Back to the Future: World Politics Edition

Russia is a throwback to the 19th century. The Islamic State wants to turn the clock back by 1,000 years. And Japan is stuck in the post-WWII order. How much of today's geopolitics are actually from bygone eras?


In 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia’s seizure of Crimea by saying, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped-up pretext.” Never mind that Kerry’s comment applied with equal force to the invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush’s administration. The comment captured the familiar idea that the world has supposedly moved beyond the “cynical calculus of pure power politics,” as Bill Clinton once put it. The problem, at least in Kerry’s view, is that leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin haven’t gotten the memo about proper 21st-century behavior — either Putin hasn’t bothered to read it or doesn’t agree with its message.

I was reminded of Kerry’s comment during my recent trip to Europe, where I attended conferences in Greece and France and talked with a wide array of academics and policy experts from Europe and Asia. In particular, I was struck by how many people embrace Kerry’s view — at least rhetorically — and are deeply worried that the world is making a U-turn away from post-Cold War progress and heading back to the more competitive environment of past eras.

This observation got me thinking, “Which century are different countries living in?” We’re all part of the 21st century, of course, but the worldviews that different states embrace often seem to come from different eras. Some countries appear comfortably committed to a 21st-century view of the world, while other states remain ensconced in worldviews that date back centuries.

So, which countries best exemplify “21st-century thinking” today?

First and foremost is the European Union, whose members have, for the most part, adopted the complete liberal prescription for the conduct of international politics — full stop. With some minor differences, European elites now recoil from the grim realities of power politics and believe that democracy, the rule of law, and powerful transnational institutions can dampen or eliminate rivalries between states and thereby guarantee stability and tranquility. Despite the eurozone crisis, Euroskepticism in the United Kingdom, and resurgent right-wing nationalism throughout Europe, many elites on the continent still believe economic, political, and social integration within Europe has weakened atavistic national loyalties and has fostered the development of a post-modern, post-national, pan-European unity.

These convictions (plus continued U.S. protection) have encouraged the EU member states to let their own military capabilities atrophy into insignificance. If everyone operates according to 21st-century principles, serious military power won’t be necessary and spending serious money on it is wasteful. Powerful national armies would also make neighboring states insecure and reopen the door to the militarist pathologies that helped produce past European wars. The EU should emphasize diplomacy and other forms of soft power instead, and it should eschew military force and the defense of traditional geopolitical interests.

It follows that Europe’s “21st-century” elites blame contemporary political problems on illiberal troublemakers such as the late Slobodan Milosevic or Putin. The problem, however, is that illiberal leaders like them are unlikely to be swayed by normative arguments or by economic sanctions, which leaves the EU with little capacity to shape the behavior of those states that are still operating with a more traditional view of world politics.

Whom do I have in mind? The most obvious examples are Putin’s Russia and contemporary China, whose foreign policies reflect traditional concerns for national sovereignty, territorial integrity, state capacity, and the balance of power. Russia is defending its sphere of influence in its “near abroad” vigorously and is challenging the liberal individualism that underpins core Western institutions, and it is all too willing to use proxy forces and other violent tools to protect what it sees as its core interests. If this goal requires seizing territory or promoting civil wars elsewhere — both venerable practices in the annals of statecraft — so be it. Western leaders can talk themselves hoarse declaring that their actions pose no threat to Russia; the point is that Moscow doesn’t believe them (and not without reason).

Similarly, a rapidly rising China may have embraced globalization as an economic meal ticket, but it’s not adopting a 21st-century view of world politics. On the contrary, after two centuries of humiliation, China wants to be rich enough and strong enough to thwart foreign pressure both now and well into the future. That goal requires continued economic growth, increased military power, and patient efforts to regain control over territories or regions it regards as legitimately part of China (such as Taiwan). China also wants to establish itself as a regional hegemon in Asia, largely by pushing the United States out of the region and encouraging its neighbors to accommodate themselves to Chinese power. After all, this is pretty much what the United States did during its own rise to world power (see under: Monroe Doctrine).

