The Bad Old Days Are Back

From China to Ukraine, the cynical calculus of power politics is alive and well -- too bad Washington doesn't realize it.

By , the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Photo by Alex Wong/Gettty Images
Photo by Alex Wong/Gettty Images

In hindsight, one of Bill Clinton’s worst predictions was a 1992 remark he made during a campaign speech. He said, "In a world where freedom, not tyranny, is on the march, the cynical calculus of pure power politics simply does not compute. It is ill-suited to a new era." Clinton may have been right about Switzerland or Costa Rica or Monaco, but he was dead wrong about Russia, China, Iran, Israel, Japan, or any other country that still takes issues of power and territory seriously.

Declaring an end to power politics is a time-honored U.S. tradition, of course; presidents as varied as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have offered sweeping statements about the imminent end of old-fashioned geopolitics and the dawn of an increasingly democratic, globalized, market-driven, institutionalized, and allegedly benevolent world order. Of course, that’s easier to say when you’re the dominant world power, have no strong enemies nearby, and possess the ultimate deterrent in the form of thousands of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the idea that power politics was disappearing has been an article of faith in the U.S. foreign-policy community ever since the end of the Cold War. Both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists embraced the idea that power politics was fading because it appealed to their own cherished beliefs about America’s positive role in the world. For neoconservatives, power politics was dead in part because humankind had reached the "end of history" and free market democracy was going to be recognized as the only viable formula for a modern society, and in part because U.S. dominance made serious geopolitical rivalries impossible by definition: How could we have "power politics" when there was only one great power?

For their part, liberal internationalists welcomed this claim because it suggested the United States could use its power, wealth, prestige, and influence to right the world’s wrongs and spread democracy, free markets, and human rights far and wide. Even a rising China would pose no problem in this brave new globalized world; a powerful but benevolent America would embrace its rise and gradually "socialize" Beijing into a world order governed by institutions designed and (mostly) made in America.

Because this vision was both seductive and self-congratulatory, it’s unsurprising that so many members of the U.S. foreign-policy elite succumbed to it. A world without power politics put the United States at the center of a supposedly tranquil order and portrayed America’s global role in a consistently positive light. It offered up an optimistic vision of international affairs in which mutually beneficial cooperation was the norm, yet it also gave the foreign-policy elite plenty of worthy and seemingly feasible projects to pursue in the name of the greater global good. With power politics gone, American foreign-policy mandarins could focus on a bunch of not-very-powerful "rogue states" and on spreading democracy, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, chasing down terrorists, spreading human rights, and whatever other worthy projects occurred to them.

Unfortunately, over the past two decades five adverse developments eroded prospects for a durable Pax Americana and a permanent end to power politics.

The first problem arose from hubris. Convinced that no one could stand up to America’s daunting combination of might and right, members of the U.S. foreign-policy elite began expanding NATO in the mid-1990s, but without giving much thought to its potential costs and risks, most notably the possibility that this expansion would adversely affect relations with Russia. They also committed the United States to containing Iraq and Iran simultaneously and eventually decided to try to transform much of the Middle East essentially at gunpoint. The adverse results are painfully obvious: a heightened danger from terrorism, a costly debacle in Iraq, the quagmire in Afghanistan, and a deteriorating relationship with Moscow. Yet even a steady diet of setbacks did not end America’s evangelical impulses entirely, as NATO’s ill-fated intervention in Libya in 2011 and the protracted drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere attest. Not only did these mistakes cost several trillion dollars and thousands of lives, but they also diverted attention from more fundamental long-term challenges.

Secondly, the most obvious challenge, of course, was the rise of China. As China grew richer, its leaders did not cheerfully accept the passive role that U.S. elites intended for it. Although the country still faces major internal challenges and is much weaker overall than the United States, Beijing isn’t accepting every element of the existing geopolitical order. In particular, it is not willing to sacrifice its own territorial objectives and long-term desire for a dominant role in Asia or help Washington pursue its agenda in places like Iran. And the wealthier and stronger that China has become, the more willing it has been to challenge the existing status quo, especially in areas close to its shores. If power politics is over, Beijing doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.

