T he world has become normal again. The years immediately following the end of the Cold War offered a tantalizing glimpse at a new kind of international order, with nations growing together or disappearing altogether, ideological conflicts melting away, cultures intermingling through increasingly free commerce and communications. But that was a mirage, the hopeful anticipation of a liberal, democratic world that wanted to believe the end of the Cold War did not end just one strategic and ideological conflict but all strategic and ideological conflict. People and their leaders longed for “a world transformed.” 1 Today the nations of the West still cling to that vision. Evidence to the contrary — the turn toward autocracy in Russia or the growing military ambitions of China — is either dismissed as a temporary aberration or denied entirely.

The world has not been transformed, however. Nations remain as strong as ever, and so too the nationalist ambitions, the passions, and the competition among nations that have shaped history. The world is still “unipolar,” with the United States remaining the only superpower. But international competition among great powers has returned, with the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, and others vying for regional predominance. Struggles for honor and status and influence in the world have once again become key features of the international scene. Ideologically, it is a time not of convergence but of divergence. The competition between liberalism and absolutism has reemerged, with the nations of the world increasingly lining up, as in the past, along ideological lines. Finally, there is the fault line between modernity and tradition, the violent struggle of Islamic fundamentalists against the modern powers and the secular cultures that, in their view, have penetrated and polluted their Islamic world.

Creating and sustaining the unipolar world

How will the United States deal with such a world? Today there is much discussion of the so-called Bush Doctrine and what may follow it. Many prefer to believe the world is in turmoil not because it is in turmoil but because Bush made it so by destroying the new hopeful era. And when Bush leaves, it can return once again to the way it was. Having glimpsed the mirage once, people naturally want to see it and believe in it again.

The first illusion, however, is that Bush really changed anything. Historians will long debate the decision to go to war in Iraq, but what they are least likely to conclude is that the intervention was wildly out of character for the United States. Since the end of World War ii at least, American presidents of both parties have pursued a fairly consistent approach to the world. They have regarded the United States as the “indispensable nation”2 and the “locomotive at the head of mankind.”3 They have amassed power and influence and deployed them in ever-widening arcs around the globe on behalf of interests, ideals, and ambitions, both tangible and intangible. Since 1945 Americans have insisted on acquiring and maintaining military supremacy, a “preponderance of power” in the world rather than a balance of power with other nations. They have operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory. They have declared their readiness to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation” by forces of oppression, to “pay any price, bear any burden” to defend freedom, to seek “democratic enlargement” in the world, and to work for the “end of tyranny.” 4 They have been impatient with the status quo. They have seen America as a catalyst for change in human affairs, and they have employed the strategies and tactics of “maximalism,” seeking revolutionary rather than gradual solutions to problems. Therefore, they have often been at odds with the more cautious approaches of their allies. 5 

When people talk about a Bush Doctrine, they generally refer to three sets of principles — the idea of preemptive or preventive military action; the promotion of democracy and “regime change”; and a diplomacy tending toward “unilateralism,” a willingness to act without the sanction of international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or the unanimous approval of its allies. 6 It is worth asking not only whether past administrations acted differently but also which of these any future administration, regardless of party, would promise to abjure in its conduct of foreign policy. As scholars from Melvyn P. Leffler to John Lewis Gaddis have shown, the idea of preemptive or preventive action is hardly a novel concept in American foreign policy. 7 And as policymakers and philosophers from Henry Kissinger to Michael Walzer have agreed, it is impossible in the present era to renounce such actions a priori.8 As for “regime change,” there is not a single administration in the past half-century that has not attempted to engineer changes of regime in various parts of the world, from Eisenhower ’s cia-inspired coups in Iran and Guatemala and his planned overthrow of Fidel Castro, which John F. Kennedy attempted to carry out, to George Herbert Walker Bush ’s invasion of Panama to Bill Clinton’s actions in Haiti and Bosnia. And if by unilateralism we mean an unwillingness to be constrained by the disapproval of the un Security Council, by some of the nato allies, by the oas, or by any other international body, which presidents of the past allowed themselves to be so constrained? 9 

These qualities of American foreign policy reflect not one man or one party or one circle of thinkers. They spring from the nation ’s historical experience and are a characteristic American response to international circumstances. They are underpinned, on the one hand, by old beliefs and ambitions and, on the other hand, by power. So long as Americans elect leaders who believe it is the role of the United States to improve the world and bring about the “ultimate good,”10 and so long as American power in all its forms is sufficient to shape the behavior of others, the broad direction of American foreign policy is unlikely to change, absent some dramatic — indeed, genuinely revolutionary — effort by a future administration.

Realist theory has assumed that other powers must inevitably band together to balance against the superpower.

These American traditions, together with historical events beyond Americans’ control, have catapulted the United States to a position of pre-eminence in the world. Since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of this “unipolar” world, there has been much anticipation of the end of unipolarity and the rise of a multipolar world in which the United States is no longer the predominant power. Not only realist theorists but others both inside and outside the United States have long argued the theoretical and practical unsustainability, not to mention undesirability, of a world with only one superpower. Mainstream realist theory has assumed that other powers must inevitably band together to balance against the superpower. Others expected the post-Cold War era to be characterized by the primacy of geoeconomics over geopolitics and foresaw a multipolar world with the economic giants of Europe, India, Japan, and China rivaling the United States. Finally, in the wake of the Iraq War and with hostility to the United States, as measured in public opinion polls, apparently at an all-time high, there has been a widespread assumption that the American position in the world must finally be eroding.

Yet American predominance in the main categories of power persists as a key feature of the international system. The enormous and productive American economy remains at the center of the international economic system. American democratic principles are shared by over a hundred nations. The American military is not only the largest but the only one capable of projecting force into distant theaters. Chinese strategists, who spend a great deal of time thinking about these things, see the world not as multipolar but as characterized by “one superpower, many great powers,” and this configuration seems likely to persist into the future absent either a catastrophic blow to American power or a decision by the United States to diminish its power and international influence voluntarily. 11 

Sino-Russian hostility to American predominance has not yet produced a concerted effort at balancing.

The anticipated global balancing has for the most part not occurred. Russia and China certainly share a common and openly expressed goal of checking American hegemony. They have created at least one institution, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, aimed at resisting American influence in Central Asia, and China is the only power in the world, other than the United States, engaged in a long-term military buildup. But Sino-Russian hostility to American predominance has not yet produced a concerted and cooperative effort at balancing. China ’s buildup is driven at least as much by its own long-term ambitions as by a desire to balance the United States. Russia has been using its vast reserves of oil and natural gas as a lever to compensate for the lack of military power, but it either cannot or does not want to increase its military capability sufficiently to begin counterbalancing the United States. Overall, Russian military power remains in decline. In addition, the two powers do not trust one another. They are traditional rivals, and the rise of China inspires at least as much nervousness in Russia as it does in the United States. At the moment, moreover, China is less abrasively confrontational with the United States. Its dependence on the American market and foreign investment and its perception that the United States remains a potentially formidable adversary mitigate against an openly confrontational approach.

