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Today's World Order
Following are some excerpts from an essay by foreign affairs strategist Robert Kagan in the Aug. 25, 2008 issue of The Weekly Standard. Titled “History’s Back: Ambitious autocracies, hesitant democracies,” Kagan focuses on the challenges facing the West.
The fall of the Communist empire and the apparent embrace of democracy by Russia seemed to augur a new era of global convergence. Great power conflict and competition were a thing of the past. Geo-economics had replaced geopolitics….Ideological conflict was a thing of the past. As Francis Fukuyama famously put it, ‘At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.’ And if there were an autocracy or two lingering around at the end of history, this was no cause for concern. They, too, would eventually be transformed as their economies modernized.
Nor has the growth of the Chinese and Russian economies produced the political liberalization that was once thought inevitable. Growing national wealth and autocracy have proven compatible, after all. Autocrats learn and adjust. The autocracies of Russia and China have figured out how to permit open economic activity while suppressing political activity. They have seen that people making money will keep their noses out of politics, especially if they know their noses will be cut off….
In the 1990s the liberal democracies expected that a wealthier Russia would be a more liberal Russia, at home and abroad. But historically the spread of commerce and the acquisition of wealth by nations has not necessarily produced greater global harmony. Often it has only spurred greater global competition. The hope at the end of the Cold War was that nations would pursue economic integration as an alternative to geopolitical competition, that they would seek the ‘soft’ power of commercial engagement and economic growth as an alternative to the ‘hard’ power of military strength or geopolitical confrontation. But nations do not need to choose. There is another paradigm – call it ‘rich nation, strong army,’ the slogan of rising Meiji Japan at the end of the 19th century – in which nations seek economic integration and adaptation of Western institutions not in order to give up the geopolitical struggle but to wage it more successfully. The Chinese have their own phrase for this: ‘a prosperous country and a strong army.’….
Instead of an imagined new world order, there are new geopolitical fault lines where the ambitions of great powers overlap and conflict and where the seismic events of the future are most likely to erupt.
One of these fault lines runs along the western and southwestern frontiers of Russia. In Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and even in the Balkans, a contest for influence is under way between a resurgent Russia, on one side, and the European Union and the United States on the other. Instead of an anticipated zone of peace, western Eurasia has once again become a zone of competition, in which military power – pooh-poohed by postmodern Europeans – once again plays a role….
Does the United States have the strength and ability to lead the democracies again in strengthening and advancing a liberal democratic international order? Despite all the recent noise about America’s relative decline, the answer is most assuredly yes. If it is true, as some claim, that the United States over the past decade suffered from excessive confidence in its power to shape the world, the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction.
The apparent failure in Iraq convinced many people that the United States was weak, hated, and in a state of decline. Nor has anyone bothered to adjust that judgment now that the United States appears to be winning in Iraq. Yet by any of the usual measures of power, the United States is as strong today, even in relative terms, as it was in 2000. It remains the sole superpower, even as the other great powers get back on their feet. The military power of China and Russia has increased over the past decade, but American military power has increased more. America’s share of the global economy has remained steady, 27 percent of global GDP in 2000 and 26 percent today. So where is the relative decline? So long as the United States remains at the center of the international economy, the predominant military power, and the leading apostle of the world’s most popular political philosophy; so long as the American public continues to support American predominance, as it has consistently for six decades; and so long as potential challengers inspire more fear than sympathy among their neighbors, the structure of the international system should remain as the Chinese describe it: ‘one superpower and many great powers.’….
The world’s democracies have an interest in keeping the hopes for democracy alive in Russia and China. The optimists in the early post-Cold War years were not wrong to believe that a liberalizing Russia and China would be better international partners. They were just wrong to believe that this evolution was inevitable. Today, excessive optimism has been replaced by excessive pessimism. Many Europeans insist that outside influences will have no effect on Russia. Yet, looking back on the Cold War, many of these same Europeans believe that the Helsinki Accords of the 1970s had a subtle but eventually profound impact on the evolution of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. Is Putin’s Russia more impervious to such methods than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union? Putin himself does not think so, or he wouldn’t be so nervous about the democratic states on his borders. Nor do China’s rulers, or they wouldn’t spend billions policing Internet chat rooms and waging a campaign of repression against the Falun Gong….
The future is not determined. It is up for grabs. The international order in the coming decades will be shaped by those who have the power and the collective will to shape it. The great fallacy of our era has been the belief that a liberal and democratic international order would come about by the triumph of ideas alone or by the natural unfolding of human progress. Many believe the Cold War ended the way it did simply because the better worldview triumphed, as it had to, and that the international order that exists today is but the next stage in humanity’s forward march from strife and aggression toward a peaceful and prosperous coexistence. They forget the many battles fought, both strategic and ideological, that produced that remarkable triumph.
The illusion is just true enough to be dangerous. Of course there is strength in the liberal democratic idea and in the free market. But progress toward these ideals has never been inevitable. It is contingent on events and the actions of nations and peoples – battles won or lost, social movements successful or crushed, economic practices implemented or discarded.
After the Second World War, another moment in history when hopes for a new kind of international order were rampant, Hans Morgenthau warned idealists against imagining that at some point ‘the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played.’ The struggle continued then, and it continues today. Six decades ago American leaders believed the United States had the ability and responsibility to use its power to prevent a slide back to the circumstances that had produced two world wars and innumerable national calamities. Reinhold Niebuhr, who always warned against Americans’ ambitions and excessive faith in their own power, also believed, with a faith and ambition of his own, that ‘the world problem cannot be solved if America does not accept its full share of responsibility in solving it.’ Today the United States shares that responsibility with the rest of the democratic world, which is infinitely stronger than it was when World War II ended. The only question is whether the democratic world will once again rise to the challenge.