LOCATIONS: Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Serbia
173. new world order
At the dawn of the 21st century, the Cold War was over; democracy and capitalism had won. There was no longer a balance of power in the world; America was alone at the top. President George Bush, Sr. said there was a "new world order," and it looked promising. But all too soon, Cold War fears were replaced by new ones like terrorism and global warming.
Another new fear may be starting to haunt Western nations: the possibility of losing their dominant position in the world that began with the age of European imperialism. Today when the West looks east, it sees a new reality. Where the West once saw colonies, it now sees nations like Japan, China, and India growing steadily stronger—perhaps strong enough to challenge the dominance of the West.
One major fear left over from the Cold War is the spread of nuclear weapons, termed "nuclear proliferation." Nine countries are known to have, or believed to have, nuclear weapons. Although the United States has been unwilling to give up its large nuclear arsenal, the U.S. has told other nations, particularly North Korea and Iran, that they are not permitted to have nuclear weapons. The U.S. has not objected to nuclear weapons in the hands of its friends such as Israel, Britain, France, and India. The nine nuclear nations are Russia (which has the most), the U.S., Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.
China is again a superpower as it was for centuries before the age of European imperialism. With the world's largest population, labor force, and consumer markets, China's economy has boomed since China opened its markets to capitalist-style competition in the 1980s. Meanwhile, China's one-party communist government continues to deny Chinese citizens basic human rights such as freedom of the press and religion. China shows that a nation does not need a democratic government to have a successful capitalist economy.
Relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China have always been difficult due to their differing political systems, friction over the future of Taiwan, and perhaps because China still resents being pushed around by Western powers during the age of imperialism. Nonetheless, the Chinese and American economies are closely linked. China sells billions of dollars in goods to the United States annually, while the U.S. government has accumulated billions of dollars in debt to China. American officials aren't sure whether to consider China a friendly trading partner or a future threat as China's economy and military grow, and the U.S. and China compete throughout the world for resources and influence.
The world is being drawn together as never before by international trade, communications, and mass media, a phenomenon termed globalism. Major industries now do business in what amounts to a single global trading market. The labor market has gone global too as Western companies try to save money and increase profits by outsourcing work to lower-paid foreign workers. Many people believe globalism is a good thing—that when countries trade and communicate with one another, they are less likely to go to war. In Europe, for example, nations that were bitter enemies during two world wars formed the European Economic Union that adopted a common currency called the euro.
Other observers have concerns about globalism. Some say it has made rich people richer at the expense of ordinary workers, and others claim that the wealthy industrialized nations of the world are controlling the global economy, consuming the world's resources, polluting the Earth, and leaving little behind for the poorer countries, a global case of the "haves" versus the "have-nots."
Africa is the world's poorest continent. Unstable governments have slowed Africa's economic progress because foreign businesses have been reluctant to invest their money where conditions are not secure.
During the Scramble for Africa in the late 1800s, the great powers of Europe carved Africa into artificial new countries that included people of various ethnic groups. When these countries gained independence in the mid-1900s, they had not existed long enough for national feeling to overcome ethnic divisions. Africa's newly independent nations had little or no experience in self-government, yet they had to contend with tough problems like ethnic conflict, poverty, and corruption. Most governments failed.
Ethnic violence remains a problem; it led to genocides in Rwanda and in western Sudan, and it can cause famine by disrupting farming and food distribution. If these troubles weren’t enough, Africa has the world’s worst epidemic of AIDS, which burdens African economies with high medical costs and the loss of workers.
Still, there are positive signs in Africa. White rule ended in South Africa in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected President in free and open elections, and other authoritarian states have been replaced by more democratic governments. African countries are also making progress in fighting the plague of AIDS.
176. Third World economic development
The world's poorest countries are termed developing nations or the Third World. Most are in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and most are former colonies. Many of these countries are still struggling to find economic models that will work for them. Three basic models have been tried.