In any case, China and Russia cannot balance the United States without at least some help from Europe, Japan, India, or at least some of the other advanced, democratic nations. But those powerful players are not joining the effort. Europe has rejected the option of making itself a counterweight to American power. This is true even among the older members of the European Union, where neither France, Germany, Italy, nor Spain proposes such counterbalancing, despite a public opinion hostile to the Bush administration. Now that the eu has expanded to include the nations of Central and Eastern Europe, who fear threats from the east, not from the west, the prospect of a unified Europe counterbalancing the United States is practically nil. As for Japan and India, the clear trend in recent years has been toward closer strategic cooperation with the United States.

If anything, the most notable balancing over the past decade has been aimed not at the American superpower but at the two large powers: China and Russia. In Asia and the Pacific, Japan, Australia, and even South Korea and the nations of Southeast Asia have all engaged in “hedging” against a rising China. This has led them to seek closer relations with Washington, especially in the case of Japan and Australia. India has also drawn closer to the United States and is clearly engaged in balancing against China. Russia ’s efforts to increase its influence over what it regards as its “near abroad,” meanwhile, have produced tensions and negative reactions in the Baltics and other parts of Eastern Europe. Because these nations are now members of the European Union, this has also complicated eu-Russian relations. On balance, traditional allies of the United States in East Asia and in Europe, while their publics may be more anti-American than in the past, nevertheless pursue policies that reflect more concern about the powerful states in their midst than about the United States. 12 This has provided a cushion against hostile public opinion and offers a foundation on which to strengthen American relations with these countries after the departure of Bush.

As for Russia and China, their hostility to the United States predates the Iraq War and, indeed, the Bush administration.

The Iraq War has not had the effect expected by many. Although there are reasonable-sounding theories as to why America ’s position should be eroding as a result of global opposition to the war and the unpopularity of the current administration, there has been little measurable change in the actual policies of nations, other than their reluctance to assist the United States in Iraq. In 2003 those who claimed the U.S. global position was eroding pointed to electoral results in some friendly countries: the election of Schr öder in Germany, the defeat of Aznar’s party in Spain, and the election of Lula in Brazil.13 But if elections are the test, other more recent votes around the world have put relatively pro-American leaders in power in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Canberra, and Ottawa. As for Russia and China, their hostility to the United States predates the Iraq War and, indeed, the Bush administration. Russia turned most sharply anti-American in the late 1990s partly as a consequence of nato enlargement. Both were far more upset and angered by the American intervention in Kosovo than by the invasion of Iraq. Both began complaining about American hegemonism and unilateralism and calling for a multipolar order during the Clinton years. Chinese rhetoric has been, if anything, more tempered during the Bush years, in part because the Chinese have seen September 11 and American preoccupation with terrorism as a welcome distraction from America’s other preoccupation, the “China threat.”

The world’s failure to balance against the superpower is the more striking because the United States, notwithstanding its difficult interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, continues to expand its power and military reach and shows no sign of slowing this expansion even after the 2008 elections. The American defense budget has surpassed $500 billion per year, not including supplemental spending totaling over $100 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan. This level of spending is sustainable, moreover, both economically and politically. 14 As the American military budget rises, so does the number of overseas American military bases. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has built or expanded bases in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in Central Asia; in Bulgaria, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania in Europe; and in the Philippines, Djibouti, Oman, and Qatar. Two decades ago, hostility to the American military presence began forcing the United States out of the Philippines and seemed to be undermining support for American bases in Japan. Today, the Philippines is rethinking that decision, and the furor in Japan has subsided. In places like South Korea and Germany, it is American plans to reduce the U.S. military presence that stir controversy, not what one would expect if there was a widespread fear or hatred of overweening American power. Overall, there is no shortage of other countries willing to host U.S. forces, a good indication that much of the world continues to tolerate and even lend support to American geopolitical primacy if only as a protection against more worrying foes. 15

Predominance is not the same thing as omnipotence. Just because the United States has more power than everyone else does not mean it can impose its will on everyone else. American predominance in the early years after the Second World War did not prevent the North Korean invasion of the South, a communist victory in China, the Soviet acquisition of the hydrogen bomb, or the consolidation of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe — all far greater strategic setbacks than anything the United States has yet suffered or is likely to suffer in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor does predominance mean the United States will succeed in all its endeavors, any more than it did six decades ago.

By the same token, foreign policy failures do not necessarily undermine predominance. Some have suggested that failure in Iraq would mean the end of predominance and unipolarity. But a superpower can lose a war — in Vietnam or in Iraq — without ceasing to be a superpower if the fundamental international conditions continue to support its predominance. So long as the United States remains at the center of the international economy and the predominant military power, 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.

This is a good thing, and it should continue to be a primary goal of American foreign policy to perpetuate this relatively benign international configuration of power. The unipolar order with the United States as the predominant power is unavoidably riddled with flaws and contradictions. It inspires fears and jealousies. The United States is not immune to error, like all other nations, and because of its size and importance in the international system those errors are magnified and take on greater significance than the errors of less powerful nations. Compared to the ideal Kantian international order, in which all the world ’s powers would be peace-loving equals, conducting themselves wisely, prudently, and in strict obeisance to international law, the unipolar system is both dangerous and unjust. Compared to any plausible alternative in the real world, however, it is relatively stable and less likely to produce a major war between great powers. It is also comparatively benevolent, from a liberal perspective, for it is more conducive to the principles of economic and political liberalism that Americans and many others value.

American predominance does not stand in the way of progress toward a better world, therefore. It stands in the way of regression toward a more dangerous world. The choice is not between an American-dominated order and a world that looks like the European Union. The future international order will be shaped by those who have the power to shape it. The leaders of a post-American world will not meet in Brussels but in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington.

The return of great powers and great games

If the world is marked by the persistence of unipolarity, it is nevertheless also being shaped by the reemergence of competitive national ambitions of the kind that have shaped human affairs from time immemorial. During the Cold War, this historical tendency of great powers to jostle with one another for status and influence as well as for wealth and power was largely suppressed by the two superpowers and their rigid bipolar order. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not been powerful enough, and probably could never be powerful enough, to suppress by itself the normal ambitions of nations. This does not mean the world has returned to multipolarity, since none of the large powers is in range of competing with the superpower for global influence. Nevertheless, several large powers are now competing for regional predominance, both with the United States and with each other.

National ambition drives China’s foreign policy today, and although it is tempered by prudence and the desire to appear as unthreatening as possible to the rest of the world, the Chinese are powerfully motivated to return their nation to what they regard as its traditional position as the preeminent power in East Asia. They do not share a European, postmodern view that power is pass é; hence their now two-decades-long military buildup and modernization. Like the Americans, they believe power, including military power, is a good thing to have and that it is better to have more of it than less. Perhaps more significant is the Chinese perception, also shared by Americans, that status and honor, and not just wealth and security, are important for a nation.

The Chinese do not share the view that power is passé; hence their now twodecades- long military buildup.

