Bruce Anderson: Our own timidity has drowned the innocence of the Nineties

The neo-cons' desire to universalise US values was not imperialism. It was generosity

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

At the time, the 1990s did not feel like a golden age. But as the years pass, we may come to look back on that decade with nostalgia and regret. It was a period when problems were soluble and hope seemed justified. We had won the Cold War. The Soviet Empire had disintegrated, far more peacefully than the wildest optimists had predicted.

As the former prisoner nations rejoined free Europe, the ghosts of Yalta could finally be exorcised. The Chinese were becoming part of the world economic order. Even though Hong Kong had been handed over, it did not seem absurd to suppose that this could lead to a reverse takeover, with China coming to resemble Hong Kong, not vice versa.

Globalised trade was offering the world's poor an escape route. In the West, we appeared to have arrived at a new economic paradigm. A cultural change as much as an economic one, this enabled us to entrench non-inflationary growth. In the UK, we had a domestic entrenchment: a non-socialist Labour government which would not try to reverse Thatcherism. It also seemed as if we had secured peace in Ulster.

Admittedly, peace in the Middle East was as far away as ever. But few were prescient enough to grasp the scale of the problems that lay in the future: problems which would make a mockery of the new world order and encourage further nostalgia, for the simplicities of the Cold War.

Or any simplicity, for that matter. "The fascination of what's difficult has died the sap out of my veins." But Yeats did not know the half of the difficulties we face. There was a profound and melancholy symbolism in the assault on the Sri Lankan cricketers. Cricket has always had its unsavoury aspects, never more so than in Pakistan. It encompasses the fallen aspects of the human condition to a far greater degree than the white-clad figures on the village green and cucumber sandwiches at tea might suggest.

But it is the most civilised of the major sports. As much as any activity performed by grown-ups can be, it is a ceremony of innocence. As such, it is an easy victim for the blood-dimmed tide. A world in which Test matches have to be hemmed around by security restraints is a world in which barbarism has taken a decisive lead over civilisation.

It is all Britain's fault, though not for inventing cricket. In 1947, Pakistan was as unready for statehood as Bangladesh now is for Test cricket. If only Imperial India had stayed together. There would have been turbulence: there usually is in India. There would have been inter-communal strife. There often is in India, and it has always proved containable. There would have been additional strains on the Indian political system. But India copes with stress in the way that its roads cope with the traffic: constant chaos, surprisingly few casualties.

From the outset, Pakistan was doomed to be a failed state. But post-war Britain was too exhausted to discharge its Imperial responsibilities, or to ensure that we renounced our stewardship in the right circumstances. Partition began in bloodshed. Sixty years later, it has led to ungovernability plus nuclear weapons. It is not clear if anything can be done.

Perhaps the only hope is a good general. But we had one of those recently and it did not work. It is now fashionable to disparage General Musharraf: failed military dictators are an easy target for scorn. But he was a brave and conscientious man who did his best. It is not as if his regime has been replaced by classical liberalism. There is an obvious and depressing conclusion: that if he cannot govern the country, no-one can.

There is a cruel irony. Iraq shows evidence of steady improvement. Although that could have happened sooner if the nation-building process had been properly addressed instead of being grotesquely mishandled, those of us who supported the invasion have no reason to repent. But we may have to concede that Iraq was a sideshow. Iran could prove to be more dangerous; Pakistan, more dangerous still. Then there is Egypt, whose economy is as chaotic as the Delhi traffic, but without the underlying equilibrium.

In global recessions, poor countries suffer. How much more suffering can Egypt absorb without disintegrating? At the end of the Nineties, the neo-conservatives had an Enlightenment project: to bring peace, prosperity and freedom to the Middle East. Apart from a certain hypocrisy over Palestine, it was a noble vision. The world would have been a much better and safer place if the neo-cons' plans had come to fruition. But there is a problem with enlightenment projects to tear up the existing order and reconstruct mankind on abstract principles. They always fail.

There would appear to be one exception: the United States itself. This had a great influence on the neo-cons, many of whose families came to America to seek asylum. It was natural that they should think in terms of universalising American values. That was not imperialism. It was generosity.

But the success of the American revolution is atypical. Although it may have seemed to bring an enlightenment project into being, it was a much more conservative affair than its European equivalents. It rested on sound bourgeois and squirearchical foundations. The real Enlightenment project came with President Lincoln's Civil War. That cost half a million dead, and the South took a century to recover.

So how long will it take the Middle East to solve its problems? Given the likely spread of nuclear weapons, it would be dangerous to think in terms of centuries, yet the region is in a far worse mess than the South was at the beginning of Reconstruction. Confronted by perils which it is reluctant to recognise, the West is impoverished both financially and in terms of geopolitical self-confidence.

After six years of fighting, we would like some respite, especially as many of our voters never approved of the whole business. Yet to seek respite now would be folly. It would mean acting like the man in the snowstorm, who thinks that he would feel better if he just lay down for a brief nap.

Apropos of respite, there is a further cruel irony. There was never a good moment to knight Edward Kennedy. By comparison with him, Sir Fred Goodwin is equal to the entire chivalry of Crécy and Agincourt. Kennedy is a despicable creature. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties, he supported the political objectives of the terrorists who were trying to murder Northern Ireland out of existence.

But this turns out to have been an especially inappropriate week. Senator Kennedy's friends are back in business. Another achievement of the 1990s is suddenly called into question. It might be just as well that some more troops are coming back from Iraq. They might be needed in Ulster.

There is a final reason for pessimism. In the 1990s, those who governed us thought that they knew what they were doing. Their analyses may have been mistaken, but at least they had some. Now, and in so many areas, we are taking a leap in the dark. The darkness has rarely seemed deeper or the leap more despairing. The human intellect may not be equal to the challenges which we face.

The night can sweat with terror as before,
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.