Posted: January 18, 2010
n the decade after the collapse of Soviet Communism, traditional patterns of great power rivalry appeared to have ended. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton half-heartedly pursued a foreign policy strategy of "democratic enlargement," premised on the idea that an expanding circle of market democracies would bolster American security and prosperity. Though George W. Bush came to office promising a more modest U.S. foreign policy, after September 11 he embraced a "forward strategy of freedom" more ambitious than Clinton's. Both the Clinton and Bush versions of democracy promotion were variants of Woodrow Wilson's belief that the spread of democracy and free markets would transform the international system in the direction of American values and lead to a new unchallenged liberal hegemony—the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama memorably argued.
As it turns out, today's rising and resurgent great powers maneuver for advantage in ways that would have been quite familiar to 19th-century statesmen. Several new books show that this pattern did not begin under Bush but under Clinton, however much it was ignored at the time and since.
The 1990s had the feel of an interregnum, even at the time. The end of the Cold War, the apparent absence of a focused threat, and the relative lack of major crises all led to a sense that U.S. foreign policy was experiencing an in-between period, lacking definition and drama. The world was now "uni-multipolar," in Samuel Huntington's phrase, with one preponderant global power along with several major powers of primarily regional importance.
The fact that great power competition under the new system was more subtle and subdued led many Americans to conclude that such rivalry had ended. The Clinton Administration's foreign policy presupposed that "new issues" such as trade, interdependence, and humanitarian intervention took precedence over great power politics. The story is capably told by Derek Chollet, a former Clinton State department official, and James Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, in America Between the Wars, and by John Dumbrell, a Durham University professor of government and international affairs, in Clinton's Foreign Policy. Both books achieve a welcome degree of historical distance, balance, and seriousness on their subject. Chollet and Goldgeier's book is the more engaging of the two, Dumbrell's the more academic.
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As these authors point out, Bill Clinton came into office without much of an appreciation for national security issues. His chief foreign policy focus, insofar as he had one, was economics and globalization. He recognized that trade was fundamentally good for American interests, and took real political risks to secure the passage of worthwhile agreements like NAFTA. But as opposition to trade and globalization built overseas and in the Democratic Party's left wing, he backed off and allowed trade talks to drift. Even more disturbing was his handling of international crises such as Bosnia. After criticizing George H.W. Bush during the 1992 election season for failing to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, once in office Clinton failed to act, too. Yet unlike Bush, he tied American credibility to events on the ground by repeatedly condemning the Serbs and outlining "unacceptably" immoral outcomes. The gap between stated U.S. goals and concrete commitments to secure those goals was agonizingly apparent for a period of over two years. Only when events forced his hand in summer 1995 did Clinton finally use airstrikes and covert aid to hammer the Serbs into an uneasy peace agreement.
One of the remarkable features of the Clinton era was the way in which party lines flip-flopped on questions of U.S. intervention overseas. In part, this was due to the interventions at issue—Haiti—where compelling U.S. strategic interests were hardly obvious. But it was also due to genuine confusion as to what sort of role the U.S. should play abroad after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Republican congressional majority that came to power in 1995 was often described as isolationist, sometimes by fellow Republicans. Chollet and Goldgeier have a better feel than Dumbrell for the domestic political debates and considerations surrounding Clinton's foreign policy, and are particularly good at sketching the differences within each political party. But even they fail to grasp entirely the GOP's international policy concerns during the 1990s. To put it simply, Contract-with-America Republicans were not isolationists. They sought to maintain America's military supremacy while placing limits on dubious new financial, strategic, and multilateral commitments overseas. These were not unreasonable goals, and were in fact well suited to the times.
End of history or not, geopolitical competition continued between the United States, Russia, China, and other major powers in the 1990s. The very fact of U.S. military and political predominance obscured the extent to which both globalization and great power peace depended on American power. Clinton himself had no special feeling for the realities underlying international peace and security. His management of relations with China, Russia, and India was uneven at best. Sino-American relations, especially, were erratic, as the president cycled between an emphasis on human rights and trade, without a clear strategy in either case. Both of these books overstate Clinton's credit for broad success in foreign policy. Dumbrell's high praise of the 2000 peacemaking efforts at Camp David, in particular, is quite misplaced. With Israeli and Palestinian negotiating positions as far apart as they were, why stake American credibility on a high-stakes, probably futile effort to leapfrog all remaining differences?