Japan, meanwhile, which in the past could have been counted as an aspiring postmodern power — with its pacifist constitution and low defense spending — now appears embarked on a more traditional national course. Partly this is in reaction to the rising power of China and concerns about North Korea ’s nuclear weapons. But it is also driven by Japan’s own national ambition to be a leader in East Asia or at least not to play second fiddle or “little brother” to China. China and Japan are now in a competitive quest with each trying to augment its own status and power and to prevent the other ’s rise to predominance, and this competition has a military and strategic as well as an economic and political component. Their competition is such that a nation like South Korea, with a long unhappy history as a pawn between the two powers, is once again worrying both about a “greater China” and about the return of Japanese nationalism. As Aaron Friedberg commented, the East Asian future looks more like Europe ’s past than its present. But it also looks like Asia’s past.

Russian foreign policy, too, looks more like something from the nineteenth century. It is being driven by a typical, and typically Russian, blend of national resentment and ambition. A postmodern Russia simply seeking integration into the new European order, the Russia of Andrei Kozyrev, would not be troubled by the eastward enlargement of the eu and nato, would not insist on predominant influence over its “near abroad,” and would not use its natural resources as means of gaining geopolitical leverage and enhancing Russia ’s international status in an attempt to regain the lost glories of the Soviet empire and Peter the Great. But Russia, like China and Japan, is moved by more traditional great-power considerations, including the pursuit of those valuable if intangible national interests: honor and respect. Although Russian leaders complain about threats to their security from nato and the United States, the Russian sense of insecurity has more to do with resentment and national identity than with plausible external military threats. 16 Russia’s complaint today is not with this or that weapons system. It is the entire post-Cold War settlement of the 1990s that Russia resents and wants to revise. But that does not make insecurity less a factor in Russia ’s relations with the world; indeed, it makes finding compromise with the Russians all the more difficult.

One could add others to this list of great powers with traditional rather than postmodern aspirations. India ’s regional ambitions are more muted, or are focused most intently on Pakistan, but it is clearly engaged in competition with China for dominance in the Indian Ocean and sees itself, correctly, as an emerging great power on the world scene. In the Middle East there is Iran, which mingles religious fervor with a historical sense of superiority and leadership in its region. 17 Its nuclear program is as much about the desire for regional hegemony as about defending Iranian territory from attack by the United States.

Even the European Union, in its way, expresses a pan-European national ambition to play a significant role in the world, and it has become the vehicle for channeling German, French, and British ambitions in what Europeans regard as a safe supranational direction. Europeans seek honor and respect, too, but of a postmodern variety. The honor they seek is to occupy the moral high ground in the world, to exercise moral authority, to wield political and economic influence as an antidote to militarism, to be the keeper of the global conscience, and to be recognized and admired by others for playing this role.

Islam is not a nation, but many Muslims express a kind of religious nationalism, and the leaders of radical Islam, including al Qaeda, do seek to establish a theocratic nation or confederation of nations that would encompass a wide swath of the Middle East and beyond. Like national movements elsewhere, Islamists have a yearning for respect, including self-respect, and a desire for honor. Their national identity has been molded in defiance against stronger and often oppressive outside powers, and also by memories of ancient superiority over those same powers. China had its “century of humiliation.” Islamists have more than a century of humiliation to look back on, a humiliation of which Israel has become the living symbol, which is partly why even Muslims who are neither radical nor fundamentalist proffer their sympathy and even their support to violent extremists who can turn the tables on the dominant liberal West, and particularly on a dominant America which implanted and still feeds the Israeli cancer in their midst.

Islamists have more than a century of humiliation to look back on. Israel has become its living symbol.

Finally, there is the United States itself. As a matter of national policy stretching back across numerous administrations, Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative, Americans have insisted on preserving regional predominance in East Asia; the Middle East; the Western Hemisphere; until recently, Europe; and now, increasingly, Central Asia. This was its goal after the Second World War, and since the end of the Cold War, beginning with the first Bush administration and continuing through the Clinton years, the United States did not retract but expanded its influence eastward across Europe and into the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Even as it maintains its position as the predominant global power, it is also engaged in hegemonic competitions in these regions with China in East and Central Asia, with Iran in the Middle East and Central Asia, and with Russia in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. The United States, too, is more of a traditional than a postmodern power, and though Americans are loath to acknowledge it, they generally prefer their global place as “No. 1” and are equally loath to relinquish it. Once having entered a region, whether for practical or idealistic reasons, they are remarkably slow to withdraw from it until they believe they have substantially transformed it in their own image. They profess indifference to the world and claim they just want to be left alone even as they seek daily to shape the behavior of billions of people around the globe.

The jostling for status and influence among these ambitious nations and would-be nations is a second defining feature of the new post-Cold War international system. Nationalism in all its forms is back, if it ever went away, and so is international competition for power, influence, honor, and status. American predominance prevents these rivalries from intensifying —  its regional as well as its global predominance. Were the United States to diminish its influence in the regions where it is currently the strongest power, the other nations would settle disputes as great and lesser powers have done in the past: sometimes through diplomacy and accommodation but often through confrontation and wars of varying scope, intensity, and destructiveness. One novel aspect of such a multipolar world is that most of these powers would possess nuclear weapons. That could make wars between them less likely, or it could simply make them more catastrophic.

It is easy but also dangerous to underestimate the role the United States plays in providing a measure of stability in the world even as it also disrupts stability. For instance, the United States is the dominant naval power everywhere, such that other nations cannot compete with it even in their home waters. They either happily or grudgingly allow the United States Navy to be the guarantor of international waterways and trade routes, of international access to markets and raw materials such as oil. Even when the United States engages in a war, it is able to play its role as guardian of the waterways. In a more genuinely multipolar world, however, it would not. Nations would compete for naval dominance at least in their own regions and possibly beyond. Conflict between nations would involve struggles on the oceans as well as on land. Armed embargos, of the kind used in World War i and other major conflicts, would disrupt trade flows in a way that is now impossible.

Such order as exists in the world rests not only on the goodwill of peoples but also on American power.

Such order as exists in the world rests not merely on the goodwill of peoples but on a foundation provided by American power. Even the European Union, that great geopolitical miracle, owes its founding to American power, for without it the European nations after World War ii would never have felt secure enough to reintegrate Germany. Most Europeans recoil at the thought, but even today Europe ’s stability depends on the guarantee, however distant and one hopes unnecessary, that the United States could step in to check any dangerous development on the continent. In a genuinely multipolar world, that would not be possible without renewing the danger of world war.

People who believe greater equality among nations would be preferable to the present American predominance often succumb to a basic logical fallacy. They believe the order the world enjoys today exists independently of American power. They imagine that in a world where American power was diminished, the aspects of international order that they like would remain in place. But that ’s not the way it works. International order does not rest on ideas and institutions. It is shaped by configurations of power. The international order we know today reflects the distribution of power in the world since World War ii, and especially since the end of the Cold War. A different configuration of power, a multipolar world in which the poles were Russia, China, the United States, India, and Europe, would produce its own kind of order, with different rules and norms reflecting the interests of the powerful states that would have a hand in shaping it. Would that international order be an improvement? Perhaps for Beijing and Moscow it would. But it is doubtful that it would suit the tastes of enlightenment liberals in the United States and Europe.