Early capitalist economies such as those in Great Britain and the United States developed with little government control. Governments allowed the free market forces of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" to control economic development. In the Third World, India adopted this laissez faire capitalist model.
The Soviet Union and China did the opposite. Communist governments completely controlled their nations' economies. Government owned the factories, and government decided who would produce what products at what price. Such command economies did not prove successful over the long term.
Japan chose a middle ground. Authoritarian Japanese governments adopted capitalism, but they directed the economy by promoting some industries and discouraging others. After World War II, Japan rebuilt its shattered economy by developing industries like textiles that depended on large numbers of unskilled workers. As the skills and wages of Japanese workers grew, textile jobs moved to countries where labor costs were lower, and Japan went into heavy manufacturing, making products like motorcycles and cars. Next, Japan moved into high-tech industries such as electronics and computers. Japan's successful strategy became the development model for other Asian countries including South Korea, Taiwan, and later China.
177. Latin America
Western nations long dominated the economies of Latin American countries. Latin America followed the classic colonial pattern of exporting food and raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. These arrangements benefited the white elites who controlled business and government in Latin America but made up less than two percent of the population. Poor, indigenous people received little. The lack of a sizable middle class might help to explain why Latin American economic progress lagged behind that of the U.S. and Canada. Since the late 1990s, however, Latin America has experienced its greatest period of political stability and economic growth since gaining independence in the early 1800s. And its middle class has been growing.
During the Cold War, when local political movements tried to improve conditions for Latin America's poor, the U.S. often labeled these moves as communist threats. In the early 1950s, Guatemala had a democratic government that took unused land from the giant American-owned United Fruit Company and gave the land to peasants. In response, the U.S. arranged the overthrow of Guatemala's government. In the unrest that followed, some 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, many of them poor Mayan Indians.
The United States went on to sponsor the overthrow of governments in several more Latin American countries, acquiring a reputation for supporting wealthy elites and military dictators while opposing better living conditions for the poor. In recent years, anti-American leaders came to power in several Latin American countries, promising to use their nations' resources to help the poor. One was President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who complained that "The U.S. government sees itself as the owner of the world."
179. ethnic cleansing
Ethnic violence has been around a long time, but in 1999 the world recognized a new type of ethnic violence when Serbia was accused of "ethnic cleansing" in the Serbian province of Kosovo. Christian Serbs were brutally forcing Muslims out of Serbia, killing many Muslims in the process.
At the urging of American President Bill Clinton, NATO approved U.S. air strikes against Serbian forces that stopped the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Did the U.S. have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of Serbia? Does the world have a moral responsibility to stop atrocities like genocide or ethnic cleansing? Who should decide when war will be waged to enforce morality? Should it be international organizations like the United Nations or NATO or individual countries like the U.S. or Russia?
180. the Arab-Israeli conflict
When the Ottoman Empire dissolved after World War I, Britain took control of much of the Middle East and encouraged Jews to immigrate to their ancient homeland in Palestine, an Arab region at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. After World War II, Britain left the region, and Jews seized over two-thirds of Palestine to form their new nation of Israel.
Neighboring Arab countries did not recognize Israel's right to these lands and tried to destroy the new Jewish state in a series of wars that stretched from the 1940s to the 1970s. Israel won the wars and took control of all of Palestine. Israel continues to extend Jewish settlements further into Palestinian territory, dismaying those Palestinians who want to reach a permanent peace agreement with Israel.
Arab bitterness has also been directed at the U.S. for playing a key role in establishing the nation of Israel and for strongly supporting Israel since. America faces a difficult balancing act in the Middle East—trying to support democratic and Jewish Israel while staying friendly with authoritarian Arab governments that dislike Israel but support U.S. interests in other ways.
Meanwhile, a history of Western imperialism and interventions in the Middle East contribute to Arab resentment against Western nations. Young men and women have been willing to kill and be killed in terrorist attacks aimed at Israel and the West.
