Ten Illusions Shattered in 2011

2011 was a tough taskmaster for the pretensions that permeate international affairs. At least ten were knocked asunder.

Another year has come to an end. It was tough taskmaster for the illusions and pretensions that permeate international affairs. At least ten were knocked asunder in 2011.

Afghanistan. Washington and its European allies are dedicated to keeping combat troops in Afghanistan through 2014, after which they hope to sustain a democratic, centralized Afghan state allied with the West. Such a state has never before existed. Why make the effort? The answer I received from both American and Afghan officials on a recent trip to Afghanistan was to prevent the return of al-Qaeda.

It is a strange argument—terrorists have never had much trouble finding sanctuaries. The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan destroyed any remaining illusion that Afghanistan is necessary for al-Qaeda. Now come reports that the organization in Pakistan has been largely destroyed and elements are moving to Africa—without an American or NATO occupation of Pakistan.

America. The United States remains the world’s most powerful and influential nation. But its credibility suffered badly in 2011. America’s political system, once viewed as a model to emulate around the world, looks decidedly inferior.

Although on many issues the two major parties differ only modestly—almost always favoring more expensive and expansive government—these days they rarely make a pretense of cooperating, even when the national government’s financial future is at stake. While other countries are making tough budget decisions and rethinking traditional social benefits, U.S. politicians refuse to even debate issues like Social Security and Medicare. Not that this stops American officials from jetting around the world, lecturing the Europeans and others on economic policy.

Balkans. Long touted as a success of Western military action and diplomacy, the Balkan region remains a source of instability. The United States and European Union never made any pretense of objectivity, adopting as policy “the Serbs always lose.” The West worked to break up polyglot states dominated by Serbs but insisted that Serbs remain in polyglot states dominated by others. Human-rights abuses by allies—brutal ethnic cleansing in the Krajina by Croatians and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo—were largely ignored.

Still, after the 1999 war against Serbia the allies left ethnic Serbs in Kosovo’s North free to maintain their ties with Belgrade. Last year NATO forces, known as KFOR, violated their legal mandate by attempting to force ethnic Serbs living north of the Ibar River to submit to Pristina authorities, which they have never accepted. The allies injured Serb civilians while destroying roadblocks erected to prevent the passage of Kosovar officials to the border with Serbia. So much for America’s and the Europeans’ commitment to democracy and self-determination.

China. Much has changed with the collapse of communism. The death of Mao Zedong unleashed the People’s Republic of China as a potential new superpower. Since then, many observers have predicted that Beijing soon would sweep aside America in its rise to world domination.

That turned out to be another illusion destroyed in 2011. The PRC’s economy continued to grow, but fears of inflated property prices, dubious bank loans and angry social unrest increased even faster, and a skewed demography led some to question whether China would grow old before it grew rich. Beijing continued to wield sharp elbows internationally, stirring its neighbors to cooperate with America and increase their military procurement. Even nations allied with the PRC, such as Burma and Zambia, drew back from China’s embrace. India, too, is rising and is none too friendly to the PRC. China still seemed likely to end up as a Weltmacht, but global dominance looked further away than once assumed.