The current order, of course, is not only far from perfect but also offers no guarantee against major conflict among the world ’s great powers. Even under the umbrella of unipolarity, regional conflicts involving the large powers may erupt. War could erupt between China and Taiwan and draw in both the United States and Japan. War could erupt between Russia and Georgia, forcing the United States and its European allies to decide whether to intervene or suffer the consequences of a Russian victory. Conflict between India and Pakistan remains possible, as does conflict between Iran and Israel or other Middle Eastern states. These, too, could draw in other great powers, including the United States.

Such conflicts may be unavoidable no matter what policies the United States pursues. But they are more likely to erupt if the United States weakens or withdraws from its positions of regional dominance. This is especially true in East Asia, where most nations agree that a reliable American power has a stabilizing and pacific effect on the region. That is certainly the view of most of China ’s neighbors. But even China, which seeks gradually to supplant the United States as the dominant power in the region, faces the dilemma that an American withdrawal could unleash an ambitious, independent, nationalist Japan.

Conflicts are more likely to erupt if the United States withdraws from its positions of regional dominance.

In Europe, too, the departure of the United States from the scene — even if it remained the world’s most powerful nation — could be destabilizing. It could tempt Russia to an even more overbearing and potentially forceful approach to unruly nations on its periphery. Although some realist theorists seem to imagine that the disappearance of the Soviet Union put an end to the possibility of confrontation between Russia and the West, and therefore  to the need for a permanent American role in Europe, history suggests that conflicts in Europe involving Russia are possible even without Soviet communism. If the United States withdrew from Europe — if it adopted what some call a strategy of “offshore balancing” — this could in time increase the likelihood of conflict involving Russia and its near neighbors, which could in turn draw the United States back in under unfavorable circumstances.

It is also optimistic to imagine that a retrenchment of the American position in the Middle East and the assumption of a more passive, “offshore” role would lead to greater stability there. The vital interest the United States has in access to oil and the role it plays in keeping access open to other nations in Europe and Asia make it unlikely that American leaders could or would stand back and hope for the best while the powers in the region battle it out. Nor would a more “even-handed” policy toward Israel, which some see as the magic key to unlocking peace, stability, and comity in the Middle East, obviate the need to come to Israel ’s aid if its security became threatened. That commitment, paired with the American commitment to protect strategic oil supplies for most of the world, practically ensures a heavy American military presence in the region, both on the seas and on the ground.

The subtraction of American power from any region would not end conflict but would simply change the equation. In the Middle East, competition for influence among powers both inside and outside the region has raged for at least two centuries. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism doesn ’t change this. It only adds a new and more threatening dimension to the competition, which neither a sudden end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians nor an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq would change. The alternative to American predominance in the region is not balance and peace. It is further competition. The region and the states within it remain relatively weak. A diminution of American influence would not be followed by a diminution of other external influences. One could expect deeper involvement by both China and Russia, if only to secure their interests. 18 And one could also expect the more powerful states of the region, particularly Iran, to expand and fill the vacuum. It is doubtful that any American administration would voluntarily take actions that could shift the balance of power in the Middle East further toward Russia, China, or Iran. The world hasn ’t changed that much. An American withdrawal from Iraq will not return things to “normal” or to a new kind of stability in the region. It will produce a new instability, one likely to draw the United States back in again.

The alternative to American regional predominance in the Middle East and elsewhere is not a new regional stability. In an era of burgeoning nationalism, the future is likely to be one of intensified competition among nations and nationalist movements. Difficult as it may be to extend American predominance into the future, no one should imagine that a reduction of American power or a retraction of American influence and global involvement will provide an easier path.

Liberalism and autocracy

C omplicating the equation and adding to the stakes is that the return to the international competition of ambitious nations has been accompanied by a return to global ideological competition. More precisely, the two-centuries-old struggle between political liberalism and autocracy has reemerged as a third defining characteristic of the present era.

The Cold War may have caused us to forget that the more enduring ideological conflict since the Enlightenment has not been between capitalism and communism but between liberalism and autocracy. That was the issue that divided the United States from much of Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and it divided Europe itself through much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The assumption that the death of communism would bring an end to disagreements about the proper form of government and society seemed more plausible in the 1990s, when both Russia and China were thought to be moving toward political as well as economic liberalism. Such a development would have produced a remarkable ideological convergence among all the great powers of the world and heralded a genuinely new era in human development.

But those expectations have proved misplaced. China has not liberalized but has shored up its autocratic government. Russia has turned away from imperfect liberalism decisively toward autocracy. Of the world ’s great powers today, therefore, two of the largest, with over a billion and a half people, have governments that are committed to autocratic rule and seem to have the ability to sustain themselves in power for the foreseeable future with apparent popular approval.

Beijing and Moscow believe autocracy is better than democracy and essential to prevent chaos and collapse.

Many assume that Russian and Chinese leaders do not believe in anything, and therefore they cannot be said to represent an ideology, but that is mistaken. The rulers of China and Russia do have a set of beliefs that guide them in both domestic and foreign policy. They believe autocracy is better for their nations than democracy. They believe it offers order and stability and the possibility of prosperity. They believe that for their large, fractious nations, a strong government is essential to prevent chaos and collapse. They believe democracy is not the answer and that they are serving the best interests of their peoples by holding and wielding power the way they do. This is not a novel or, from a historical perspective, even a disreputable idea. The European monarchies of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were thoroughly convinced of the superiority of their form of government. They disdained democracy as the rule of the licentious and greedy mob. Only in the past half-century has liberalism gained widespread popularity around the world, and even today some American thinkers exalt “liberal autocracy” over what they, too, disdain as “illiberal democracy.” If two of the world’s largest powers share a common commitment to autocratic government, autocracy is not dead as an ideology. The autocratic tradition has a long and distinguished past, and it is not as obvious as it once seemed that it has no future.

The foreign policies of such states necessarily reflect the nature and interests of their governments. In the age of monarchy, foreign policy served the interests of the monarchy. In the age of religious conflict, it served the interests of the church. In the modern era, democracies have pursued foreign policies to  make the world safe for democracy. And autocracies pursue foreign policies aimed at making the world safe, if not for all autocracies, at least for their own continued rule. Today the competition between them, along with the struggle of radical Islamists to make the world safe for their vision of Islamic theocracy, has become a defining feature of the international scene.

The differences between the two camps appear on many issues of lesser strategic importance — China’s willingness to provide economic and political support to certain African dictatorships that liberal governments in Europe and the United States find odious, for instance. But they are also shaping international relations at a more fundamental level. Contrary to expectations at the end of the Cold War, the question of “regime” or “polity” is once again becoming a main subject of international relations.

To ask one dictatorship to aid in the undermining of another dictatorship is asking a great deal.

The world looks very different from Moscow and Beijing than it does from Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris. In Europe and the United States, the liberal world cheered on the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan and saw in them the natural unfolding of humanity ’s proper political evolution. In Russia and China, these events were viewed as Western-funded, cia-inspired coups that furthered the geopolitical hegemony of America and its (subservient) European allies. The two autocratic powers responded similarly to nato’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and not only because China’s embassy was bombed by an American warplane and Russia’s slavic orthodox allies in Serbia were on the receiving end of the nato onslaught. What the liberal “West” considered a moral act, a “humanitarian” intervention, leaders and analysts in Moscow and Beijing saw as unlawful and self-interested aggression. Indeed, since they do not share the liberal West ’s liberalism, how could they have seen it any other way?