In 1951, the government in Iran voted to take control of its oil industry from the British. In response, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (spy agency) secretly organized the overthrow of Iran's democratically chosen leader and replaced him with a monarch, the shah. For 25 years, the shah supplied the U.S. with Iranian oil and a base of operations in the Middle East.
But the shah's harsh dictatorship angered many Iranians, and his efforts to Westernize Iran were seen as threats to Muslim culture. Popular uprisings ended in a revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979. The shah was replaced by a radical Muslim government that despised the U.S. for its long-time support of the shah. When the shah arrived in the U.S. for medical treatment, Iranians feared the U.S. might try to return the shah to power again. Demanding that the shah be turned over to Iran, a group of young Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Iran and took 52 Americans hostage for over a year.
The leader of neighboring Iraq, Saddam Hussein, took advantage of the hostage crisis to attack Iran. The U.S. supported Iraq's invasion of Iran, but when Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait a decade later, the U.S. crushed Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. America still has a difficult relationship with Iran; the U.S. has accused Iran of making nuclear weapons, but Iran says it only wants to make peaceful nuclear power. In 2015, Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions imposed on Iran that were crippling the country's economy.
The Islamic revolution against the shah in Iran marked the emergence of a new political force, Islamic fundamentalism. Fundamentalists tend to believe that people should adopt basic religious values and that religion should influence government policies. Fundamentalists are often intolerant of other religions. Christian fundamentalism grew in the United States during the same period.
Muslim extremists used Islamic fundamentalism to justify violent acts including the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that killed some 3,000 people at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. After the attacks, President George W. Bush declared a "war on terrorism," and launched an invasion of Afghanistan, home of al Qaeda, the terrorist organization behind the 9/11 attacks. Nearly 10 years later, the U.S. found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
While the U.S. war on terrorism was aimed largely at Muslim extremists, terrorism may take other forms as well. In 1995, homegrown American anti-government terrorists killed 168 people with a truck bomb at the federal building in Oklahoma City. The term terrorism usually refers to attacks against civilians not conducted by a government. When governments attack civilians, they usually call it war or maintaining order.
In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew the government of President Saddam Hussein. The Bush administration was following a new policy of preemptive war, which means the U.S. may attack a country that has done nothing to threaten or harm America or its allies if U.S. leaders feel the country might want to harm America in the future.
President Bush said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that threatened the U.S., and he indicated that Hussein was involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. When it later became clear that neither was true, the Bush administration said the war was still necessary to bring democracy to Iraq. Critics of the war said the U.S. was more interested in control of Middle Eastern oil supplies.
The United Nations, NATO, and most countries did not support the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It damaged American relations with important allies like Germany and France, and it turned worldwide Muslim opinion against the United States. The war also triggered terrible ethnic violence in Iraq; it cost far more in American lives and money than expected, and it led to the rise of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS, which continues to sponsor terrorist attacks in Europe, the U.S.,and elsewhere. As happened earlier in Vietnam, Latin America, and Iran, U.S. intervention in Iraq brought unintended consequences that harmed American interests.
184. The Arab Spring
The Middle East has undergone a century of war and conflict. In the spring of 2011, young people in the Arab world led the way in seeking a better future. First in the north African country of Tunisia, then in Egypt, young people took to the streets in peaceful protests aimed at replacing authoritarian rulers with governments that would grant citizens greater freedom and economic opportunity. The protests grew until the leaders of both countries were forced to leave office. These "Arab Spring" protests spread to nearby countries including Libya and Syria where some rulers promised greater freedoms to their people and some rulers killed protesters in the streets.
The Arab Spring left the political situation in the Middle East more unstable than before. Egypt is now under authoritarian, military rule. ISIS militants gained footholds in Libya and Syria. Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war that has sent countless refugees fleeing to Europe. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, still hopes to develop a more open and democratic society.
