20
Nov

Tell me, friend: Do you find the current world situation confusing? Are you having trouble sorting through the bewildering array of alarums, provocations, reassurances, and trite nostrums offered up by pundits and politicos? Can’t tell if the glass is half-full and rising or half-empty, cracked, and leaking water fast? Not sure if you should go long on precious metals and stock up on fresh water, ammo, and canned goods, or go big into equities and assume that everything will work out in the long run?

Today’s world is filled with conflicting signals. On the one hand, life expectancy and education are up, the level of violent conflict is down, and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty over the past several decades. Private businesses are starting to take human rights seriously. And hey, the euro is still alive! On the other hand, Europe’s economy is still depressed, Russia is suspending nuclear cooperation with the United States, violent extremists keep multiplying in several regions, the odds of a genuine nuclear deal with Iran still look like a coin toss, and that much-ballyhooed climate change deal between the United States and China is probably too little too late and already facing right-wing criticisms.

Given all these conflicting signals, what broader lessons might guide policymakers wrestling with all this turbulence? Assuming governments are capable of learning from experience (and please just grant me that one), then what kernels of wisdom should they be drawing on right now? What do the past 20 years or so reveal about contemporary foreign-policy issues, and what enduring lessons should we learn from recent experience?

No. 1: Great-power politics still matters. A lot.

When the Cold War ended, a lot of smart people convinced themselves that good old-fashioned power politics was a thing of the past. As Bill Clinton said when he first ran for president, the “cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era.” Instead of being roiled by power politics, the world was going to be united by markets, shared democratic values, and the Internet — and humankind would concentrate on getting rich and living well (i.e., likeClinton himself).

There’s no mystery as to why this outlook appealed to Americans, who assumed this benign vision would unfold under Washington’s benevolent guidance. But the last 20 years teaches us that this view was, as usual, premature, and great-power politics has come back with a vengeance.

Of course, the United States never abandoned “power politics,” and Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all emphasized the need to preserve the U.S. position as the world’s most powerful country. They understood that their ability to exercise “global leadership” depends on U.S. primacy and especially America’s privileged position as the only major power in the Western Hemisphere. That position gives U.S. policymakers the freedom to wander around and meddle in lots of other places — something they would not be able to do if the United States were weaker or if it had to worry about defending its own territory against serious dangers.

But the United States isn’t alone. China’s increasingly assertive policies toward its immediate neighborhood shows that Beijing is hardly indifferent to geopolitics, and Russia’s assertive defense of what it sees as vital interests in its “near abroad” (e.g., Ukraine) suggests that somebody in Moscow didn’t get the memo about the benign effects of globalization. And regional powers like India, Turkey, and Japan are taking traditional geopolitical concerns more seriously these days. Bottom line: If you thought great-power rivalry was a thing of the past, think again. Read more…

Published on Nov. 18 in http://www.foreignpolicy.com/

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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