In fact, many of the old conflicts and tensions remained, frozen into place just under the surface of the Cold War. The end of that great struggle brought a thaw, and long-suppressed dreams and hatreds bubbled to the surface again. Saddam Husseins Iraq invaded Kuwait, basing its claims on dubious history. We discovered that it mattered that Serbs and Croats had many historical reasons to fear and hate each other, and that there were peoples within the Soviet Union who had their own proud histories and who wanted their independence. Many of us had to learn who the Serbs and Croats were and where Armenia or Georgia lay on the map. In the words of the title of Misha Glennys book on central Europe, we witnessed the rebirth of history. Of course, as so often happens, some people went too far the other way and blamed everything that was going wrong in the Balkans in the 1990s, to take one of the most egregious cases, on age-old hatreds, which conveniently overlooked the wickedness of Slobodan Milosevic, then the president, and his ilk, who were doing their best to destroy Yugoslavia and dismember Bosnia. Such an attitude allowed outside powers to stand by wringing their hands helplessly for far too long.
The last two decades have been troubled and bewildering ones, and, not surprisingly, many people have turned to history to try to understand what is going on. Books on the history of the Balkans sold well as Yugoslavia fell to pieces. Today, publishers are rushing to commission histories of Iraq or to reissue older works. T. E. Lawrences Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which describes the Arab struggle against Turkey for independence, is a bestseller again, and particularly popular with American soldiers serving in Iraq. My own book on the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, where so much of the foundation of the modern world was laid, could not find a publisher in the 1980s. As one publisher said, no one wanted to read about a bunch of dead white men sitting around talking about long-forgotten peace settlements. By the 1990s, the subject had come to seem a lot more relevant.
Todays world is far removed from the stasis of the Cold War. It looks more like that of the decade before 1914 and the outbreak of World War I or the world of the 1920s. In those days, as the British Empire started to weaken and other powers, from Germany to Japan to the United States, challenged it for hegemony, the international system became unstable. Today, the United States still towers over the other powers but not as much as it once did. It has been badly damaged by its involvement in Iraq, and it faces challenges from the rising Asian powers of China and India and its old rival Russia. Economic troubles bring, as they brought in the past, domestic pressures for protection and trade barriers. Ideologies - then Fascism and Communism, now religious fundamentalisms - challenge the assumptions of liberal internationalism and wage war on powers they see standing in their way. And the world still has, as it had in the first half of the twentieth century, the unreasoning forces of ethnic nationalism.
Excerpted from Dangerous Games by Margaret MacMillan Copyright © 2009 by Margaret MacMillan. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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