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When Bill Clinton is inaugurated in January 1997, he will preside over the second presidential term of the post-cold war era. He inherits certain rifles, such as "leader of the free world" and "leader of the only superpower," that already sound like relics of a bygone age. For unlike his cold war predecessors, he does not face an annihilating threat, no life-threatening dragon to slay.
Instead, he inherits a paradox. It is no accident, as the Soviets used to say, that the present time lacks a distinctive name. One speaks instead of the "post-cold war era," which is to say that while the previous era was defined by a worldwide struggle, this one is not; that where the overarching geopolitical fact of the cold war was U.S.-Soviet rivalry, the overarching fact of the post-cold war era is simply its absence.
But therein lies a paradox. For despite the disappearance of that global rivalry, American military forces have been active, even hyperactive, as compared with any period of the cold war save the Korea and Vietnam wars. Between January 1993 and December 1995, Clinton used U.S. armed forces abroad on no less than twenty-five occasions, compared with seventeen times during the two Reagan terms and fourteen under President George Bush.(1)
The paradox yields this truth: the post-cold war era may be distinguished by the absence of a cold war, but it hardly qualifies as "peace." Rather, an overarching geopolitical straggle has merely given way to numerous "under-arching" straggles. The Kremlin may be emptied of ideologues plotting campaigns against America, her allies, and strategic points. around the globe, but the world as a whole teems with as many geopoliticians as ever. One might call them the "meat-eaters," those to whom power, territorial possession, military action, and pirated wealth matter far more than do the environmental issues, diplomatic niceties, human rights, and other hobbies of the social transformers who comprise the current U.S. foreign policy establishment.
The persistence of geopolitics, or realpolitik, has come as a rude and distressing shock to the neo-Wilsonians who took office under Clinton. Many were veterans of the only administration that genuinely attempted to transcend the geopolitical approach to world affairs - Jimmy Carter's. They believed that the collapse of Soviet power had made the "enlargement" of democracy and free markets possible and, indeed, inevitable. In their view, the era of the meat-eaters was over and that of the plant-eaters at hand. American power should therefore be harnessed to various projects the cold war had precluded, such as the enforcement of human rights, economic cooperation, arms control, and reinvigoration of the United Nations - with nation building a sideline to hurry along any Third Worlders too dim to recognize the dawning of the new …