Clinton's debacle in Somalia was also inexcusable. In most cases he was cautious rather than bold on foreign policy, a "soft" Wilsonian. This caution prevented him from making aggressive mistakes of world-historical importance; mostly he muddled through eight years under exceptionally favorable geopolitical circumstances, and usefully showed that a post-Cold War Democratic president would not dismantle America's overseas alliances.
George W. Bush was elected in 2000, promising greater toughness toward America's adversaries and greater prudence regarding military intervention overseas. He lived up to the first promise, but effectively jettisoned the second in 2003 when he seriously mismanaged the occupation of Iraq. Oddly for a Republican, Bush adopted Wilsonian assumptions after September 11, namely, that democratization was a sort of silver bullet in national security matters, and that democracy could be spread easily even in historically inhospitable regions. Fortunately, he was a hard Wilsonian, and once the going got rough, he did not abandon the U.S.-led military effort in Iraq. Still, the course of that war cast serious doubt on the notion that history was about to end, in the Middle East or anywhere else.
Even as Bush focused on Iraq, underlying great power competitions resurfaced. Nursing intense resentment over the terms on which the Cold War had ended—involving the expansion of American influence deep into Eastern Europe-Russia reasserted its would-be role as the dominant power within the Caucasus, Central Asia, Belarus, and Ukraine, while using its control over vast oil and gas supplies to pressure other nearby countries. China, for its part, expanded its economic and diplomatic influence in an even more breathtaking fashion, not only throughout East and Southeast Asia, but also into new regions such as Africa and Latin America, providing substantial trade, aid, and investment without any humanitarian or ideological preconditions to a wide range of nasty regimes. Naturally the United States attempted to push back against the expansion of Russian and Chinese influence, while denying that it was doing any such thing. For respectable American opinion, the more reassuring assumption was still that great power rivalry was essentially a thing of the past, a vicious and outmoded custom like dueling, or smoking. This notion was not taken seriously in Moscow or Beijing, however, where people smoked and Realpolitik continued.
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Among the most readable of the new books on this continuing competition is Parag Khanna's The Second World. Khanna, the director of the Global Governance Initiative and a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that we now live in a world with three great powers or empires, as he calls them: the United States, the European Union, and China. Russia he discounts as a spoiler—energy-rich but no superpower. The United States, he writes, relies mainly on military alliances and bases to maintain its influence abroad; the European Union, on the promise of membership in its ever-expanding union; and China, on economic expansion together with a low-key form of diplomacy that emphasizes consultation. He describes patterns of local and great power rivalries in regions stretching from Central Asia to North Africa and South America. The sketches that he draws are useful, streetwise, and sometimes very funny; if I were to undertake a geopolitical world tour, I would want him as my guide.
But parts of his overall argument fail to convince. The E.U. is an economic powerhouse but has little unity or coherence on decisions relating to war and peace. It's an impressive collection of wealthy, peaceful democracies that have overcome certain violent animosities—notably between Germany, France, and Britain—but it is not a superpower in a military or geopolitical sense. Khanna also overestimates the extent to which American power is in decline. Though China's economy, armed forces, and global influence have grown rapidly in recent years, they are still no match for America's, and Chinese officials know it. Like many foreign policy experts, he concludes his work with ringing denunciations of American domestic practices on the shaky premise that changing them would somehow bolster the U.S.'s reputation overseas. For Khanna, Americans eat too much, weigh too much, own too many guns, are undereducated, and engage in what he calls "wasteful motor sports." The kindest thing that can be said of this extended non-sequitur is that Americans can and will cheerfully ignore it.