Russia and China aren’t the only states living with a 19th-century vision of foreign policy. Israel’s high-tech economy (and rising inequality) exemplify a 21st-century outlook, but as the now-deceased historian Tony Judt pointed out more than a decade ago, its political DNA — Zionism — is at its core just 19th-century European ethnocentric nationalism. Moreover, the long campaign to create a “Greater Israel” on the West Bank is just a lingering manifestation of 19th-century “settler colonialism.” One wonders whether part of the alleged “chemistry” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Putin is a 19th-century outlook that places territorial expansion ahead of peace on the list of national priorities.

China, Russia, and Israel may be stuck with a certain 19th-century outlook — at least in terms of foreign policy — but some other states seemed trapped in the amber of the 20th century. North and South Korea are divided by a frozen conflict dating back to 1950, and South Korea and Japan have been unable to get past the toxic legacy of Japan’s colonialism and its World War II atrocities. Furthermore, Japan’s political and economic systems seem unable to break free from the institutional arrangements that fueled its post-World War II economic miracle but have crippled its economy ever since the bubble burst in 1990 (and that’s 25 years, folks!).

But let’s not stop here. Some states and political movements have worldviews that date not from the 19th century but from far earlier periods. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Taliban, and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia use modern technologies to varying degrees, but their political models are based on precepts dating back to the seventh century. When somebody says he wants to restore a medieval caliphate, it’s a pretty clear rejection of the democracy+human rights+markets+rule of law, etc. formula that optimists once believed was the only way to organize an advanced 21st-century society.

And what of the United States? Americans like to think of themselves as forward-looking, progressive, and fully committed to the same liberal values as their Western European allies; indeed, they sometimes think they invented those values. In short, Americans think they are also the embodiment of the “21st-century” worldview. There’s some truth in that, insofar as the United States does spend a lot of time invoking liberal ideals and patting itself on the back for defending them. But in reality, the United States today is something of an amalgam of 21st-century idealism and 19th-century power politics. Its rhetoric extols democracy, human rights, gender equality, open markets, and other prominent features of the 21th-century formula, and it is quick to chide rivals like Russia or China for their shortcomings on these dimensions.

But the United States also retains a 19th-century view of power politics. Washington wants to preserve U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and is still willing to defend an array of undemocratic allies around the world. Like past great powers, it has a decidedly flexible attitude toward international law and institutions: It embraces them when they are in the U.S. interest, and it ignores them when they get in the way of what it wants to do. The United States is far from bashful about using its military power to attack other countries, either in large doses (Iraq, Afghanistan) or in small ones (Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Serbia, Panama, etc.). One might even say that Washington talks like a good 21st-century idealist, but its actions are more old-fashioned than it wants to admit.

Does any of this matter? I think it does in at least two ways. First, states whose respective “operating softwares” reflect different eras will have trouble understanding each other, and each will tend to regard the other side’s actions as incomprehensible or illegitimate or both. This problem is precisely what bedevils relations between East and West over Ukraine: The West thinks the East is being reactionary, and the East thinks the West is being domineering and insensitive.

Second, a country’s worldview will also affect the capabilities it acquires and thus its ability to influence the behavior of others. When countries with different worldviews interact, one or both may find themselves unable to speak or act in a language that the other understands. Europe’s vaunted “civilian power” is of little value in dealing with Moscow, for example, and it doesn’t give Europe much capacity to shape events in violent regions such as Syria or Libya. But by the same token, Russia’s unwillingness to fully modernize and its reliance on energy exports in a falling market prevent it from wielding the economic clout that would allow it to shape global politics outside its immediate region.

Back when I was in graduate school, a perennial question on Berkeley’s Ph.D. qualifying exam was the following: “Has the fundamental nature of international politics changed in the past 400 years?” The faculty members at the time didn’t agree on this topic, so crafting an answer the grading committee would accept was a bit tricky. The same problem now confronts political leaders around the world: How much of 21st-century world politics is new and different, and how much is the same old story? You can probably guess how I answered the question back then; I’d offer pretty much the same answer now.

Photoillustration by FP

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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