There's nothing inevitable about the rise of violence and rancor, in the United States and abroad.
- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
“Peace on Earth, good will toward men.” One hears this phrase in the United States this time of year, but prospects for peace and goodwill abroad, not to mention at home, appear to be evaporating before our eyes. Staving off a gradual downward spiral of foreign and domestic politics into violence and rancor requires some serious reflection on what’s gone wrong, and a willingness to rethink our present approach.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a column explaining why international peace was in the U.S. national interest. Yet none of the presidential candidates — not even Bernie Sanders — made it a key theme of their campaign. We heard a lot about strength and resolve and “greatness” and leadership, along with repeated warnings about alleged threats and “enemies,” but hardly a word was said about the virtues of peace or the policies that the United States should follow in order to preserve it. Indeed, one of the candidates kept making bizarre and bellicose statements of various kinds, including not-so-veiled threats of violence against his political opponents. And guess what? That guy eventually won.
Looking beyond the recent U.S. election offers little reason for optimism. There are a few bright spots — such as the renewal of the peace deal in Colombia — but encouraging episodes like that are few and far between. The European Union used to be a shining symbol of its member states’ commitment to transcend their conflict-ridden history; today the EU seems to be in a slow-motion process of disintegration. Syria is a demolished wasteland, and Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, South Sudan, and Libya remained mired in violence with no end in sight. The political landscape in Asia is beginning to shift as well, and the U.S. president-elect has already questioned the “One China” policy and repudiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A neat trick: He’s managed to provoke China and undermine the U.S. position in Asia simultaneously, and he’s not even in office yet. Fasten your seatbelts, folks, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Moreover, the bright red lines which help states avoid intruding on each other’s vital interests are blurring as well. Poet Robert Frost famously wrote that “good fences make good neighbors,” and one of the virtues of the Westphalian approach to state sovereignty is that it established clear boundaries and made infractions easier to spot. These features didn’t make war impossible, of course, but they made it easier to identify clear acts of aggression and made it less likely that states would stumble into war because they had crossed some unknown tripwire by accident. As norms of sovereignty have eroded and the tools for interfering in other states have become more numerous and sophisticated, states have more reason to fear that others will tamper with their internal politics and the danger of mutually reinforcing, tit-for-tat spirals goes up. In a world of hackers, cyberweapons, drones, and other ambiguous instruments of power, miscalculation and inadvertent escalation will be more likely, especially if leaders do not appreciate the risks.
Add these trends up, and the prospects for serious inter-state conflict are rising. The global balance of power is shifting — usually not a promising development, in terms of maintaining peace — and familiar features of the international landscape are increasingly contested. It will take a lot of patient and adroit diplomacy to keep all of these simmering disagreements within bounds. On reflection, this might not have been the best moment to turn U.S. foreign policy over to a combination of amateurs and ideologues.
Alas, prospects for peace don’t look much better here at home. The U.S. presidential campaign set a new low for civility and reasoned discourse, but that depressing spectacle was merely a symptom of the broader coarsening of political life that has been underway since the Cold War ended. As my Harvard colleagues Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argued this week in the New York Times, stable democracies need more than a functioning economy, reliable elections, and a well-written constitution. They also depend on informal norms of fair play and self-restraint — what Levitsky and Ziblatt call the “soft guardrails of democracy” — based on the shared belief that one’s political rivals are still part of the same political community, and that temporary political advantages should neither be exploited to the hilt nor used to cement one’s hold on power.
Today, however, that sense of fair play and restraint is steadily eroding. Filibusters are increasingly common, the GOP-controlled Senate refuses even to hold hearings on a legitimate Supreme Court nominee, and political commentators routinely accuse those they disagree with of “treason” or worse. Such tendencies have always been part of the American political scene, of course, and they have occasionally risen to prominence for brief periods, as in the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy. But these forces are more prominent and well-established than ever before, especially in the Republican Party, and no one should be surprised if some on the left conclude their opponents are proto-fascists who must be resisted by any means necessary. The result will be a naked, rule-free, no-holds-barred struggle for political power, and with that comes a grave threat to the U.S. constitutional order and the domestic stability Americans take for granted.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Back in the early 1990s, many experts thought the defeat of communism had put the United States and the rest of the world on the threshold of a long era of peace and prosperity. Democracy and free markets were spreading, globalization as the supposed guarantor of universal prosperity was the watchword of the day, and humankind had supposedly reached the conflict-free “end of history.” In those heady days, Americans thought their version of democracy was the ideal model for everyone and that it was just a matter of time before these ideals were embraced almost everywhere, permanently cementing international stability and peace.
