Shifting alliances in a world that has seen a resurgent China, a bellicose Russia and an attenuated America spell trouble, writes foreign policy expert Richard Haass in this sobering assessment. At a time in which the West no longer predominates and power is dispersed among a greater number of states, America needs to strengthen its defenses and maintain diplomatic channels with Russia and China. According to Haass, what America seeks to gain may be less important than what it needs to avoid.
- A precarious new world order is forming against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and the spread of nuclear weapons.
- America frittered away the opportunity to reshape durable international power relationships after the Cold War.
- A confluence of threats forces the United States to reckon with its standing in an evolving diplomatic landscape.
A precarious new world order is forming against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and the spread of nuclear weapons.
Old and new geopolitical threats have come to the fore in the 2020s. China is resurrecting a “great-power” competition with the West for dominance, and Russia is reviving its imperialist ambitions to restore the country’s past glory. Both undermine the current world order by risking confrontation with the West, and the United States in particular.
“‘There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen’…If he had actually said those words, [Vladimir] Lenin might have added that there are also decades when centuries happen. The world is in the midst of one such decade.”
Pandemic, climate change and nuclear proliferation only complicate matters, as rivalries intensify and impede collaboration. America’s internal struggle between globalists and nativists compromises its standing and willingness to lead. A vicious cycle ensues, as states vie for geopolitical supremacy and hamper much-needed global cooperation, which, in turn, exacerbates already difficult conditions.
America frittered away the opportunity to reshape durable international power relationships after the Cold War.
Increasing disarray and a lack of coordinated efforts to uphold the principles of global order have become the rule rather than the exception since the 1990s. The long-standing “post-Cold War Pax Americana,” when Russia and China were relatively weak nations, reached its pinnacle in the 1990–1991 Gulf War, when a broad alliance forced Iraq back from its invasion of Kuwait.
“The United States, by what it did and did not do in the world and at home, squandered much of its post–Cold War inheritance, failing to translate its primacy into an enduring order.”
If the first Iraq war represented the apex of America’s diplomatic power, the present crisis in Ukraine would seem to be its nadir. America’s clout was apt to wane, as global power has become less concentrated. But the United States never embraced Russia in the post-Cold War era, with disastrous consequences. US leadership slid into disarray while Russia integrated its markets into Western Europe, China grew into a dominant market economy, and other countries raised their living standards and power status. Today, Russia is an international lawbreaker by its invasion of Ukraine, and its permanent membership in the UN Security Council has neutered that institution. China has now allied itself with Russia, and many countries will not agree to US-led sanctions, as economic interdependence constrains those nations reliant on Russia for oil and gas.
A confluence of threats forces the United States to reckon with its standing in an evolving diplomatic landscape.
America must act to protect itself from enemies while pursuing cooperative solutions to common threats like climate change. The United States should emphasize the global order instead of trying to democratize the world. Its challenge is to craft alliance-centered foreign policy guidelines that recognize different national and regional norms, power positions, and interests.
“Navigating a decade that promises to be as demanding and dangerous as this one – a decade that will present old-fashioned geopolitical risks alongside growing global challenges – calls for a foreign policy that avoids the extremes of wanting to transform the world or ignoring it, of working alone or with everyone.”
The United States should also balance its economic approach: “Weaponiz[ing] the dollar” via sanctions may hasten the US currency’s fall from its reserve currency status, a move that would affect borrowing capacity. But at the same time, America should pursue global and regional trade networks that ensure supply-chain resiliency. US domestic political polarization, however, remains a significant threat to the nation’s ability to lead in foreign policy.
About the Author
Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.