Dreams of a new world order, grounded in UN peacekeeping, faded in the early '90s. They were replaced by belief in a new superpower order, a Pax Americana enforced by mobile US/allied policing.
Protected by this policing, a kind of "invisible hand" weaving of trade and investment would then bind peoples together in a fabric of rising living standards. Those benefits were to be primed by US, European, and Japanese investing and buying power - supplemented by Asian Tigers and others. Now world leaders are having to rethink again. The global policeman is challenged by rebellion - seemingly hydra-headed terrorist cells. And the fabric of global economic growth faces hydra-headed currency speculators, feeding on the results of bad loans, overbuilding, bureaucratic bungling, and skittish capital flight.
Both threats seem difficult to combat. Terrorist activity spreading beyond Afghanistan and Sudan, potential nuke-manufacturing in North Korea, and revived biological weapons work in Iraq emphasize the difficulty.
The spread of currency selling, investor flight, and lender worries from Asia to Russia to Venezuela and Brazil show hydra heads popping up on the economic scene.
Is the post-cold-war party over? Are projections of the spread of global prosperity ready for the shredder? No. World order was never as simple as many politicians and economists promised. But neither is it now so easily trashed.
Take terrorism. The callous Real IRA bombing in Omagh brought more sectarian cooperation on both sides of Ireland than even optimists hoped for. Despite widespread Muslim protests, the Pakistani government and even Taliban Afghan leaders have been willing to talk about curbing tit-for-tat retaliations.
Amidst financial gloom, the US economy is helping Asians to recover by gobbling their exports. Brazil continues successful privatizing. And Japan at last seems determined to stimulate growth, attack bad loans, and thus help restore Asian growth.
Terrorism and financial contagion aren't really hydra-headed. They're just two more problems that demand persistent work in major capitals.