A whole new world
Why the crisis with Russia represents the end of an era - and what the United States should do next
Whether or not Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to actually invade Ukraine, the crisis with the United States and its NATO allies he’s manufactured has laid bare the deficiencies of our foreign policy thinking. Indeed, this crisis marks the end of the slow but seemingly inexorable decline of the open and integrated world we thought we’d created after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The era of hyper-globalization and the so-called “rules-based liberal international order” beloved of foreign policy pundits and political leaders alike has come to an unfortunate and untimely demise – and it’s worth understanding how we got to this point and where we go from here.
A long, slow decline
This worldview began to break down with the global financial crash of 2008, an event that discredited the main pillar of globalization: the free flow of finance around the world. The crash didn’t cause an immediate retreat from globalization, but it did throw into question its purported benefits for both national economies and ordinary citizens alike. Worse, the sort of financial globalization practiced since the end of the Cold War opened the doors of the United States and many of its allies to what’s been called “strategic corruption” by the likes of Russia, China, and other autocratic governments.
At the same time, it’s become increasingly clear that the promised geopolitical benefits of intimate economic relationships with the likes of China and Russia have not panned out. Greater trade with these countries, political leaders and pundits told us, went hand in hand with democracy and liberalism. As trade between the United States and China increased, President Bill Clinton promised when backing Beijing’s entry into the World Trade Organization, liberal democracy would necessarily and inevitably follow. If anything, what actually happened was the reverse: the United States and other democracies began to import corruption and repressive practices along with Chinese-assembled iPhones and Russian-produced energy. In tying our economic fortunes to Beijing and Moscow, the United States and its allies made ourselves dependent on and vulnerable to their geopolitical machinations.
We’ve seen the dangers of this dependency on full display during the ongoing crisis with Moscow. A number of America’s NATO allies – most notably Germany – remain dependent on Russian gas and have been reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia that would increase the cost of energy to ordinary citizens; to its credit, the Biden administration has been exploring options to increase gas exports to Europe from other sources like Qatar and blunt the negative consequences of possible sanctions on the continent’s energy supplies. Likewise, over the past several years the United States has recognized the dangers of its dependence on Beijing for certain goods and begun taking steps to disentangle itself economically from China – especially in high-tech sectors like telecommunications and semiconductor chip manufacturing.
But we’ve also seen a number of discrete events gnaw away at the foundations of international order over the past decade or so. The letter and spirit Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, for instance, has been brazenly violated multiple times by the Assad regime in Syria and the Putin regime in Russia. (North Korea, not a signatory to the CWC, used VX nerve agent to assassinate dictator Kim Jong-un’s elder brother in 2017.) Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and then mounted a not-so-covert military intervention that bit off large chunks of Ukrainian territory in the country’s east; in the course of this first invasion of Ukraine, a Russian surface-to-air missile battery shot down a civilian airliner and killed all of the nearly 300 people on board. For its part, China has begun bullying other nations with reckless abandon, whether close-by neighbors like the Philippines, more distant Pacific nations like Australia, or small European nations like Lithuania.
Thinking behind the curve
At the same time, Americans have been disconnected in the way we think about the world. American political leaders have repeatedly proclaimed “pivots to Asia” only to see them undermined by events in the Middle East or Europe before they could even begin. Take President Biden’s first year in office – early on, the president and his national security team signaled an intent to put the Middle East on the back burner and distance the United States from autocratic partners like Saudi Arabia. But by last September, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan found himself in Riyadh attempting to cajole the Saudis into increasing their oil production. Just last week, moreover, the U.S. military sent top-of-the-line F-22 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates to help counter Houthi missile attacks from Yemen.
Nor has the Biden administration’s execution of America’s latest pivot to Asia been terribly smooth. The AUKUS submarine deal, for instance, showed an extreme and worrying disconnect between the administration’s Europe and Asia policy teams. As beneficial as that deal may well be to America’s strategy in the Pacific, it was handled in a way guaranteed to antagonize France – in no small part because the administration’s Europe policy hands don’t seem to have been brought in on the deliberations of its Asia policy shop. But that’s only symptomatic of the disconnected way we think about our foreign policy; our approach to Asia remains largely separate and distinct from our Europe policy, while our Middle East policies possess only a tenuous and abstract relationship to our wider global strategy.
But the Ukraine crisis has brought home the reality that it’s impossible to divide up the world in this fashion, not least of all in the ways we think about foreign policy. Moscow and Beijing certainly seem to see themselves in ideological and political opposition to the United States and its democratic allies, at least if the recent joint statement put out by Putin and Chinese autocrat Xi Jinping is any indication. While it’s important not to read too much into this document in terms of a formal alliance between Russia and China, it’s still telling that these countries see the world in much the same way.
So how should the United States deal with the world moving forward?
First, it’s important to recognize that the dream of the 90s is over. The world is not heading toward ever-closer economic and political integration, and the integration that occurred since the end of the Cold War failed to live up to the hype – and even created strategic vulnerabilities that rivals can exploit. China has gamed the World Trade Organization to its own advantage, for instance, while international agreements like the Chemical Weapons Convention have been blatantly ignored by Russia and its allies. Moscow has likewise repeatedly violated the formal, written agreements – agreements like Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the Vienna Document adopted by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Budapest Agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty – that have governed European security since the late 1980s.
As a result, French President Emmanuel Macron has floated the idea of revising the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act to allow the alliance to station troops and heavy equipment – including possible intermediate-range missile batteries – in Eastern Europe. That’s a useful idea that could potentially be used in diplomacy with Russia at some point in the future. But it’s also an indication that we’re at a breakpoint in international affairs, one where we start to recognize that the old rules we previously thought were sturdy and reliable no longer apply.
