The end of history ends

The era in world history that began with the fall of the Soviet Union is drawing to its close. The post-Cold War Eurasian settlement that the United States and its allies imposed after 1990 has three big challengers – Russia, China and Iran.

American power and the end of the end of history
A symbol of American power, the National Capitol in Washington, DC. Credit: Christian Offenberg / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘The Return of Geopolitics’, Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2019.

The era in world history that began with the fall of the Soviet Union is drawing to its close. A coalition of great powers has long sought to overturn the post-Cold War Eurasian settlement that the United States and its allies imposed after 1990, and by 2016 they had made enough progress to change the climate of world politics. The revisionist coalition hasn’t achieved its objectives, and the Eurasian status is still quo, but from this point on we will have to speak of that situation as contested, and the next American president, along with his or her colleagues in the European Union, will increasingly have to respond to a challenge that, until recently, most chose to ignore.

Call the challengers the ‘Central Powers’; they hate and fear one another as much as they loathe the current geopolitical order, but they are united by the belief that the order favoured by the United States and its chief allies is more than an inconvenience. The big three challengers – Russia, China and Iran – all see the current state of Eurasia as a threat. The post-1990 balance of power thwarts their ambitions; the norms and values the United States and its allies promote pose deadly threats to their regimes. Until recently there wasn’t much they could do but resent the world order; now, increasingly, they think they have found ways to challenge, and ultimately to change, the way global politics works.

Some say we are transitioning from a postwar period to a prewar era. That is not quite true, at least not yet. The Central Powers know that they can’t challenge the United States, the EU, Japan and the various affiliates and associates of what we might call the ‘Maritime Powers’ head-on. The military and economic facts on the ground would make such a challenge suicidal. Furthermore, their conflicting aims and agendas limit the ability of the challengers to work in concert. But if the Central Powers can’t challenge the world system head-on, they can chip away at its weak spots and, where the Maritime Powers leave a door unlatched or a window open, make a quick move. They can use our own strategic shortsightedness against us, weaken the adhesion of our core alliances, and exploit the mechanisms of the international system: the United Nations Security Council, where Russia and China both wield vetoes; the cumbersome, easy-to-block mechanisms of the European Union; and NATO itself, where unanimous consent is required for the admission of new members.

Lacking the strength for a direct challenge, the Central Powers seek advantage where they can find it. They look for special circumstances where inattention, poor judgement or domestic political constraints of the status quo powers offer opportunities for easy gains. Russia’s strike against Ukraine was one such move; both Russia and Iran have skilfully exploited the divisions among the Americans and their allies over the horror in Syria.

Think of the Central Powers as an ‘axis of weevils’. At this stage they are looking to hollow out the imposing edifice of American and maritime power rather than knock it over. This is not the most formidable alliance the West has ever faced. Nor is it simply an ‘axis of evil’. Not everything the Central Powers want is bad; like all revisionist powers, they have legitimate grievances against the status quo. And like all existing orders, the status quo is flawed. Those genuinely interested in preserving the status quo must seek to reform and improve it, and one aspect of wise diplomacy is to look for ways in which adversaries can be persuaded to become partners.

Nevertheless, for now the lines have been drawn. The Central Powers don’t always agree among themselves, and in the long run their differences with one another are even more profound than the differences of opinion that trouble the Maritime Powers. Yet at present they not only agree that they have a common interest in weakening the Western maritime alliance in Eurasia, but also with the United States and many European countries still somewhat blind to the challenge, they are increasingly pushing ahead.

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Iran may be the weakest of the three revisionist powers, but it has made extraordinary gains in the last six years. The nuclear deal between Iran and the UN Security Council’s five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus Germany (the P5+1) – amounted to US recognition of Iran’s status as a Middle Eastern great power. Those who support the agreement focused on nuclear technicalities to paint the deal as a success, but there is no disguising the immense diplomatic gains that Tehran made. Washington didn’t just lift sanctions, it opened the door to a broader relationship with Iran at a time when Iran and its Shia proxies are making unprecedented gains across the Middle East. Just as President Obama essentially allowed President Assad of Syria to trade a promise to get rid of his chemical weapons for what amounts to a de facto end to US efforts to push his bloodstained regime out of power, so Iran managed to trade a promise to end its nuclear programme for American acquiescence over its attempt to dominate the Fertile Crescent and, Iran hopes, ultimately the Gulf. Whatever the implications of the agreement for Iran’s nuclear programme, the geopolitical consequences of implementing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – which cleared the way for the lifting of nuclear-related economic sanctions against Iran – has been and will continue to be enormous: an epochal shift in the global balance of power.

After the nuclear deal came more joy for Tehran; morale is flagging and unity is fraying among the Syrian opposition, even as Assad’s ground forces and Putin’s fighter jets continue to grind out more gains. The historically minded will think back to the times when General Franco’s forces slowly and painfully crushed the Spanish Republic while a divided West stood by, wringing its hands at the slaughter and dithering over the unsavoury nature of the Republican coalition. With the sanctions on Iran lifted, there will be more money to support Assad and Hezbollah; at a critical moment the United States is giving Iran access to more resources for war. In effect, the United States has tilted toward Iran in the Sunni-Shia war without any indication of a lessening of Iran’s hostility to American interests and without any offsetting concessions by Iran.