What is more, the allied intervention in Kosovo was unlawful, at least according to centuries of international law and the un Charter. It was undertaken without authorization by the un Security Council and against a sovereign nation that had committed no act of aggression beyond its borders. Americans and Europeans went to war in service of what they regarded as a “higher law” of liberal morality. For those who do not share this liberal morality, however, such acts are merely lawless, destructive of the traditional safeguards of national sovereignty.

Of course, it is precisely toward a less rigid conception of national sovereignty that the liberal world of Europe and the United States would like to go. It is their conception of progress and a beneficial evolution of international legal principles. Ideas that are becoming common currency in Europe and the United States — limited sovereignty, “the responsibility to protect,” a “voluntary sovereignty waiver” — all aim to provide liberal nations the right to intervene in the affairs of nonliberal nations. The Chinese and Russians and the leaders of other autocracies cannot welcome this kind of progress. Nor is it surprising that China and Russia have become the world ’s leading defenders of the Westphalian order of states, with its insistence upon the inviolable sovereign equality of all nations.

This is more than a dispute over the niceties of international law. It concerns the fundamental legitimacy of governments, which at the end of the day is a matter of life and death. Autocrats can hardly be expected to aid in legitimizing an evolution in the international system toward “limited sovereignty” and “the responsibility to protect.” For even if the people and governments pushing this evolution do not believe they are establishing the predicate for international interventions against Russia and China, the leaders of those nations have no choice but to contemplate the possibility and to try to shield themselves. China, after all, has been a victim of international sanctions imposed by the U.S.-led liberal world, and for killing far fewer people than the governments of Sudan or Zimbabwe. Nor do China ’s rulers forget that if the liberal world had had its way in 1989, they would now be out of office, probably imprisoned, possibly dead.

Because autocratic governments have a vital interest in disputing liberal principles of interventionism, they will often resist efforts by the liberal international community to put pressure on other autocracies around the world. Many in the United States and Europe have begun to complain about Chinese policies that provide unfettered aid to dictatorships in Africa and Asia, thereby undermining American and European efforts to press for reforms in countries such as Zimbabwe and Burma. To ask one dictatorship to aid in the undermining of another dictatorship, however, is asking a great deal. Chinese leaders will always be extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on autocrats when they themselves remain subject to sanctions for their own autocratic behavior. They may bend occasionally so as to avoid too-close association with what the West calls “rogue regimes.” But the thrust of their foreign policy will be to support an international order that places a high value on national sovereignty.

Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world. Moreover, they can see their comparative advantage over the West when it comes to gaining influence with African, Asian, or Latin American governments that can provide access to oil and other vital natural resources or that, in the case of Burma, are strategically located. Moscow knows it can have more influence with governments in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because, unlike the liberal West, it can unreservedly support their regimes. And the more autocracies there are in the world, the less isolated Beijing and Moscow will be in international forums such as the United Nations. The more dictatorships there are, the more global resistance they will offer against the liberal West ’s efforts to place limits on sovereignty in the interest of advancing liberalism.

The general effect of the rise of these two large autocratic powers, therefore, will be to increase the likelihood that autocracy will spread in some parts of the world. This is not because Russia and China are evangelists for autocracy or want to set off a worldwide autocratic revolution. It is not the Cold War redux. It is more like the nineteenth century redux. Then, the absolutist rulers of Russia and Austria shored up fellow autocracies — in France, for instance — and used force to suppress liberal movements in Germany, Italy, Poland, and Spain. China and Russia may not go that far, at least not yet. But Ukraine has already been a battleground between forces supported by the liberal West and forces supported by Russia. The great-power autocracies will inevitably offer support and friendship to those who feel besieged by the United States and other liberal nations. This in itself will strengthen the hand of autocracy in the world. Autocrats and would-be autocrats will know they can again find powerful allies and patrons, something that was not as true in the 1990s.

Through the 1980s and 1990s dictatorships of both right and left fell before the liberal tide.

Moreover, China and (to a much lesser extent) Russia provide a model for successful autocracy, a way to create wealth and stability without political liberalization. This is hardly novel, of course. Hugo Chavez did not need China to show him the possibilities of successful autocracy, least of all in Latin America. In the 1970s, autocratic regimes such as Pinochet’s Chile, the shah’s Iran, and Suharto’s Indonesia also demonstrated that economic success could come without political liberalization. But through the 1980s and 1990s the autocratic model seemed less attractive as dictatorships of both right and left fell before the liberal tide. That tide has not yet turned in the other direction, but the future may bring a return to a global competition between different forms of government, with the world ’s great powers on opposite sides.

This has implications for international institutions and for American foreign policy. It is no longer possible to speak of an “international community.” The term suggests agreement on international norms of behavior, an international morality, even an international conscience. The idea of such a community took hold in the 1990s, at a time when the general assumption was that the movement of Russia and China toward western liberalism was producing a global commonality of thinking about human affairs. But by the late 1990s it was already clear that the international community lacked a foundation of common understanding. This was exposed most blatantly in the war over Kosovo, which divided the liberal West from both Russia and China and from many other non-European nations. Today it is apparent on the issue of Sudan and Darfur. In the future, incidents that expose the hollowness of the term “international community” will likely proliferate.

As for the United Nations Security Council, after a brief awakening from the Cold War coma, it has fallen back to its former condition of near-paralysis. The agile diplomacy of France and the tactical caution of China have at times obscured the fact that the Security Council on most major issues is clearly divided between the autocracies and the democracies, with the latter systematically pressing for sanctions and other punitive actions against Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and other autocracies and the former just as systematically resisting and attempting to weaken the effect of such actions. This is a rut that is likely to deepen in the coming years. It will hinder, as it has already hindered, international efforts to provide assistance in humanitarian crises such as Darfur. It will also obstruct American and allied efforts to impose pressure and punishments on nations seeking nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, as it has already done in the cases of Iran and North Korea.

Today there is little sense of common political principle and shared morality among the great powers.

The problem goes beyond the Security Council. Efforts to achieve any international consensus in any forum are going to be more and more difficult because of the widening gap between liberal and autocratic governments. The current divisions between the United States and its European allies that have garnered so much attention in recent years are going to be overtaken by more fundamental ideological divisions, and especially by growing tensions between the democratic transatlantic alliance and Russia.

The divisions will be all the sharper where ideological fault lines coincide with those caused by competitive national ambitions. It may be largely accidental that two of the world ’s more nationalistic powers are also the two leading autocracies, but this fact will have immense geopolitical significance.

Under these circumstances, calls for a new “concert” of nations in which Russia, China, the United States, Europe, and other great powers operate under some kind of international condominium are unlikely to succeed. The early nineteenth-century “Concert of Europe” operated under the umbrella of a common morality and shared principles of government. It aimed not only at the preservation of a European peace but also, and more importantly, at the maintenance of a monarchical and aristocratic order against the liberal and radical challenges presented by the French and American revolutions and their echoes elsewhere in Europe. The concert gradually broke down under the strains of popular nationalism, fueled in part by the rise of liberalism.

