May 14, 2009 | Forbes.com

A World Sliding Into Danger

Time was when the sun never set on the British Empire. These days, it seems the sun never sets on a crisis. This week alone you can take your pick among the mysteries of the spreading swine flu, the drumbeat of Iranian nuclear pursuits, the conundrums of American self-flagellation over Guantanamo Bay, the wild uncertainties of the modern world's financial system or the Taliban onslaught in nuclear-armed Pakistan. You can go online and make a career out of delving into each in turn–and while you are doing that, another crisis will turn up.

And yet, for the average American, how much does all this dramatically intrude into daily life? For many–apart from those with family members fighting abroad in the military–the world goes on more or less as usual. Sept. 11 is for most a fading memory. The current financial wreck has caused plenty of pain, but the great majority who want work are still employed. If there are vast Hoovervilles of Americans actually starving, CNN has not yet found them.

In Washington, life right now is fat, with federal employment sky-rocketing. Our political leaders smile at erstwhile laugh lines calling for the failure of Rush Limbaugh's kidneys, while they promise a cradle-to-grave utopia that no mere mortals can deliver. President Obama runs up bills that even America cannot pay, and wishes happy New Year to enemies who as part of their New Year's festivities wish for America's annihilation.

In these circumstances, one looks for rules of thumb–to help winnow out the trivial events from the important. Back in the mid-1990s, when I worked as a reporter in Moscow, the broad rule I finally adopted for early post-Soviet Russia was that few things were as hyperbolically good or bad as they first seemed. The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union had been a shocker that raised sky-high expectations of a new democratic Russia, together with stunning fears of loose nukes and mass starvation. Huge uncertainties surrounded everything from the content of the vodka bottles to the value of the ruble to the question for a brief but electrifying interval in 1996 of whether Boris Yeltsin, on the eve of being reelected president, was in fact still alive. It was “hope” and “change,” Russian style.

In America, we are now cruising somewhat more gently into a new era. And though change is already upon us, in many ways it has yet to be deeply felt. My new rule of thumb is that life is both better and far more dangerous than it appears.

On the upside, free markets, the resulting innovations in technology and the ensuing globalization have combined in recent generations to deliver astounding bounty, which it has become all too easy to take for granted. We hear endlessly, for instance, about the rising costs of medical care. What too rarely gets mentioned is the extent to which medical advances–spurred by the American marketplace–have lengthened and improved the quality of lives, and how much more health some of those health care dollars buy.

Take another example. Old-timers deplore the decline of printed newspapers. But who could even begin to tally the immense gains of time, access, information and overall productivity that come with the ability to toss out the stacks of clippings, stop trudging to the library and instead go online to communicate instantly with almost any part of the globe. We fret about the possibility that our light bulbs might in some uncertain and marginal manner affect the climate of the planet, thus requiring mankind to adapt. Meanwhile, we forget that until Thomas Edison arrived on the scene, less than 200 years ago, mankind had to adapt not only to a climate that was in any event constantly changing, but also to the costly inconvenience of nothing more than oil lamps or candlelight after the sun went down.

In some parts of the world, staggering gains within the past three decades have become the new norm. The world's second most populous nation, democratic India, with its 1.1 billion people, has developed a middle class. The world's most populous, China, with its population of 1.3 billion, still suffers from despotic rule, but in economic terms has made a genuine great leap forward–a big improvement over the Maoist period when treating anything as private property was a high crime, and intellectuals were rusticated to duck farms for the sin of being literate or wearing glasses.

But where is it all going? A great deal depends on the global rules of the game. In this, from World War II to the winning of the Cold War, to the push during the Bush first term to stop the old axis of evil in its tracks, American influence and might has long served the world well. “Change” on this front is perilous, and it is happening.

What began as a shift to “soft power” during the Bush second term has been further evolving under Obama into a surrealpolitik of reset buttons, apologies for America and avowals of “respect” for governments such as Syria and Iran–whose rulers respect neither America nor the basic rights of their own citizens and neighbors.

Iran's rulers brag up their nuclear program on Iranian television–as they did, again, just last week. In response, Washington huffs and puffs, and reverts to the much-tried-and-failed formula in which the solution to such menaces as terrorist-sponsoring Iran is supposed to be the speedy incarnation of terrorist-spawning Palestinian authorities into rulers of a sovereign state. North Korea conducts illicit missile tests, threatens a second nuclear test, and announces that after years of talks and American concessions Pyongyang will pursue whatever nuclear programs it wants. America doesn't even ask for a refund of the $2.5 million that American taxpayers forked out last year for the Potemkin show of North Korea blowing up a cooling tower at its Yongbyon reactor complex.

On the nuclear front, the threat is not just the prospect of proliferation of bombs among rogue and despotic states–problematic enough though that would be for anyone inside the blast radius, should one of those bombs go off. The further problem is the message such proliferation sends: that arsenals of this kind may be acquired with malign intent and relative impunity; that the least scrupulous of nations are rewarded with out-sized power and influence.

Since the toppling of Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001, and Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003, America has shown growing reluctance to engage in anything smacking of real confrontation abroad. Saddam's overthrow is by now an issue now so macerated by Washington infighting that the majority of American policymakers treat it as a terrible mistake to have rid the Middle East of a mass-murdering, war-mongering tyrant. And while America has been sticking it out in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been no clear signal sent that when fresh threats arise, America will as a matter of course stand up definitively to anything more than four Somali pirates in a small boat.

In this opportunistic world, what, then, are the new rules of the game? Are they the rules of the morally perverted United Nations Human Rights Council? That's where America, in its new eagerness to “engage” with all comers has just won a seat alongside such world-class human rights abusers as China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. Are they the rules of the Indian Ocean? That's where America now seems willing to try to rescue its own citizens if they are actually held hostage, but there is still no will to actually clean out the pirate dens. Are the new rules those of Iran's hostage politics? That's where victories consist of obtaining the release of prisoners who should never have been held in the first place–this season, journalist Roxana Saberi; two years ago, a group of British sailors.

America is coasting right now on the strength of genuine past victories and of the seemingly inexhaustible resources produced by a longtime mix of democracy and free markets. Lamentations and financial woes notwithstanding, most Americans still live cocooned in enough comforts so that it's easy to forget just how rough the world can get. If America won't lead the way, lay down the rules and proudly defend them, big change is indeed on its way. It won't be the change we seek.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.

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