We can see that in the way the United States has slowly but surely begun to reduce its own dependence on Chinese goods, at least in certain important sectors. The Biden administration also sought to limit Chinese financial investment in these sectors here in the United States and among American allies and partners overseas. It’s less the sort of “decoupling” of the United States from China that some advocate and others fear than a mutual drifting apart. Much the same could happen in short order in Europe with regard to the continent’s dependence on Russian gas, though that development would probably not be quite so mutual.
To put it another way, two worlds governed by two different philosophies of domestic politics and international relations appear to be emerging. China and Russia appear intent on building a world safe for autocracy, one where their own sovereignty is absolute while that of other nations remains contingent. The other resembles the world the United States and its democratic allies in Europe and Asia have attempted in fits and starts to build in the decades since the world wars: a world favorable to democracy that’s conducive to both widely-shared prosperity at home and mutually beneficial trade overseas.
The “free world,” for lack of a better term, is back, and it needs to be strengthened and defended against the machinations of its geopolitical rivals.
Second, we need to think and act more coherently in the world. America’s political leaders and policymakers have rightly identified China as the country’s top foreign policy challenge and priority. But as the current crisis with Moscow rudely reminds us, Russia remains a potent threat. What’s more, both countries see themselves as opposed to the United States and its democratic allies around the world. Then there’s the Middle East and its energy resources, which will remain vital to the global economy – and especially America’s allies in Asia and Europe – for the foreseeable future.
Taken together, then, a coherent American foreign policy requires engagement across all three geographic regions – and in a way that doesn’t undermine America’s position or interests in one part of the world to build up the same in another region.
Here are a few suggestions for what that all means in practical terms:
Supercharge efforts to help Europe assume greater responsibility for its own defense. That’s something a number of European and American leaders have said they want over the years, but it’s far easier said than done. Indeed, European allies may be more dependent on American military power today than they were just a decade ago – precisely the opposite of the direction both Americans and Europeans say they want to go. It will take time to build up Europe’s defenses given their current state and persistent political divides between European NATO members. As a result, the United States will need to play the dominant military role in the alliance for some time to come. If the worst comes to pass in Ukraine, moreover, the United States should take up President Macron’s suggestion to revise the NATO-Russia Founding Act and permanently station NATO forces in Eastern Europe. It should also build on the Biden administration’s efforts to diversify the continent’s energy supplies away from its current dependence on Russian gas.
Reset and reengage in the Middle East. The Biden administration already seems to be headed quietly in the direction of rebuilding relationships with America’s long-standing partners in the Middle East. But the Biden team may have done more damage than necessary to these relationships with its early attempts to distance the United States from these partners. But as the crisis with Russia and ongoing energy price concerns at home have made clear, the Middle East’s energy still matters in the global scheme of things. Again, to its credit the Biden administration appears to recognize this reality and has pressed American regional partners like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to produce more oil and gas – but moving forward it’ll be important to keep the region’s geopolitical and economic importance in mind rather than viewing it as a part of the world we’d rather forget about.
Build ways to better handle and coordinate this three-pronged global approach. As mentioned, the United States needs to do a better job ensuring that its policies in Asia don’t step on its own toes in Europe or the Middle East – and vice versa. There’s a need for a coordinating mechanism of some sort, one that through its mere existence can force policymakers to think about their decisions from a wider perspective. Something like a NATO-Pacific Council that links up NATO with American allies like Japan, Australia, and South Korea could prove useful in this regard; a NATO-Quad1 Council represents another viable alternative. The point here would be less to establish a formal alliance than to move beyond the thicket of bilateral relationships the United States and its various European and Asian allies have with one another to establish a better and easier way for all of America’s allies to talk to and work with one another. Similarly, the Trade and Technology Council recently put together by the United States and the European Union could broadened its discussions to include important Asian allies like Japan, South Korea, and Australia.
Spend more on defense. This approach will require a bigger defense budget, not the smaller ones progressives always dream about no matter what’s happening in the world. For instance, Norman Thomas, the most prominent American socialist of his day, argued in 1939 that the best way to handle the threat of Nazi Germany was… to cut an already-paltry American defense budget.2 In all likelihood, the United States today isn’t spending enough on its military to meet its security obligations – even after Congress added $25 billion to the Biden administration’s most recent defense budget request. Money can’t solve all our defense problems on its own, but it’s a necessary part of the equation.
All of this will understandably take a backseat to Ukraine if Putin chooses to invade in the near future – especially given the projections of massive refugee flows from Ukraine and potentially severe disruptions to the world’s food supply. But whatever happens, we need to reorient ourselves and our thinking quickly and brace ourselves for further international turbulence. Only then can new diplomatic arrangements a la the Helsinki Final Act be made, so the faster we get from where we are now to that point the better. Until then, we need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we and our allies have very different ideas about the conduct of international relations than do Russia and China – and act accordingly.
For all the partisan division and social media-fueled rancor we see every day, there nonetheless remains a political pathway to get much of this done at home. We’ve already seen bipartisan cooperation on the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Senate passed its own science and technology investment package – the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act – on a bipartisan basis. While the House version of this legislation passed on more strictly partisan lines, there’s still widespread public support for investments at home to compete in the world against the likes of China and Russia.
It won’t be cheap or easy for the United States and its allies to navigate this new world, but it can be done.
Short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a group that includes the United States, Japan, India, and Australia and has assumed greater geopolitical significance in recent years.
Michael Walzer, A Foreign Policy for the Left, p. 26