Today there is little sense of shared morality and common political principle among the great powers. Quite the contrary: There is suspicion, growing hostility, and the well-grounded view on the part of the autocracies that the democracies, whatever they say, would welcome their overthrow. Any concert among them would be built on a shaky foundation likely to collapse at the first serious test.

American foreign policy should be attuned to these ideological distinctions and recognize their relevance to the most important strategic questions. It is folly to expect China to help undermine a brutal regime in Khartoum or to be surprised if Russia rattles its saber at pro-Western democratic governments near its borders. There will be a tendency toward solidarity among the world ’s autocracies, as well as among the world’s democracies.

For all these reasons, the United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals. One possibility might be to establish a global concert or league of democratic states, perhaps informally at first but with the aim of holding regular meetings and consultations on the issues of the day. Such an institution could bring together Asian nations such as Japan, Australia, and India with the European nations — two sets of democracies that have comparatively little to do with each other outside the realms of trade and finance. The institution would complement, not replace, the United Nations, the g-8, and other global forums. But it would at the very least signal a commitment to the democratic idea, and in time it could become a means of pooling the resources of democratic nations to address a number of issues that cannot be addressed at the United Nations. If successful, it could come to be an organization capable of bestowing legitimacy on actions that liberal nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance — as nato conferred legitimacy on the conflict in Kosovo even though Russia was opposed.

The emphasis on democracy, liberalism, and human rights exposes the weaknesses of the autocratic powers.

Some will claim that such an organization will only create divisions in the world. But those divisions are already there. The question now is whether there is any way to pursue American interests and liberal democratic ends despite them.

Others will worry that European democracies are either unwilling or unable to share the burden in pursuing common goals with the United States. That may be true. But there is still reason to hope that an effort to reinvigorate democratic solidarity may increase European willingness to take on such burdens, especially when it coincides with the increasingly autocratic and belligerent behavior of Russia and the continuing rise of autocratic China.

In such an international environment the United States should continue, as it has in the past, to prefer democracy over autocracy and to use its influence to promote the former when opportunities arise. This is more than just a matter of moral preference, although Americans often cannot avoid expressing and acting on that preference. But in a world where autocracies increasingly look for allies in fellow autocracies, the democracies will want to do the same. The United States should discourage moves toward autocracy in democratic nations, both by punishing steps that undo democratic institutions and by providing support to those institutions and individuals who favor democratic principles. It should isolate autocratic governments when possible while encouraging internal pressure for democratic reform. History suggests that external influences, especially by the global superpower, have a positive if not determinative influence on the political course nations take. The United States should express support for democracy in word and deed without expecting immediate success. It should support the development of liberal institutions and practices, understanding that elections alone do not guarantee a steady liberal democratic course. But neither should Americans lose sight of the centrality of free and fair elections for both democracy and true liberalism.

Americans, said Dean Acheson, “are children of freedom” and “cannot be safe except in an environment of freedom.”

The United States need not engage in a blind crusade on behalf of democracy everywhere at all times, nor need it seek a violent confrontation with the autocratic powers. For one thing, all the world ’s great powers share some important common interests, especially in the economic realm. Nor can an intelligent foreign policy ever be guided solely by one set of principles. Promoting democracy cannot and should not be the only goal of American foreign policy, any more than can producing wealth, fighting terrorism, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, or any other national goal or ambition. There will be times when promoting democracy will have to take a back seat to other objectives. The job of statesmen is to determine when. But democracy should be as highly valued as the others, for it is, like them, of strategic importance. As the hard-headed Dean Acheson put it, Americans “are children of freedom” and “cannot be safe except in an environment of freedom.” 19

The emphasis on democracy, liberalism, and human rights has strategic relevance in part because it plays to American strengths and exposes the weaknesses of the autocratic powers. It is easy to look at China and Russia today and believe they are simply getting stronger and stronger. But one should not overlook their fragility. These autocratic regimes may be stronger than they were in the past in terms of wealth and global influence. But they do still live in a predominantly liberal era. That means they face an unavoidable problem of legitimacy. They are not like the autocracies of nineteenth-century Europe, which still enjoyed a historical legitimacy derived partly from the fact that the world had known nothing but autocracy for centuries. To be an autocrat today is to be constantly concerned that the powerful forces of liberalism, backed by a collection of rich, advanced nations, including the world ’s only superpower, will erode or undermine the controls necessary to stay in power. Today ’s autocracies struggle to create a new kind of legitimacy, and it is no easy task. The Chinese leaders race forward with their economy in fear that any slowing will be their undoing. They fitfully stamp out signs of political opposition partly because they live in fear of repeating the Soviet experience. Having watched the Soviet Union succumb to the liberal West, thanks to what they regard as Mikhail Gorbachev ’s weakness and mistakes, they are determined neither to show weakness nor to make the same mistakes.

China’s leaders fitfully stamp out signs of political opposition, living in fear of repeating the Soviet experience.

Vladimir Putin shares both their contempt for Gorbachev and their commitment to the lessons learned from his downfall. In a nice historical irony, the Russian leader, in order to avoid a Russian d énouement, is trying to adopt a Chinese model of modern autocracy, using oil and gas wealth instead of entrepreneurship to buy off the Russian elite as he consolidates power in the name of stability and nationalism. In both countries, the renewed international competition among ambitious nations is helpful in this respect. It allows the governments to charge dissidents and would-be democrats as fifth-columnists for American hegemony. In Russia ’s case, it has been easy for Putin to tarnish liberal democrats by associating them in the popular mind with past policies of accommodation and even subservience to the United States and the West.

Nevertheless, the Chinese are not just pretending when they claim their deep internal problems make them hesitant to pursue a more adventurous foreign policy. Leaders in Beijing rightly fear they are riding a tiger at home, and they fear external support for a political opposition more than they fear foreign invasion. Even promoting nationalism as a means of enhancing legitimacy is a dangerous business, since in Chinese history nationalist movements have evolved into revolutionary movements.

The Russian regime is also vulnerable to pressures from within and without, for unlike China, Russia still maintains the trappings of democracy. It would not be easy for a Russian leader simply to abandon all pretense and assume the role of tsar. Elections must still be held, even if they are unfair or are merely referendums on the selection of the leadership. This provides an opportunity for dissidents within and liberals on the outside to preserve the possibility of a return to democratic governance in Russia. It certainly would be a strategic error to allow Putin and any possible successor to strengthen their grip on power without outside pressures for reform, for the consolidation of autocracy at home will free the Russian leadership to pursue greater nationalist ambitions abroad. In these and other autocracies, including Iran, promoting democracy and human rights exacerbates internal political contradictions and can have the effect of blunting external ambitions as leaders tend to more dangerous threats from within.

In most of the world today — in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and even Africa — the idea of supporting democracy against autocracy is not very controversial, though there are heated debates over precisely how to do it. The issue becomes more complicated when one turns to the Middle East, where some observers believe the Arab people are simply not ready for democracy and where the prospect of electoral victories by Islamist movements seems to some the worst possible outcome. Should the United States and others promote democracy in the Middle East too?

The struggle between modernization and traditionalism is largely a sideshow on the international stage.