Biotechnology is a term for technologies that can change how plant or animal life functions. Advancements in science are taking biotech into new and unfamiliar territory that holds great promise for improving human life but also poses difficult ethical questions for the future of our species.
Genetic engineering is the field of biotechnology that deals with genes that determine our physical makeup—whether we are tall or short, have brown eyes or blue, and if we are susceptible to diseases such as Alzheimer's. One day it may be possible to develop gene-based treatments for nearly every disease, allowing people to live longer and healthier lives. But the same technology could make it possible to alter genes to achieve desired effects such as greater beauty, athletic ability, or intelligence. Will people be tempted to alter their children in this way, and would it be morally acceptable to do so? Would this amount to humans trying to play God? If such technologies are developed, would it be possible to prevent people from using them?
Although capitalism looked like it had failed during the Great Depression, it survived, and most countries today have capitalist economic systems. To prevent another depression, governments tightened regulation of businesses, banks, and the stock market. Western governments also embraced the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, who offered an updated version of capitalism.
Unlike Adam Smith, Keynes said government should interfere in the economy. Keynes believed government could stabilize the economy by raising or lowering taxes and government spending. Depressions could be avoided, he said, by increasing government spending, which would create more jobs and increase demand for goods, which would stimulate production. In 2008, the U.S. government used Keynesian methods to prevent a bad economic recession from turning into a depression. Keynes also advised governments to save for bad times when times are good—something the U.S. government has failed to do.
Keynes believed governments would be wise to ease the harshest aspects of capitalism by providing citizens with a “safety net” of programs like Social Security and Medicare to meet basic needs.
In today's global capitalist economy, money flows to countries where wages are lower, which has the effect of gradually leveling incomes across nations. Workers in China are making more money than in the past, while American workers are earning less. Meanwhile, within the U.S., the middle class is shrinking as the income gap grows wider between America's wealthiest citizens and everyone else.
Although most countries in the world claim to be democracies, true democracy is not easy to achieve or maintain. Democracy appears to work best in societies with traditions of open expression, which might help to explain why democracy has struggled in the republics of the former Soviet Union.
One of the greatest threats facing American democracy is the huge sums of money needed to win election campaigns. Because politicians need to raise so much money, they can be tempted to make decisions that favor big campaign contributors over the interests of ordinary citizens. In the early days of America’s democracy, Thomas Jefferson warned citizens to be vigilant about their government. He said, “The people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty.” Jefferson believed the study of history could help give American citizens the knowledge they would need to think for themselves and protect their democracy.
A democratic system is effective only if government is being watched by a free and active press and by citizens with a realistic understanding of the world. In America’s democracy, aroused citizens can have a big impact; it wasn’t government that started the civil rights movement or stopped the Vietnam War. It was the people.
188. the environment
Our last issue may be the biggest. If humans destroy the earth's environment, nothing else matters. Our environment is a complex system of interactions between the atmosphere, weather, chemical compounds, and human activity. Humans appear to be altering this balance through overpopulation and pollution. Most scientists agree that human activity is contributing to global warming, which is changing the earth's climate, melting polar ice, raising ocean levels, and causing the extinction of many of earth's species.
Although the United States is one of the world's top two polluting nations, it has lagged behind other advanced industrial nations in efforts to curb the production of greenhouse gasses. These are pollutants such as carbon dioxide from cars and power plants that collect in the atmosphere where they can trap the sun’s heat like the glass of a greenhouse. U.S. leaders have been concerned that limiting greenhouse gasses could hurt American businesses. Others say that America can help both the planet and the U.S. economy by developing new "green" technologies to reduce energy consumption and pollution.
What will historians write about America 50 years from now? Will they say the United States was unable to adjust to new realities and declined like other superpowers of the past? Or is America exceptional, and future historians will say the U.S. was able to maintain its creativity and keep pace with a changing world? Stay tuned.
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Current Issues: A Changing World Order