Adrian Hamilton: We have forgotten the lessons of history

We have failed to build on what was done in 1945. Indeed, in some ways, we are going backwards
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The Independent Online

The VE celebrations earlier this month were overwhelmed by the bombings on 7 July. The 60th anniversary of the first test of the atomic bomb in New Mexico was pushed into the inside pages of newspapers. Heaven knows what will happen to the anniversary of VJ (Victory over Japan) Day on 15 August.

Perhaps it is as well they are pushed aside. The VE celebrations, even without the London bombings, were soured by Moscow's determination that they pay due homage to Russia's part in the war, while Eastern Europe declared that there was nothing to celebrate because Russia's victory led straight to the suppression of their lives. The anniversary of the detonation of the first atomic bomb was made to look pretty hollow by the tensions over North Korea and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

It's hard to believe that any sensible review of the war in the Pacific is going to occur when China and Japan are at loggerheads over Japan's war crimes and the political establishment of Tokyo seems so intent on "moving on" from the past.

The reality is that the world in 2005 is in no condition to discuss the lessons of 1945, and that in itself is commentary enough on the celebrations. The Americans and British can glory in their victories, as the Russians; the Germans can at last begin to talk of their suffering during the final months of the war and after; and Japan can go into denial as to what happened, but none of this seems to have much relevance to the present or even worth much discussion of yesterday. The Cold War put such an icy grip on the post-war era that it all seems too far away.

It shouldn't, because the more we know of the Cold War the more it appears as a diversion from the Second World War, not a logical development from it. The question that faced the major powers at the end of that war was what to do about the collapse of the old empires and the emergence of a host of tentative and confused states in Europe, Asia and Africa. The Cold War froze that question in the new East-West confrontation, but it didn't answer it

We are once again faced with the issue of the viability of a myriad of states, only now we talk in terms of "failed states". We are again looking at the vacuum of a world once filled with imperial power, only now we are erecting new global conflicts to define the tensions - the clash of civilisations, the axis of evil, fundamentalism versus civilisation and whatever.

It's much less simple than that, and also more uncertain. The world in which we operate now would have been pretty recognisable to those in 1945. The glue of global confrontation no longer holds together a host of countries, each with their own inheritance of tribal, economic and religious conflict. Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq - you name them, the challenge is the same: how to keep states together and ensure stability when the old forces of imperial or superpower control are no longer there.

The Muslim fundamentalists would like to develop a new version of the old Caliphate that brings all the Muslim lands together. Tony Blair would like a new Manichaean world of "civilisation" and "extremism" to give shape to the globe. President Bush veers between a Panglossian vision of a democratic, free-market tide that will sweep and calm all before it and an assertion of US authority as the sole remaining superpower.

So, while Condoleezza Rice talks of democracy, Donald Rumsfeld goes to Central Asia to insist on US rights to military bases in competition with China and Russia. While the G8 talked of ending African poverty and removing its debt, over a million people in Niger faced starvation because hardly anyone (except the UK) was taking any notice of the warnings of famine there.

The challenge that faces us today is much the same as that which faced our forefathers in 1945: how do you, out of the wreckage of the past, rebuild and make viable those states bereft of the resources, structures and experience needed to do it.

They managed to it, with remarkable success, with the defeated nations of Germany, Italy and Japan. The Common Market did it with an inner core of continental Europe. The international community didn't succeed - partly because of the Cold War - in Asia, much of Africa and Eastern Europe. They made only a partial success of developing the international institutions - the UN, the World Bank, Nato and Asean - that might hold the court in future conflicts.

We, it has to be said, have failed to build on that inheritance. Indeed, in some ways we are going backwards. Not the least crime of the invasion of Iraq was that it took the West down entirely the wrong avenue, towards selective intervention and recourse to military power at the expense of nation building. This is the opposite of what we need to cope with the modern world, let alone bring some stability to it.

The real challenge of statesmanship in the coming months is not Tony Blair's hyperbolic call to arms against terrorism but the hard grind of helping Iraq and Afghanistan to work, bringing the right pressure on Sudan and other states of Africa to stop civil strife, and gaining the consensus to reform and reinvigorate international institutions.

This September sees major meetings of the UN, the European Union and the IMF to consider where those organisations go next. If we could get those right, an awful lot would follow.