Geopolitics is back

Walter Russell Mead posted a fascinating analysis of the current world scene today. He contends that the big story in international relations right now is the efforts of Russia, China, and Iran to contest the post-Cold War balance of power in Eurasia, one which has been favorable to the United States. Meanwhile, he believes, the American foreign policy establishment is missing this big picture for three reasons:

  • Unchallenged U.S. military superiority since the end of the Cold War: “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 which forced the United States into two world wars and a long cold war, largely disappeared from American policy thought.”
  • “The ‘end of history’ that many American analysts unconsciously identified with an era of largely effortless and uncontested American global hegemony is an era in which no one has to connect the dots. Because there are few or no serious strategic consequences to anything that happens, every issue can be addressed in isolation and policy can become the progressive application of legal and moral norms grounded in American hegemony to various refractory countries and problem regimes around the world….

    “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. We have gotten out of the habit of making foreign policy under the gun and as a result we are not as a people very good at understanding what matters and why.”

  • “Finally, 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 defense 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.”

So the assumption that the post-Cold War world is natural rather than a phase of history leads policymakers to assume that this arrangement will continue.

Mead’s framework for looking at these things assumes the necessity of American power in shaping a better world that is also beneficial to U.S. interests. Whether you share that view or not, I think it’s worth working through the essay.


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