The seven years since 9/11 reveal an old truth: Problems are usually not solved, they are just overtaken by other problems. Those of 8/8, for example. On Aug. 8, 2008, two mighty nations announced their return. Russia, invading Georgia, did it with tanks. China, launching the Beijing Olympics, did it with acrobats. The message was the same: World, we're back.
Don't get me wrong. A grave threat from jihadist terrorists, potentially armed with atomic, biological or chemical weapons, hangs over us still. Even as you read this, another hard-to-detect groupuscule, working from the back room of a house close to you, may have taken the occasion of the Sept. 11 anniversary to try again. They won't always be foiled. Protecting us from "another 9/11" while not destroying our freedom in order to save it remains a major challenge to political leadership in every free country.
What has proved false is the neoconservative claim that this single threat now defines the whole pattern of world politics; that, as Norman Podhoretz puts it, the struggle against Islamofascism is World War IV.
Two other giant changes define the world we're in. The first, made manifest on 8/8, is how non-Western powers challenge the dominance of the West. They are beating the West at the game it invented. Analysts at Goldman Sachs predict that by 2040, Brazil, China, India, Mexico and Russia will have a larger combined economic output than today's G-7. And the economic is rapidly translating into the political.
At the same time, worldwide economic development based on the free movement of goods, capital and services (a.k.a. globalization) is exacerbating a whole set of trans- national problems. Carbon dioxide emissions that accelerate climate change, mass migration, the risk of pandemics: All these cry out for international, cooperative responses. Yet, by contrast with the 1990s, when President George H.W. Bush hoped to replace the Cold War with a "new world order," the prospects of achieving liberal international order no longer look so good. Power is diffused to too many competing states, many of them illiberal, as well as elusive networks such as Al Qaeda.
So we of the FLIO (friends of liberal international order) must now soberly confront the prospect of a new world disorder. Or rather old-new, for disorder is the more natural condition of international society. International order, which may also be called peace, is always a fragile achievement.
Russia and China are not simply great powers challenging the West. They also represent two alternative versions of authoritarian capitalism, or capitalist authoritarianism. Here is the biggest potential ideological competitor to liberal democratic capitalism since the end of communism.
Radical Islamism may appeal to millions of Muslims, but it cannot reach beyond the faithful, except by conversion. More important, it cannot plausibly claim to be associated with economic, technological or cultural modernity. By contrast, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, like the skyscrapers of Shanghai, show us authoritarian capitalism already staking that claim.
In the Bird's Nest stadium, the latest audiovisual high-tech was placed at the service of a hyper-disciplined collectivist fantasy, made possible by financial resources that no democracy would have dared devote to such a purpose. Zhang Yimou, the artistic director of the Olympics ceremonies, said that only North Korea could have matched such feats of mass synchronization.
For close to 500 years, modernity has come to the world from the West. In 20th century Europe, liberal democracy faced two powerful versions of modernity that were Western but illiberal: fascism and communism. Part of these systems' appeal was precisely that they were modern. ("I have seen the future and it works," said one enthusiast returning from Moscow.) Liberal democracy finally saw them both off, though not without a world war, a Cold War and a lot of help from the United States.
Now, in China, we glimpse the prospect of a modernity which is both non-Western and illiberal. But is authoritarian capitalism a stable, durable model? That, it seems to me, is among the greatest questions of our time -- which is still a post- 9/11 time, but also a post-8/8 time and, ecologically, a five-minutes-to-midnight time.
As we of the FLIO think about how to respond to this multiple-front challenge, I have more sympathy than many Europeans do for the notion, canvassed by American policy intellectuals supporting both John McCain and Barack Obama, of a "concert of democracies." We should look first to those countries who share our values in the way they govern themselves. But only with several vital caveats.
First of all, we should not kid ourselves that we can have only liberal democracies as partners. Our values may pull us that way, but our interests will necessarily push us to relationships and even partnerships with currently illiberal states as well. So any institutionalized League of Democracies, arrayed against an Association of Autocrats (Robert Kagan's vivid term), is a seriously bad idea -- even assuming you could agree who merits inclusion in the League. Bipolar disorder would be no improvement on multipolar.
It's also not the smartest idea to identify this vision of a concert of democracies too emphatically with the West, as in the former French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's proposal for what he calls a Western Union.
Historically, both modernity and liberalism have come from the West. But the future of freedom depends on new versions of modernity evolving -- whether in India, China or the Muslim world -- that are distinctly non-Western yet also recognizably liberal, in the core sense of cherishing individual freedom. I wouldn't bet on this outcome, but working toward it is the best long-term chance we have. Pessimism of the intellect must be matched by optimism of the will.
Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to The Times' Opinion pages, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the professor of European studies at Oxford University. His most recent book is "Free World."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times