Stephen M. Walt
A little doom and gloom
I visited the National Library in Dublin last week, and spent an hour at a terrific exhibit on the life and works of W. B. Yeats. I’ve never been a big fan of Yeats’s poetry (my tastes run more to Auden, Neruda, e. e. cummings, and Hardy), but some of his best works are undeniably ...
I visited the National Library in Dublin last week, and spent an hour at a terrific exhibit on the life and works of W. B. Yeats. I’ve never been a big fan of Yeats’s poetry (my tastes run more to Auden, Neruda, e. e. cummings, and Hardy), but some of his best works are undeniably brilliant. Like "The Second Coming," which is probably one of the most famous poems of the 20th century and one that seems uncannily relevant whenever we enter a turbulent period of global politics:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
I thought of that poem as I reflected this morning on recent events, and wondered if we are now witnessing the slow crumbling of the international order that has existed for decades. As I noted in an earlier post, after World War II the United States created and led a political, security, and economic order in nearly every corner of the globe, except for the communist world. The communist world eventually succumbed and became part of that order too, as first China and then Russia abandoned communism and adopted market economies and joined the various global institutions that had been designed and coordinated in Washington.
Looking back, a striking feature of the past two decades is that the central features of U.S. foreign policy and the basic Cold War institutions remained largely unchanged long after the Cold War ended. NATO is still around; our bilateral security ties in Asia haven’t changed much, and we retained pretty much the same set of allies and policies in the Middle East. The United States continues to think of itself as the "indispensable power" and the Leader of the Free World (which is a bit ironic given our incarceration rate), and Democratic and Republican policy wonks spend most of their time debating how and where to use American power, but never questioning whether it was right or proper or wise to use it in lots of places. Despite an enormous set of structural changes, in short, the central features of U.S. foreign policy have remained quite constant.
The end of the Cold War — and the brief "unipolar moment" that followed it — just meant the United States could throw its weight around a bit more without worrying that a hostile great power might try to stop us. Instead, it was a combination of hubris, ignorance, and arrogance that led us into a series of costly quagmires, accompanied by a self-inflicted financial meltdown that stemmed from an equally toxic combination of arrogance and avarice.
But have those disasters brought us to the brink of a major shift in the global order? Is the familiar landscape of world politics in the process of being transformed? Consider the following:
1. The financial crisis has put the Eurozone under unprecedented stress, and the European Union’s future looks increasingly bleak. Check out this piece from the Guardian here, and see how confident you are that the European Union will survive in its present form.
2. NATO looks more and more obsolescent. Its performance in Afghanistan has been disheartening and the recent war in Libya is a monument to NATO disharmony (because most NATO members aren’t involved), as well as a revealing demonstration of just how weak the alliance is when it can’t rely on the United States to do all the work. And does anyone seriously believe that the Libyan adventure will convince Europe to get serious about defense spending in the future? Not in this economic climate, and not when Europe really doesn’t face major external threats.
3. The Arab world is in upheaval, and seems likely to remain unsettled for years. The United States has yet to formulate a clear policy towards this new situation, and contrary what the White House seems to think, having the President give another lofty speech is not a policy. Qaddafi’s days may be numbered and the Assad regime in Syria looks like it’s on borrowed time too, but what comes after either one is anyone’s guess. Prospects for a smooth transition and economic turnaround in Egypt look equally dim.
But the key point is that the outcomes of these processes won’t be determined by us; the United States lacks the resources, respect, and moral authority to shape the political future in any of these countries. Given our track record in the region in recent years — and I include Obama’s dismal post-Cairo performance — why should anyone listen seriously to our views?
4. In fact, the "Arab spring" has done nothing to improve the U.S. image in the region. Instead, it has sharpened the obvious contradictions between America’s strategic interests, its supposed commitment to democracy and human rights, and its overall policy toward the entire region. Arab governments are going to be more and more concerned with public opinion in the years ahead, and if the United States wants good relations and future influence with these countries, it will have to fashion policies that are more congenial to local populations and not just to a bunch of autocrats on top. That would require a thorough rethinking of U.S. policy toward both the Gulf monarchies and Israel, but in case you hadn’t noticed, the political will for a more realistic policy is obviously lacking.
5. There may be a mounting power struggle in Iran, but its slow march toward a latent nuclear capability continues. Sanctions won’t stop them; military force will only make things worse, and our diplomatic efforts have been half-hearted, impatient (and to be fair, somewhat unlucky). Meanwhile, the Saudis are ticked off with us over Mubarak’s ouster, we’re getting out of Iraq and leaving god-knows-what behind, and we have no idea what to do about Yemen. Good times!
6. The Afghan War will end — but not soon — and we will leave behind a dysfunctional country, a nuclear-armed Pakistan, and a lot of people who will either be angry for us for what we did or angry at us for what we failed to do. Getting out is still the right decision, but it’s not like the area is going to be tranquil once we’re gone.
7. Japan — which is still the world’s third largest economy — has suffered nearly two decades of economic stagnation and a costly nuclear disaster. Its population is shrinking and aging, and its value as a counter-weight to a rising China is diminishing. Building a balancing coalition in Asia is still feasible, but overcoming the inevitable collective action problems will require lots of American attention and some adroit diplomatic and military hardball. Which in turn requires a major shift in foreign policy resources toward Asia, as well as a significant increase in the intellectual capital devoted to these issues. But instead we’re still bogged down elsewhere.
8. China continues to rack up impressive rates of economic growth — despite some signs of strain — and it has avoided the foreign policy sinkholes that Washington has specialized in for the past two decades. That’s how clever rising powers do it: they let stronger countries try to run the world, and bide their time until those states are suitably weakened by the effort. Americans ought to understand this better than we do, because that’s precisely how the United States did it in the early 20th century. We passed the buck to the other major powers and let them fight ruinous wars, while we acted like an offshore balancer. Because we were the last great power to get into both world wars, we didn’t get badly bloodied in either one and emerged in a stronger position at the end.
9. As these various problems mount, America’s political institutions seem increasingly paralyzed. Instead of joining forces to put our fiscal house in order (by ending losing wars, cutting defense and trimming entitlements, raising taxes, and re-regulating the financial sector), House Republicans demonstrate "leadership" and patriotism by walking out in a snit. But one shouldn’t be surprised: when your political system is in hock to the financial sector and assorted special interests, and when an overabundance of gerrymandered safe seats ensures that ideologues win in primaries and are over-represented on Capitol Hill, then you shouldn’t expect to see many competent or responsible people serving in elected office. Combine that with a foreign policy establishment where failure goes unpenalized and where novel ideas are rarely welcome, you have a recipe for endless overcommitment and repeated policy failure.
Put all this together, and I worry that we are on the cusp of genuine sea-change in world affairs. The landscape we have taken for granted for decades is now in flux, yet nobody is thinking about how the United States should prepare for a world whose central features are radically different than the one we have known (and not in a good way). I hope I’m wrong, but I think I hear Yeats’ "rough beast" slouching our way.