The return to 19th century rivalry
Arguably, the greatest benefit of the US led international order has been the reduction and near elimination of secret covenants between nation-states, which dominated international politics for centuries. Two world wars upended the viability of fixed exchange rates and empires. Aside from conflicts in archaic regions, the rare political or military coup, genocide and religious strife remained comparatively limited in scope.
What remained unimaginable, at least since the Great War and its aftermath, was enduring conflict between great powers. What the US-led effort against China is inaugurating is the return of power politics and its attendant geopolitical features of strife, militant statecraft, global espionage and economic warcraft.
Witnessing powerful, long-term shifts in geopolitics accelerated by digital media and nuclear proliferation has eroded the military dominance of the US and the alliance-based system it has bequeathed. Conflict on this scale hasn’t been envisaged since the 19th century.
The chief animating principle underwriting the accelerant toward great-power conflict is the erosion of diplomacy. Russia, China and numerous emergent powers like Iran can no longer be restrained or shaped passively. They must be directly engaged in manners that characterize previous epochs. Our governing and social institutions aren’t fit for this type of conflict.
While Westerners saw the inevitability of a “peace dividend” in the democratization of universal human rights, the rule of law and a capitalist-driven international commons, capital flows abroad were shaping revisionist powers that openly sought to challenge an American-led international system. America’s own neoliberal order was breeding rivals that sought to dominate indigenous regions as proper spheres of influence, China for east/west Asia and Russia for southern Europe and Eurasia.
Dominant rivals knew to keep the tenor of conflict below open confrontation in the hope of securing gains with minimum aggression. Working to blend coercion through disinformation, infiltration, cyberwar, and economic blackmail was to wean competing societies out of their ideological orbit. By harnessing military technologies wrought by America, such as long-range precision-strike technology and electromagnetic spectrum warfare, emergent rivals sought to raise the cost of intervention abroad. By seeking to damage America’s image abroad, China, Russia and Iran are hemming in Pax Americana.
The election of US President Donald Trump indicates thresholds that the current international system isn’t capable of dealing with. Witnessing rivals establish regional hegemonies has indicated how dysfunctional commercial republics and parliaments remain.
Open confrontation may be the only credible means of re-establishing credibility for the US.
One thing remains crystal-clear. Decades of strategic drift have played into the hands of competing rivals. Retrenchment and skepticism of hard power have been replaced with realism. A renewed open commitment to international order, one that reaffirms the constitutive normative status of the nation-state, will have consequences.
A shift back to the world before 1917 means acknowledging Otto von Bismarck’s motto that “the great questions of our time will not be decided by speeches and majority decisions … but by iron and blood.” The race is on to capture and reshape international order.