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And the European Union, which came together in reaction to the bloodshed of the 20th century, is looking more fractious and riven by incipient nationalism than at any point since its formation.
Two precautions would help prevent any of these flash points sparking a conflagration. One is a system for minimizing the threat from potential dangers. Nobody is quite clear what will happen when North Korea implodes, but America and China need to plan ahead if they are to safeguard its nuclear program without antagonizing each other. China is playing an elaborately dangerous game of “chicken” around its littoral with its neighbors. Eventually, somebody is bound to crash into somebody else — and there is as yet no system for dealing with it. A code of maritime conduct for the area is needed.
The second precaution that would make the world safer is a more active American foreign policy. Despite forging an interim nuclear agreement with Iran, President Obama has pulled back in the Middle East — witness his unwillingness to use force in Syria. He has also done little to bring the new emerging giants — India, Indonesia, Brazil and, above all, China — into the global system. This betrays both a lack of ambition and an ignorance of history.
Thanks to its military, economic and soft power, America is still indispensable, particularly in dealing with threats like climate change and terror, which cross borders. But unless America behaves as a leader and the guarantor of the world order, it will be inviting regional powers to test their strength by bullying neighboring countries.
The chances are that none of the world’s present dangers will lead to anything that compares to the horrors of 1914. Madness, whether motivated by race, religion or tribe, usually gives ground to rational self-interest. But when it triumphs, it leads to carnage.
So to assume that reason will prevail is to be culpably complacent. That is the lesson of a century ago.
Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.