Part of the answer comes if one turns the question around and asks: Should the United States support autocracy in the Middle East? That is the only other choice, after all. There is no neutral stance on such matters. The United States is either supporting an autocracy, through aid, recognition, amicable diplomatic relations, and regular economic intercourse, or it is using its manifold influence in varying degrees to push for democratic reform. The number of American thinkers who believe that the United States should simply support Middle Eastern autocrats and not push for change at all is small, and the number of policymakers and politicians who support that view is even smaller. After September 11, 2001, most observers agreed that American support for autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia was the “principal source of resentment” of the terrorists who launched the attack on the United States and that, therefore, a policy of simply supporting autocrats in those and other Middle Eastern countries would be a mistake. 20 

The main questions, then, are really a matter of tactics and timing. But no matter whether one prefers faster or slower, harder or softer, there will always be the risk that pressure of any kind will produce a victory for radical Islamists. Is that a risk worth taking? A similar question arose constantly during the Cold War, when American liberals called on the United States to stop supporting Third World dictators and American conservatives and neoconservatives warned that the dictators would be replaced by pro-Soviet communists. Sometimes this proved true. But other times such efforts produced moderate democratic governments that were pro-American. The lesson of the Reagan years, when pro-American and reasonably democratic governments replaced right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, and South Korea, to name just a few, was that the risk was, on balance, worth taking.

It may be worth taking again in the Middle East, and not only as a strategy of democracy promotion but as part of a larger effort to address the issue of Islamic radicalism by accelerating and intensifying its confrontation with the modern, globalized world.

Modernization, globalization, Islam, and their discontents

The islamists’ struggle against the powerful and often impersonal forces of modernization, capitalism, and globalization is another significant fact of life in the world today. Much of this fight has been peaceful, but some of it has been violent and now, oddly, poses by far the greatest threat of a catastrophic attack on the mainland of the United States.

It is odd because the struggle between modernization and globalization, on the one hand, and traditionalism, on the other, is largely a sideshow on the international stage. The future is more likely to be dominated by the struggle among the great powers and between the great ideologies of liberalism and autocracy than by the effort of some radical Islamists to restore an imagined past of piety. But of course that struggle has taken on a new and frightening dimension. Normally, when old and less technologically advanced civilizations have confronted more advanced civilizations, their inadequate weapons have reflected their backwardness. Today, the radical proponents of Islamic traditionalism, though they abhor the modern world, are nevertheless not only using the ancient methods of assassination and suicidal attacks, but also have deployed the weapons of the modern world against it. Modernization and globalization inflamed their rebellion and also armed them for the fight.

It is a lonely and ultimately desperate fight, for in the struggle between tradition and modernization, tradition cannot win — though traditional forces armed with modern technology can put up a good fight. All the world ’s rich and powerful nations have more or less embraced the economic, technological, and even social aspects of modernization and globalization. All have embraced, albeit with varying degrees of complaint and resistance, the free flow of goods, finances, and services, and the intermingling of cultures and lifestyles that characterize the modern world. Increasingly, their people watch the same television shows, listen to the same music, and go to the same movies. And along with this dominant modern culture they have accepted, even as they may also deplore, the essential characteristics of a modern morality and aesthetics: the sexual as well as political and economic liberation of women, the weakening of church authority and the strengthening of secularism, the existence of what used to be called the counterculture, free expression in the arts (if not in politics), which includes the freedom to commit blasphemy and to lampoon symbols of faith, authority, and morality — these and all the countless effects of liberalism and capitalism unleashed and unchecked by the constraining hand of tradition, a powerful church, or a moralistic and domineering government. The Chinese have learned that while it is possible to have capitalism without political liberalization, it is much harder to have capitalism without cultural liberalization.

Today radical Islamists are the last holdout against these powerful forces of globalization and modernization. They seek to carve out a part of the world where they can be left alone, shielded from what they regard as the soul-destroying licentiousness of unchecked liberalism and capitalism. The tragedy for them is that their goal is impossible to achieve. Neither the United States nor the other great powers will turn over control of the Middle East to these fundamentalist forces, if only because the region is of such vital strategic importance to the rest of the world. The outside powers have strong internal allies as well, including the majority of the populations of the Middle East who have been willing and even eager to make peace with modernity. Nor is it conceivable in this modern world that a people can wall themselves off from modernity even if the majority wanted to. Could the great Islamic theocracy that al Qaeda and others hope to erect ever completely block out the sights and sounds of the rest of the world and thereby shield their people from the temptations of modernity? The mullahs have not even succeeded at doing that in Iran. The project is fantastic.

Neither the United States nor anyone else has the ability to give the extreme Islamists what they want.

The world is thus faced with the prospect of a protracted struggle in which the goals of the extreme Islamists can never be satisfied because neither the United States nor anyone else has the ability to give them what they want. The West is quite simply not capable of retreating as far as the Islamic extremists require.

If retreat is impossible, perhaps the best course is to advance. Of the many bad options in confronting this immensely dangerous problem, the best may be to hasten the process of modernization in the Islamic world: more modernization, more globalization, faster. This would require greater efforts to support and expand capitalism and the free market in Arab countries, as many have already recommended, as well as efforts to increase public access to the modern world through television and the internet. Nor should it be considered a setback if these modern communication tools are also used to organize radical extremism. That is unavoidable so long as the radical Islamist backlash persists, which it will for some time.

Finally, the liberal world should continue to promote political modernization and liberalization; support human rights, including the rights of women; and use its influence to support repeated elections that may, if nothing else, continually shift power from the few to the many. This, too, will produce setbacks. It will provide a channel for popular resentments to express themselves and for radical Islamism itself to take power. But perhaps this phase is as unavoidable as the present conflict. Perhaps the sooner it is begun, the sooner a new phase can take its place. 21

Throughout all these efforts, whose success is by no means guaranteed and certainly not any time soon, the United States and others will have to persist in fighting what is, in fact, quite accurately called “the war on terrorism.” Now and probably for the coming decades, organized terrorist groups will seek to strike at the United States, and at modernity itself, when and where they can. This war will not and cannot be the totality of America ’s worldwide strategy. It can be only a piece of it. But given the high stakes, it must be prosecuted ruthlessly, effectively, and for as long as the threat persists. This will sometimes require military interventions when, as in Afghanistan, states either cannot or will not deny the terrorists a base. That aspect of the “war on terror” is certainly not going away. One need only contemplate the American popular response should a terrorist group explode a nuclear weapon on American soil. No president of any party or ideological coloration will be able to resist the demands of the American people for retaliation and revenge, and not only against the terrorists but against any nation that aided or harbored them. Nor, one suspects, will the American people disapprove when a president takes preemptive action to forestall such a possibility — assuming the action is not bungled.

The war on terrorism must be prosecuted ruthlessly, effectively, and for as long as the threat persists.

The United States will not have many eager partners in this fight. For although in the struggle between modernization and tradition, the United States, Russia, China, Europe, and the other great powers are roughly on the same side, the things that divide them from each other — the competing national ambitions and ideological differences — will inevitably blunt their ability or their willingness to cooperate in the military aspects of a fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Europeans have been and will continue to be less than enthusiastic about what they emphatically do not call “the war on terror.” And it will be tempting for Russian and Chinese leaders to enjoy the spectacle of the United States bogged down in a fight with al Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups in the Middle East, just as it is tempting to let American power in that region be checked by a nuclear-armed Iran. Unfortunately, the willingness of the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing to run interference for their fellow autocrats in Pyongyang, Tehran, and Khartoum increases the chance that the connection between terrorists and nuclear weapons will eventually be made.

