enough to avoid the quagmire label. Similarly, the United States stepped up to coordinate global responses to the Mexican peso crisis and Asian financial crisis

So, to sum up, the world seemed to be trending in America’s direction, and U.S. active interventions to change the world seemed be yielding results.

Of course, what seemed like victories at the time created problems that would surface in the 21st century. One could argue that the U.S. intervention in Kosovo, far more than NATO expansion, was the start of worsening relations with Russia. The Asian financial crisis convinced Pacific Rim economies to start self-insuring against a financial crisis so they would never have to go to the IMF again. This triggered the start of macroeconomic imbalances that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

More importantly, the successful military interventions of the 1990s contributed to the forever wars of the 2000s. The kinetic phases of those interventions were quick enough to convince policymakers and pundits that military interventions could be fast, furious and finite. Afghanistan and Iraq have played out quite differently.

Even more importantly, the perception that the arc of history was bending in all the best ways proved to be unfounded. As Jacob Levy noted recently in Vox, there is no arc of history, not really: “There is moral improvement over some time spans, in some places: the fall of Jim Crow or of communism in Eastern Europe. But those aren’t the verdict of history or the historical revelation of moral truth, any more than the return of measles or of neo-Nazis represents the verdict of history.”

Neither decade since the 1990s has been especially pleasant. One can hope that if we ever have a decade like the 1990s again, we do not take it for granted. The 1990s allowed many in my generation to believe that the wind was at our backs when it came to America’s place in the world. It has taken a few decades of head winds for me to realize the folly of that conviction.

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Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s PostEverything.

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