Third, there is Russia. When Russia gradually recovered from the post-Soviet meltdown, it no longer had to accept whatever indignities Washington decided to impose. Although Moscow will never regain the same power position that the old Soviet Union enjoyed, it is strong enough to play the spoiler’s role in some contexts (as in Syria) and certainly strong enough to exercise influence close to its own borders (as in Ukraine or Georgia). As any realist would expect, Russia is now defending its own perceived interests vigorously, even at the price of a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

Fourth, U.S. primacy encouraged America’s allies to free-ride on American protection even more than they already were. Allies in Europe and Asia have slashed their own defense budgets and (in most cases) have offered no more than symbolic support for America’s far-flung interventions. While Washington still spends in excess of 4 percent of GDP on defense, wealthy allies like Britain and Germany spend barely more than 2 percent, and Japan still hovers around 1 percent of GDP despite rising tensions with China.

One can hardly blame them for this behavior, however, because Washington kept insisting it was the "indispensable nation" entitled and empowered to exercise "global leadership." Because U.S. officials preferred relatively weak and docile allies who could not challenge their initiatives too often or too strenuously, America ended up bearing a disproportionate share of various (self-imposed) global burdens.

Lastly, the 2008 financial meltdown reduced America’s latent power potential and undermined the aura of economic competence it had enjoyed during the 1990s. The "Washington Consensus" quickly dissipated, and foreign elites were less likely to see the United States as the fount of economic wisdom. Although the U.S. economy has recovered more quickly than most other affected countries, its economic mavens have not regained the prestige they enjoyed before the collapse occurred.

Taken together, these five elements brought the unipolar moment to a premature end. Today, a little more than two decades after Clinton delivered his premature eulogy, power politics is back.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry may deride such behavior as "old-fashioned" and declare that "the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over," but they are wrong. Power and geography have always been critical elements in world politics, and other countries are still operating according to this playbook even if the United States is not.

In Asia, China is advancing territorial claims in part for nationalistic reasons, but also because such claims will improve its geopolitical position if they can be achieved. Given China’s dependence on overseas markets and resources, and given the ease with which China could be blockaded in the event of war, it makes good sense for China to seek control over the seas near its shores. There’s nothing "19th century" about this, and Americans delude themselves if they ignore the basic strategic logic that underpins it.

Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tough-guy approach to Ukraine is rooted in his perfectly understandable desire to maximize Russia’s long-term security, and that means keeping the world’s most powerful military alliance away from Russia’s borders. That incentive is even clearer when NATO is also deploying a sophisticated missile defense that might pose a threat to Russia’s nuclear deterrent. U.S. missile defenses may never be effective enough to achieve that objective, but no prudent Russian leader can make that assumption (and neither would any U.S. president if the situation were reversed).

Unfortunately, much of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment seems unprepared for a return to serious great-power competition. Neocons continue to bluster about credibility and advocate misguided military responses that will only sap U.S. power further. Liberals continue to focus selectively on idealistic concerns and to view China’s and Russia’s more assertive behavior as some sort of foolish aberration. Even when they do engage in more realistic policies — such as the "rebalance" to Asia — U.S. officials pretend that this has nothing to do with China. Are they kidding us, kidding Beijing, kidding themselves, or all three at once?

In the years ahead, the United States will need to relearn Power Politics 101, a subject at which it used to excel. In a world of renewed great-power competition, U.S. leaders have to play hardball with friends and foes alike, to ensure that rivals respect American power and allies do not take advantage of it. Presidents and their advisors will have to set clear priorities and stick to them, instead of being blown off course by each new crisis or upheaval, or letting foreign policy be guided by individual officials’ whims or fixations (case in point: Kerry and the Middle East). And they are going to have to do a much better job of explaining why and where the United States is engaged overseas, both to reassure allies and to retain the support of a population that increasingly questions the benefits of an expansive U.S. role.

The good news is that the United States retains formidable advantages: Its own geographic position is remarkably favorable, its economy is improving and is likely to do even better as the shale gas revolution proceeds, and China’s rise and Russia’s hard-nosed diplomacy are giving many countries even more reason to seek close ties with Washington. These factors will give U.S. policymakers a lot of leverage in the years ahead, if they are smart and ruthless enough to use it.

It’s too bad that Clinton’s vision of a world without power politics did not come to pass. A fully globalized world under the benign leadership of the United States would have been a pretty nice place to live, especially for Americans. If U.S. leaders had managed American foreign policy intelligently, the "unipolar moment" might have lasted longer. But that era is over, and the bad old days of great-power security competition are coming back.

My advice to U.S. foreign-policy makers is simple: Get used to it. To paraphrase Trotsky: You may not be interested in power politics, but power politics is interested in you.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University and a columnist for Foreign Policy.