The end of grand expectations

When the cold war ended, it was possible to imagine that the world had been utterly changed: the end of international competition, the end of geopolitics, the end of history. When in the first decade after the Cold War people began describing the new era of “globalization,” the common expectation was that the phenomenon of instantaneous global communications, the free flow of goods and services, the rapid transmission of ideas and information, and the intermingling and blending of cultures would further knit together a world that had already just patched up the great ideological and geopolitical tears of the previous century. “Globalization” was to the late twentieth century what “sweet commerce” was to the late eighteenth — an anticipated balm for a war-weary world.

In the 1990s serious thinkers predicted the end of wars and military confrontations among great powers. European “postmodernism” seemed to be the future: the abandonment of power politics in favor of international institutions capable of managing the disagreements among nations. Even today, there are those who believe the world is moving along the same path as the European Union. John Ikenberry recently described the post-Cold War era, the decade of the 1990s, as a liberal paradise:

nafta, apec, and the wto signaled a strengthening of the rules and institutions of the world economy. nato was expanded and the U.S.-Japan alliance was renewed. Russia became a quasi-member of the West and China was a “strategic partner” with Washington. Clinton’s grand strategy of building post-Cold War order around expanding markets, democracy, and institutions was the triumphant embodiment of the liberal vision of international order. 22 

Perhaps it was these grand expectations of a new era for humankind that helped spur the anger and outrage at American policies of the past decade. It is not that those policies are in themselves so different, or in any way out of character for the United States. It is that to many people in Europe and even in the United States, they have seemed jarringly out of place in a world that was supposed to have moved on.

As we now know, however, both nationalism and ideology were already making their comeback in the 1990s. Russia had ceased to be and no longer desired to be a “quasi-member” of the West, and partly because of nato enlargement. China was already on its present trajectory and had already determined that American hegemony was a threat to its ambitions. The forces of radical Islam had already begun their jihad, globalization had already caused a backlash around the world, and the juggernaut of democracy had already stalled and begun to tip precariously.

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. ” But the world struggle continued then, and it continues today. Six decades ago American leaders believed the United States had the unique ability and the unique responsibility to use its power to prevent a slide back to the circumstances that produced two world wars and innumerable national calamities. Although much has changed since then, America ’s responsibility has not.

1  This was the title chosen by former President George H. W. Bush and his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, for their account of American foreign policy at the end of the Cold War.

2 Second Inaugural Address of William J. Clinton (January 20, 1997).

3 Dean Acheson, quoted in Robert L. Beisner, Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War (Oxford University Press, 2006), 372.

4  The quotations are of course from Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.

5 See Stephen Sestanovich, “American Maximalism,” National Interest (Spring 2005).

6  Critics obviously don’t mean that the Bush administration literally acts alone, since even in Iraq the United States had a number of allies. It had more partners in that war than the administration of George H.W. Bush had in its invasion of Panama and than Bill Clinton had in his intervention in Haiti. “Unilateralism” apparently is a relative term and depends for its interpretation on circumstances.

7 Melvyn P. Leffler, “9/11 and American Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 29:3 (June 2005); John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Harvard University Press, 2005).

8 In Walzer’s view, traditional legal arguments against preventive war look “different when the danger is posed by weapons of mass destruction, which are developed in secret, and which might be used suddenly, without warning, with catastrophic results. ” Not only might preventive action be “legitimate” under such circumstances, but so would “unilateral action” without a Security Council authorization. The “refusal of a U.N. majority to act forcefully” is not “a good reason for ruling out the use of force by any member state that can use it effectively. ” Michael Walzer, “The Hard Questions: Lone Ranger,” New Republic (April 27, 1998). Kissinger’s argument is similar. See Henry Kissinger, “Iraq Poses Most Consequential Foreign-Policy Decision for Bush,” Los Angeles Times (August 8, 2002).

9 To review the behavior of the most recent administrations: The Reagan administration sought no international authorization for its covert war against the Sandinistas or its arming of guerrillas in Angola and Afghanistan, and it sought neither un nor oas support for the invasion of Grenada. The first Bush administration invaded Panama without un authorization and would have gone to war with Iraq without authorization if Russia had vetoed. The Clinton administration intervened in Haiti without un authorization, bombed Iraq over the objection of un Security Council permanent members, and went to war in Kosovo without un authorization.

10 Remarks of Senator Barack Obama to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (April 23, 2007).

11 Rosalie Chen, “China Perceives America: Perspectives of International Relations Experts,” Journal of Contemporary China 12:35 (May 2003).

12 This is what William Wohlforth predicted almost a decade ago. See William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security 24:1 (Summer 1999).

13 See, for instance, G. John Ikenberry, “Strategic Reactions to American Preeminence: Great Power Politics in the Age of Unipolarity, ” working group paper prepared for the National Intelligence Council (July 2003).

14 American defense spending remains historically low as a percentage of gdp, at about 4 percent. In the Reagan years, it reached nearly 8 percent. During the early years of the Cold War, it was well over 15  percent. Nor is the size of the defense budget a political issue, even among Democrats. Both Barack Obama nd Hillary Clinton currently call for increases in the size of U.S. ground forces, for instance — a huge additional expense.

15 For the most thorough discussion of worldwide trends that run counter to the prediction of balancing, see Keir A. Lieber and Gerard Alexander, “Waiting For Balancing: Why the World Is Not Pushing Back,” International Security 30:1 (Summer 2005).

16 A recent editorial in the Economist (“Pining for the Cold War,” May 14, 2007) artfully provides the view of the world as seen from Moscow, that “Russia is a strong, sovereign and prosperous country, surrounded by enemies and traitors who are bent on undermining its geopolitical power. Upstarts such as Estonia and Poland are trying to spoil Russia ’s far more important relationships with proper European countries, such as Germany or France. The freshly-baked European Union ( eu) members act on the instructions of America, a hypocritical and arrogant dictator of the world order, which pretends to be a democracy but in fact is closer to the Third Reich. ”

17 “Whether the U.S. likes it or not, Iran is a major regional power with great political and spiritual influence. It is in the United States ’ interests to accept Iran’s influence as a reality, though it may be a bitter pill to swallow, and to stop leveling accusations against the Islamic Republic based on prejudices. ” Tehran Times (May 15, 2007).

18  It would be pleasant to imagine deeper European involvement as well. But that seems unlikely, given Europe ’s general weakness and its internal problems with Islam.

19 Beisner, Acheson, 152.

20 Samantha Power, “U.S. Democracy Promotion: Failure or Folly?” remarks to the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy (April 10, 2006).

21 See, for instance, Reuel Marc Gerecht, The Islamic Paradox (aei Press, 2004).

22 G. John Ikenberry, “Liberal International Theory in the Wake of 9/11 and American Unipolarity,” paper prepared for seminar on “ir Theory, Unipolarity and September 11th — Five Years On,” nupi, Oslo, Norway (February 3-4, 2006).

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