A watershed in international relations has occurred in recent months. Indeed, the past year may well have seen the end of an entire era in world affairs - the post-cold war period of unilateralism and missed opportunities.
When the cold war ended, avenues opened up for progress toward a better world. Major powers, particularly the United States, the Soviet Union and China, were working constructively together in the United Nations security council. International conflicts, including those in Angola, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Cambodia, were brought to an end. Nuclear and conventional arms control agreements were concluded, and democratic changes were under way in dozens of countries in Asia, Latin America and central and eastern Europe.
The Charter of Paris for a New Europe, signed in 1990, marked the beginning of a process that was expected to lead to a new, peaceful and democratic world order. But the movement in that direction soon stalled. The break-up of the Soviet Union was followed by changes in the political elites of the United States and other countries. The Charter of Paris was forgotten. Instead of moving towards a new security architecture, it was decided to rely on the tools inherited from the cold war. The United States - and the west as a whole - succumbed to the "winner's complex".
Europe was shaken by the tragedies in the Balkans. Waves of instability swept through the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Africa as the struggles for spheres of influence, resources and markets gathered momentum.
Nato's promise to evolve into a primarily political organisation was not kept. Instead, it moved to increase its membership and expand its zone of operations. A new arms race is now under way. The problems of nuclear weapons and non-proliferation have taken on a new urgency, with the original members of the nuclear club bearing much of the blame for it.
There is a real danger of a new division of the world; the possibility of a new cold war is being widely discussed. Without regard for the security council or for the opinion of other countries, including its partners and allies, the United States invaded Iraq with disastrous consequences. The arrogance of military power has led to a grave crisis - and to a decline of the United States' role and influence.
Another consequence of unilateralist policies and attempts to claim exclusive leadership is that most international institutions have not been able to address effectively the new century's global challenges - the environmental crisis and the problem of poverty. The unprecedented scale of international terrorism and the proliferation of ethnic and religious conflicts are disturbing signs of troubles to come.
Americans have also felt the effects of the administration's flawed foreign policies. In November the voters made their verdict known, delivering a defeat for the Republicans in the midterm elections. Yet that is a challenge to the entire US political establishment, for Democrats as well as Republicans. There is a need for a correction in the superpower's policies. Is the administration of George Bush capable of such a correction?
Both in the United States and elsewhere, the prevailing view is often negative. The administration gives ample reason for this view, because it seems to prefer the inertia of the old course. It would appear that all the Bush administration wants is to persuade the world that it is still firmly in the saddle. The president's recent statements and the plans being discussed in his administration are cut from the old cloth.
The Republican leadership clearly wants to leave to the next president a legacy that would tie him to its policies and make a change of course impossible. If so it is not just a tactical blunder but a recipe for an even greater disaster.
And yet I think the possibility of change is still there. The administration and Congress still have the time to forge it. They should begin with the Middle East. Not only should America start pulling itself out of the Iraqi quagmire, but it also needs to return to a constructive policy in the region. It is essential that the Middle East peace process be resumed, along with a serious dialogue with Iraq's neighbours.
If America's leaders have the foresight and the courage to look at the world as it really is, they would choose dialogue and cooperation rather than force. What is needed is not a worldwide web of military presence and intervention, but a restraint and a willingness to solve problems by political means.
After all, the world has changed dramatically even when compared to the early 1990s. It has become even more interconnected and interdependent. New giants - China, India and Brazil - have entered the world arena, and their views can no longer be ignored. Europe is uniting, and its economic and political influence is bound to grow.
Although the Islamic world is finding it difficult to adapt to new realities, its adjustment will continue and this great civilisation will insist on being treated with respect. Finally, the democratic transition of Russia (as well as the other former Soviet republics), for all its considerable problems, is bringing a new, strong player to the international scene.
During the 1990s, which were a difficult time for my country, I said that Russia's troubles would pass, that it would rise to its feet and forge ahead. This is what is happening now.
Russia's resurgence, its insistence on protecting its interests, and its ability to play a proper role in the world, are not to everyone's liking. Strangely enough, when Russia was mired in crisis, the west applauded it; today Russia is accused of rejecting democracy and of having imperial ambitions.
Still, there are no real reasons to fear Russia. My country is facing many problems. Learning new ways and building democratic institutions is indeed hard work. But Russia will never go back. The most difficult part of the road is already behind us.
I have always said that in this day and age we cannot afford to be pessimists. There are many reasons to be concerned and even alarmed. But history is not preordained. A new division of the world, a new confrontation, is not inevitable. A democratic world order is not mere rhetoric. It can be built.
Mikhail Gorbachev is former president of the Soviet Union.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2007