Khanna believes that China will be America's chief rival in the near future, and Russia merely a nuisance. George Friedman, the founder and CEO of STRATFOR, a private intelligence and forecasting company, offers the opposite argument in The Next 100 Years. Friedman notes that China is bound by geography as well as its own latent domestic instability. He expects Chinese economic growth to slow down, and the country to devolve into de facto regional governments. By contrast, he predicts that Russia will try to reassert its dominance all around the perimeter of the former Soviet Union, triggering fresh conflict with the U.S. Friedman expects this revanchism to end not in major war but rather in another collapse of Russian strength. He is much more optimistic than Khanna that the United States will continue to be the world's preponderant power well into the 21st century—a preponderance he sees resting on a healthy long-term basis in terms of geography, demographics, technology, and economics. Friedman's tone is blunt, and he offers bold predictions regarding great power politics ranging decades ahead. In fact the second half of his book reads like science fiction. Since it's impossible to comment intelligently on such long-term predictions, all that can be said is that the book is a good read and a refreshing antidote to the cant that often passes for foreign policy analysis today.
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Of the books reviewed here, Robert Kagan provides in The Return of History and the End of Dreams the most clear-sighted appraisal concerning the revival of great power competition. Characteristically elegant and incisive, his book suggests that Western opinion in the 1990s overestimated the extent to which other major powers such as Russia and China would converge with the United States around democratic norms. Instead of ideological convergence and liberalization, what we see today is the revival of nationalism. A senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Kagan does an excellent job of sketching very briefly the ways in which Russia, China, India, Japan, Iran, and the United States each views its own foreign policy imperatives. These sketches are so useful that one wishes they were more extended. He recognizes that the United States has its own version of great power nationalism—described previously in his well known Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003) and Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World, from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century (2006)—but points out that it is classically liberal, which he believes leads it to try to promote democracy overseas where possible. The book's second half fixes on democratization's uneven fate internationally in recent years, and argues that just as authoritarian regimes worldwide have formed a kind of club of autocracy, liberal democracies, led by the United States, ought to form a league of democracies, to promote the democratic cause worldwide.
Kagan is certainly right that insofar as a democratic international order exists, it is undergirded by American political, military, and economic power—a point missed by casual anti-Americanism. Yet if world politics today is characterized primarily by great power nationalism and geopolitical rivalries, why would one expect either the autocracies or the democracies to cooperate with one another along strictly ideological lines? Moreover, why would it be in America's interest to assume that all autocratic powers are enemies of the United States? Surely a more intelligent strategy would be to play the various autocratic powers against one another, and ultimately undermine them that way. There is no reason to believe that most Europeans are interested in joining a U.S.-led league of democracies that would take on Russia, China, and Iran all at once. Nor is there reason to believe that the U.S. cannot cooperate with Moscow or Beijing on certain limited matters such as trade, while competing with and constraining them on others. Kagan is more convincing when he points out that neither post-Cold War democratization nor increased economic interdependence has outmoded great power competition, a point he makes with convincing force.
The international revival of great power rivalry demands some conceptual adjustment on the part of Americans, and of conservatives in particular. Although President Obama is celebrated in some circles for foreign policy realism, he seems guided in foreign policy not so much by America's interest as by the belief that potential security threats must be accommodated lest they distract attention from his astonishingly ambitious domestic agenda. Combined with that is the conceit that he can somehow personally transcend all international hostilities and conflicts, no matter how intractable.
American conservatives therefore have a golden opportunity to develop a much-needed alternative to the president's foreign policy vision. But it will not do simply to defend the legacy of George W. Bush. The real need right now is to offer a foreign policy alternative that is more, rather than less, tough-minded than Bush's. Interestingly, it was Francis Fukuyama who pointed out that the expansion of liberal democracy worldwide might not be enough to satisfy the perennial human drive in politics for recognition, identity, and self-respect. The spread of democracy might thus be followed by new forms of international conflict, based on the desire to satisfy this passion for recognition. The United States must recognize, for the sake of American interests and American principles, that we live in a world of great power rivalry—and we'd better get used to it.