July 9, 2014

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Have We Gone From a Post-War to a Pre-War World?

In 1914, Germany was the rising power, the U.K. the weary hegemon and the Balkans was the powder keg. In 2014, China is rising, the United States is staggering under the burden of world leadership and the Middle East is the powder keg.

Only a few years ago, most western observers believed that the age of geopolitical rivalry and great power war was over. Today, with Russian forces in Ukraine, religious wars exploding across the Middle East, and territorial disputes leading to one crisis after another in the East and South China seas, the outlook is darker. Serious people now ask whether we have moved from a post-war into a pre-war world. Could some incident somewhere in the world spark another global war? . . .

Despite worries about the rise of China, the place of the United States at the pinnacle of world power is more secure today than Britain’s was 100 years ago. The U.S. economy is a larger share of GDP, the U.S. military advantage is qualitatively greater than anything Britain ever enjoyed, and none of its political problems are as polarizing as the Irish question or the rise of a socialist working class party were for the U.K. in 1914.

Even so, it is possible that other powers may not be sure how committed the United States is to defending its allies or its interests around the world, and that can make bold or even rash moves look attractive.

It’s possible, for example, that some people in the Chinese leadership look at President Obama’s mixed messages about his “red lines” in Syria and wonder how seriously to take American red lines in the Pacific. Would the U.S. really go to war over a handful of uninhabited rocks scattered through the East and South China seas? Would we take stronger steps against an invasion of Taiwan than we have against Russia’s conquest of the Crimea? Russia and Iran may be asking themselves similar questions and looking for places where they can push against what they see as weak spots in the U.S. alliance system. At the same time, countries that depend on U.S. guarantees (like Israel and Japan) may become more aggressive to deter potential adversaries.

I’m sure “smart diplomacy” will take care of everything.