By Chris Paludi
For as long as any current student of this college has been alive, the United States has been the world’s predominant power. Most American students at Kenyon cannot well remember the onset of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is unlikely that any of us have ever imagined global instability or major war because we have never known anything but preeminence.
But America’s power is no longer sufficient to defend that international order from powers that would upset it. Instead, the United States should cooperate with Russia and China to produce peace in a concert that accommodates major powers’ state interests for the sake of stability, much like the 19th century concert did for Europe’s major powers. While a modern concert, as with this predecessor, would not preclude conflict nor eliminate it in the future, great power cooperation is essential to prevent the oncoming conflict. Without such a coordinated effort, theory, history and current trends dictate that in our lifetimes the inevitable new order will come not after negotiation but after war.
The rising tumult of the past decade was inevitable given America’s relative military and economic decline. The world order that Americans tend to believe is self-evidently legitimate is in fact coercive and predicated on overpowering American influence. As the position of the United States weakens, other poles have begun to balance.
Although the United States was overpowering through the 1990s, Russia and China know that their relative positions have improved such that they are now able to balance the US effectively. Although they should be naturally suspicious of each other because of their historically disputed shared border and competing regional interests, China and Russia are in fact cooperating in joint military exercises. As both expand their presence in the Middle East and Central Asia, they push to control Eurasia. They are both sufficiently powerful to create a fait accompli and create spheres of influence from their superior Eurasian strategic positions.
Every year the stable American order breaks down further into a new, volatile period of burgeoning multipolarity. However, media sources and many commentators remain committed to a world order that no longer exists.
Henry Kissinger, writing about a similar period before the Concert of Europe, perfectly describes American naïveté:
An insular power at the periphery of events finds it difficult to admit that wars may be produced by intrinsic causes. Since its involvement is usually defensive, to prevent universal dominion, it will consider the need for peace a sufficient legitimization for the equilibrium. In a world in which the advantages of peace seem so patent—the conception of a power with no unsatisfied claims—wars can be caused only by the malice of wicked men. Because it will not be understood that the balance of power may be inherently unstable, wars tend to become crusades to eliminate the “cause” of the upheaval.
Americans are idealists, and so tend to think ideologically rather than in terms of state power. Thus they (the media especially) ignore global structural collapse to instead search for “bad guys” like Presidents Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump.
Though each furthers his state’s immediate interest and so raise international tensions, all leaders play that same game. The end of the old order is not an evil nor an inexplicable situation, and neither Putin nor Trump are its cause—the 21st century is simply not the end or exception to history that many predicted, but instead a return to classical power politics.
The Trump administration recognizes this development. The 2018 National Defense Strategy cites as the fundamental challenge the “reemergence of long-term, strategic competition” with Russia and China, noting the “challenges to the U.S. military advantage” and a “resilient, but weakening, post-WWII international order.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis has said that the United States “will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists, but great-power competition — not terrorism — is now the primary focus of U.S. national security [emphasis added].”
However, the current adjustment may prove too late, as America under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama did not properly respond to the developing strategic situation. In my own broad strokes, Clinton triggered European competition by overextending NATO and worsening Russia’s historic security dilemma, Bush mired the country’s resources and psyche in the Middle East, and Obama failed to recognize Russia’s rise while ruining American credibility by weakness in Crimea and Syria These were the mistakes of an overconfident heavyweight who failed to recognize his own limitations and to size up the advantages of his opponents.
To meet the world order’s challenges, the Trump administration has reinvested in America’s military. But the cost of maintaining an effective power disparity with Russia and China will likely prove politically untenable. Those who hope for the continuation of the American internationalist order will, more likely than not, have their dreams crushed, not only by the strategic capabilities of US opponents but also by America’s own debt and domestic commitments to more immediately relevant goods, such as Medicare and Social Security. Moreover it’s unclear, especially to many Americans, that those domestic public goods should be a lower priority than commitments to the status quo. The problem of resource allocation is predicted by such thinkers as Robert Gilpin, who describes the inevitable decline of an affluent preeminent state that can no longer afford to fund its military extension and instead chooses to fund public programs.
Simply put, the United States can no longer continue as an unchallenged superpower, and so should behave realistically. Elites must recognize the strategic and financial limitations to American dominance that necessitate a new geopolitical equilibrium.
America’s alternative would be, after trying various soft- and hard-line policies, to eventually fight a war with at least one of its challengers. Russia and China are merely acting rationally to advance their own state interests. As they are largely historic and geographic, these interests would not change even if America were to fight and win a limited, humbling engagement; the United States would have to dismember them as nations for their national interests to change. Thankfully, for fear of nuclear weapons, major powers are less likely to destroy and more likely to deal with each other.
America has the opportunity to lead a new kind of order, but this would necessitate admitting the demise of the old. As Kissinger predicts, this is difficult for most to accept: “A crumbling world order, even one built on force, finds it as difficult to believe its disintegration as man to visualize his own death.”
Yet acceptance is here the condition of the necessary action. A power “legitimized…by force,” like America vis-à-vis Russia and China, “cannot easily accept the fact that henceforth he must seek his safety in self-limitation, that events are no longer subject to his will, [and] that peace depends not on his strength but on his recognition of the power of others.” China and Russia owe their current strategic superiority to their recognition of American limitations; they saw that the United States has “confused stability with stagnation and peace with inactivity.” However, the United States still wields greater power, and by fully understanding the strategic situation, it can leverage that advantage.
Therefore America should mobilize, but do so methodically, not for war but for diplomacy. As the Austrian minister Clemens von Metternich once wrote, “Let us always carry the sword in one hand and the olive branch in another, always ready to negotiate but negotiating only while advancing.” Even as conflict escalates, as long as the situation is kept within limits (i.e., short of war) continuing negotiations credit states’ willingness to deescalate and come to terms. That would actually be a more workable situation than the current trade war, from which neither side can back down. However, negotiations done under the threat of armed conflict allows both sides to save face.
To preempt conflict and set the stage for cooperation, America could provoke a definite crisis that has a limited political end and so can be resolved by negotiation, that then sets the table for further dealing. In other words, America could threaten war, and remind its challengers of their relative weakness, in order to then appease them from a position of strength.
A new negotiated equilibrium is far more desirable than war to enforce an arbitrary status quo. But as Gilpin writes, “peaceful international change appears to be most feasible when it involves changes in an international system and to be most difficult when it involves change of an international system.” Thus America must maneuver carefully, preserving what it can of the former order: it can work towards a concert through United Nations, for example, as the Security Council and trading fora could be useful for geopolitical coordination. At the regional level, the US can support its European and Asian allies in their own efforts to balance their regions.
As America attempts strategic rollback, it can preserve itself as primus inter pares, the most powerful of world powers, all while positioning itself to reclaim its status once Russia and/or China falter. Although Russian opportunism and Chinese latent power are each increasingly powerful within their own regions, both countries are increasingly becoming strong states with a single leader aggrandizing himself at the helm. During the Cold War, that Soviet formula was able to challenge the American model only briefly before fizzling out.
America’s best long term strategy is therefore to preempt war by accommodating its challengers in the short term, and avoid decline by reinvesting in its domestic economy and redistributing its spending, all while keeping its allies’ sympathies with its camp. Over the long term, as in the 20th century, competition would likely propel innovation and promote American unity, and thereby strengthen the US position. From this strategy America could take pride in the fact that it would win the battle by preventing the war.