Russia, too, has greatly improved its international position in the last few years. Despite a collapse in world energy prices and Western sanctions, President Putin has made substantial gains in Europe and the Middle East. The Syrian intervention and a deepening alignment with Iran inserted Russia into Middle Eastern politics in ways not seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Putin forced President Erdogan of Turkey to apologise for downing a Russian fighter jet and created facts on the ground in Syria that limited the American ability to intervene. Ukraine is still crippled; Russia seems set to control Crimea for the foreseeable future. From inside the European Union, more voices are heard calling for closer relations with Russia; outside the EU, Russia has been systematically winning the ‘pipeline war’, shutting down projects that might someday reduce its hold over Europe. The Syrian refugee problem further polarised an already divided EU, and the inability (or unwillingness) of the United States and NATO to control the situation on the ground led many in Europe to believe that their domestic security and even stability depended more on Russian goodwill than they had thought.

The last two years have also seen China gaining ground in the Far East, despite the Obama administration’s much discussed ‘pivot’ to the region. For many years, China adopted a quiet strategy in its neighbourhood, one often summarised by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘peaceful rise’ formula. That era is over. In 2013, China’s declaration of a special air defence zone over the East China Sea met with mockery and disdain. After US bombers flew through the zone, Japan and South Korea followed up with flights of their own. But in more recent years, China has successfully fortified strategic islands in the South China Sea without the kind of coordinated pushback from the US, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Japan that some analysts expected. Freedom-of-navigation operations don’t seem to be slowing Beijing down, and China’s worsening domestic economy is making Beijing more assertive rather than more cautious. While some long-time US allies like Japan and Australia are increasing their military spending, and other powers like India are being driven away from long-standing preferences for ‘non-alignment’, the increasing militarisation of the region points to a much more dangerous situation in Asia.

China believes that time is on its side in the region, and that the Obama administration and the American people generally don’t have the persistence to stand up against a long, slow increase in diplomatic and military pressure in East Asia. Like Russia and Iran, China believes that Washington’s first goal in many confrontations is to find a face-saving way to retreat. Expect more initiatives from Beijing as it takes advantage of what increasingly is seen globally as a period of drift and vulnerability in American foreign policy.

To be sure, China is careful to avoid any dramatic action that could become a casus belli by itself. Indeed, it has repeatedly shown a knack for disaggregating its strategy into multiple parts and then pursuing each element separately in such a manner as to allow the different pieces to fall into place with minimal resistance.

This shrewdness not only keeps opponents off balance, it also undercuts the relevance of US security assurances to allies and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships in Asia. In fact, by camouflaging offence as defence, China casts the burden of starting a war on an opponent, while it seeks to lay the foundation – brick by brick – of a hegemonic Middle Kingdom. The stated desire of Chinese leaders to resolve territorial disputes peacefully effectively means that they wish to achieve a position strong enough to get their own way without having to fire a shot. If this is the game, Washington needs to be careful not to play into Beijing’s strategy and strengthen perceptions in Beijing and elsewhere that the American position in Asia is already on the wane. The next American president is likely to have to choose between confronting China and appeasing it in the Far East; neither choice looks particularly attractive.

Just as China’s strategy depends on flying just under America’s radar, advancing Chinese claims without triggering the kind of confrontation which the Middle Kingdom cannot (yet) win, so all the Central Powers generally prosper best when American diplomacy doesn’t grasp the nature of the game. Fortunately for them, many American analysts and most if not all senior officials in the Obama administration spent years failing to fully understand emerging changes in the world’s geopolitical climate. Even for the past few years, when it has been clearer to more officials that the world order is under threat, there is broad disagreement between and within government agencies about what is to be done. Additionally, it is not clear that the American people want to continue spending the resources necessary to maintain global order. Although the world seems generally unstable, none of the Central Powers look, to most Americans, like an obvious and immediate threat.

Three factors keep many Americans inside the government and out from connecting the dots. The first is the habit of supremacy developed in the last generation. From the middle of the 1980s on, the declining Soviet Union and its successor states were no match for the US. China’s horizons were more limited than they are now. And after the triumph of the first Iraq War demonstrated America’s overwhelming conventional military supremacy in the Middle East, American attention turned to managing specific issues (like terrorism, WMD and the Arab Spring) on the assumption that the United States no longer faced significant geopolitical rivals in the region.

The strategic dimension in the sense of managing intractable relations with actual or potential geopolitical adversaries largely disappeared from American foreign policy debates. Instead, American foreign policy was about ‘issues’ (like non-proliferation, human rights, terrorism, inequality, free trade) and ‘hard cases’ (rogue states like Iraq and North Korea and non-state actors like al-Qaeda that could cause trouble but were unlikely to affect the global power balance in a serious way). The balance of power in Eurasia, the great question that forced the United States into two world wars and the long Cold War, largely disappeared from American policy thought.