If only. This rosy vision was always too optimistic, but a lot of smart people succumbed to some version of it. Where did that cheerful vision go wrong?
For starters, liberal internationalists in both U.S. political parties embraced several flawed theories of international peace. Some believed that economic interdependence would bind states together and make conflict irrational-to-impossible, but interdependence has never been a reliable barrier to violent conflict. (If it was, civil wars would be exceedingly rare.) Moreover, globalization failed to deliver as promised: Wall Street got rich but Main Street didn’t. Globalization also made many states more vulnerable to economic events elsewhere, and especially to financial panics like those in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street crash, which in turn cast doubt on the wisdom of entrenched elites and opened the door to the know-nothing populism of 2016.
American leaders also believed spreading democracy would guarantee peace, especially if new democracies were also given a U.S. security guarantee. This idealistic view ignored Realism 101: Expanding NATO poisoned the once-cordial relationship with Russia and eventually provoked a harsh Russian backlash in Georgia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, trying to spread democracy in the greater Middle East destroyed existing political institutions throughout the region and created ungoverned spaces in which violent extremists like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State could flourish. The liberal prescription for peace thus had exactly the opposite effect.
Third, a number of scholars and pundits believed the outsized power of the United States in the post-Cold War world would be able to dampen or deter conflict for decades to come — that unipolarity centered in Washington would prove uniquely stable. They were mistaken. Fear of U.S. power may have discouraged trouble in a few places for a while, but Washington could not impose order everywhere and its dominant position encouraged both adversaries and allies to look for ways to tame American power and keep Washington’s ambitions in check. As other states grew more capable, America’s ability to police the entire world declined even more.
And let’s be honest: Preserving peace was never at the top of Washington’s foreign-policy priorities. On the contrary, both Democrats and Republicans were more interested in eliminating rogue states, spreading democracy, disarming would-be proliferators, and forcing other states to amend their internal politics in order to join U.S.-led institutions. The United States was not a “status quo power,” not even under the supposedly restrained presidency of Barack Obama. Instead, the bipartisan desire to reshape global politics led the United States to bomb Serbia, invade Iraq, nation-build in Afghanistan, and topple Muammar al-Qaddafi, along with its broader efforts to promote democracy and globalization through more benign means. This idealistic and bipartisan commitment to liberal hegemony also explains why Barack Obama helped nudge Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011 and was quick to declare “Assad must go” when the Syrian uprising began. I like liberal ideals as much as anyone, but making them the primary basis for U.S. foreign policy was not a recipe for stable peace.
And as Matt Bai points out, these various foreign and domestic policy blunders helped bring us to where we are today. If you want to know why so many Americans were willing to support a candidate as visibly flawed as the president-elect, all you have to do is look at how badly others performed yet how little price they paid for their mistakes. If a few more losing generals had been relieved, if a few Wall Street bankers had gone to jail for their fraudulent misdeeds, if the neoconservatives who led us into the Iraqi disaster hadn’t been given cushy sinecures and prominent media posts afterwards, if more of the bought-and-paid-for politicians in both parties had been voted out for their irresponsible behavior, and if the Democrats had not gone back to the Clinton machine one too many times, then the man who will be the next U.S. president would have had far less appeal and prospects for peace at home and abroad would be brighter.
As we look ahead, peace at home and abroad must be a paramount goal. Not just an idle dream, or lofty rhetoric to aspire to, but a top priority. When confirmation hearings begin next year, I hope senators from both parties will ask nominees for top foreign-policy posts to explain what they intend to do to promote peace in the world. And I want them to ask nominees for domestic policy jobs to explain what they intend to do foster greater unity and civility here at home. If they don’t have good answers, they shouldn’t be confirmed.
Peace should be a central goal because it makes most other good things possible. As realists have understood since Thomas Hobbes, a precondition for human progress is sufficient security and order to allow us to imagine, to create, to build, to grow, and to appreciate the other joys that life offers. But as liberal democrats have known since John Locke, genuine peace requires constraints on executive power, and a shared commitment to accountability and civility. And as the Founding Fathers recognized, Americans’ lives, liberty, and pursuits of happiness require that they live neither in fear of foreign enemies nor in fear of each other.
If we are to reverse our present course, in short, each of us must stand ready to support those from any faction who are committed to reasoned debate, to judicious compromise, and to civility in public life. And we must be equally quick to condemn those who prefer to sow division, who demonize opponents without cause and who believe there are no rules but only winners and losers.
“Peace on Earth, good will toward men (and women).” Words to live by, now more than ever.
Photo credit: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images