The disappearance of geopolitics reinforced a second tendency in American foreign policy that further hampered American ability to perceive and respond to the new challenge. That is the habitual American tendency, fruitlessly bewailed by actors as different as George Kennan (an influential American diplomat and observer of Russian affairs before and after the Second World War) and Henry Kissinger, to approach international politics through some combination of moral and legal ideas in an uncomplicated atmosphere of Whig determinism. The default worldview of American intellectuals and officials is that some combination of liberal capitalist economics and liberal political values is carrying the world swiftly and smoothly toward the triumph of Anglo-American values. Americans believed they were living through the end of history long before Francis Fukuyama wrote his book; that free markets and free government will bring the world right is one of the deepest convictions of the American mind. Ask Woodrow Wilson.

Moralists and legalists were both very comfortable in the post-Cold War world in which American hegemony seemed to have created a flat, global reality in which moral and legal questions trumped geopolitical ones. In a world without serious geopolitical issues, one can debate policy toward, say, Myanmar or Egypt based on one’s analysis of whether a given American policy supported ‘transitions to democracy’ in those countries without thinking too much about such depressing realities as the balance of power. Libya could be treated as a humanitarian and a legal issue rather than a strategic one. Similarly, in looking at Iran, many people inside and outside the Obama administration see either a challenge to the legal norms of the non-proliferation system or a moral challenge to human rights as understood in much of the world.

This mindset makes possible what would otherwise seem patently absurd: a negotiation over Iran’s nuclear proliferation that proceeds without regard to the destabilising consequences of Iran’s growing geopolitical reach – and the effect that that reach has on the policies and perceptions of both allies and adversaries around the world.

The ‘end of history’ that many American analysts unconsciously identified with an era of largely effortless and uncontested American global hegemony was an era in which no one had to connect the dots. Because there seemed to be few or no serious strategic consequences to anything that happened, every issue could be addressed in isolation, and policy could become the serial application of legal and moral norms grounded in American hegemony to various refractory countries and problem regimes around the world.

In such a world, the lawyers and the moralists are free to address each question without reference to anything so dreary as geopolitics. We do not have to ask if a particular line of policy is sustainable or practical. We do not have to deal with powerful and focused actors seeking to undermine us and to attack the structures and norms we are seeking to establish. For a full generation we have not had to think too much about whether something done or undone in foreign policy promotes or endangers our vital interests and the security and prosperity of the American people.

Optimism is so ineradicably grounded in American intellectual culture that even our great power realists are instinctively hopeful. Troubled by the costs and the risks associated with two unsatisfactory foreign wars and longing to redirect resources from the defence budget to domestic priorities, a significant number of foreign policy analysts inside and outside the current administration have developed a theory of benign realism. This theory holds that the United States can safely withdraw from virtually all European and all but a handful of Middle Eastern issues and that, as an ‘offshore balancer’, the United States will be able to safeguard its essential interests at low cost.

This view, which seems to guide both the Obama administration and the neo-isolationist thinking on the right, assumes that a reasonably benign post-American balance of power is latent in the structure of international life and will emerge if we will just get out of the way. Such a view is not very historical: Britain was an offshore balancer in Europe in the 18th century and was involved in almost continuous wars with France from 1689 to 1815. What is missing from the ‘peaceful withdrawal’ scenario is an understanding that there are hostile and, from our point of view, destructive powers in the world which will actively seize on any leverage we give them, and will seek to use their new power and resources to remake the world in ways we find fundamentally objectionable and unsafe.

Iran, Russia and China do not, one increasingly suspects, see American withdrawal as a call to moderate their ambitions or revise their revisionist opposition to the current world order. The appetite for power grows as one feeds, and political cultures deeply wedded to the concept of zero-sum outcomes in international affairs are unlikely to be ‘led by our example’ to embrace the idea of ‘win-win’ at just the moment they are intoxicated by the enchanting vision of winning it all as we fade away.

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It is often said that statesmen in office live on intellectual capital, and work with the ideas and perceptions they brought to power. The crush of events gives them little choice. It has been difficult, therefore, for the White House to change direction quickly even as evidence of a wrong turn has piled up.

If the Central Powers continue to work together and to make joint progress across Eurasia, however, the Obama administration’s successors is going to have to take another look at world politics. For the first time since the Cold War, the United States is going to have to adopt a coherent Eurasian strategy that integrates European, Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian policy into a comprehensive design. We shall have to think about issues like non-proliferation and democracy promotion in a geopolitical context, and we shall have to prioritise the repair and defence of alliances in ways that no post-Cold War president has done.

The sooner we make this shift, the better off we shall be. The Central Powers have been punching above their weight, largely due to the absence of a serious US counter-policy. The more time we waste and the more opportunities we squander, the more momentum and power the revisionists gain, and the less effective our alliances become.

Clear thinking and prudent action now can probably reverse the negative geopolitical trends in Eurasia at a relatively low cost. But the longer we wait, the harder, more expensive, more dangerous and more urgent our task will become.

Author

Walter Russell Mead