World War II and the Cold War mixed geopolitics inextricably with ideology. For a half century, strategy and values seemed identical. They are again distinct. Operationally, geopolitics has now become a set of regional rather than global issues. The world has entered a time of unreason and indifference to institutions, principles, and precedents. In the age of social media, celebrity is authority and the celebration of prejudice that is the “direct democracy” of assertive netizens sets the parameters for what is politically feasible. Ignorance and expertise have acquired equal weight in policy discourse. Convenient narratives and mass hallucinations displace strategic reasoning and analysis as the drivers of both policy and history.
Self-aggrandizing, solipsistic leaders fabricate populist identities, propagate their own delusions, act on them, and reject facts that do not fit their narratives. Self-righteousness preempts empathy—the prerequisite for both strategy and diplomacy. Bluster, bullying, boycotts, subversion, sabotage, and bombing supersede comity and negotiation as means for resolving disputes between nations.
A transition from a world order dominated by the United States and post-World War II institutions to a set of regional orders regulated by sub-global dynamics is underway. This transition would have been difficult under any circumstances. But the United States has complicated it by insisting on its global primacy even as it pulls down the law-based international state system that it and the other Western victors of World War II created. The result is the unpredictable evolution of regional strategic challenges amidst a world order experiencing accelerated decay.
With the end of the Cold War, the United States incorporated most of the former Soviet sphere of influence into its own, pushing its self proclaimed responsibility to administer world affairs right up to the borders of Russia and resisting the efforts of other great powers, like China, to share a role in governance of the regions they adjoin. The notion of a sphere of influence that is global except for a few no-go zones in Russia and China is now deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Moscow’s and Beijing’s unwillingness to accept this is a major factor in great power tensions in southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Western Pacific.
The resulting impasse leaves unexamined the fundamental issues of regional strategic balance and competition that are the major
sources of great power tensions at present. What are the appropriate roles of the United States, Russia, and the EU in the peaceful governance of Europe? Can intermediate states, like Ukraine, serve as both bridges and buffers between Russia and the EU ? If so, how might this be arranged? What roles should China, India, Japan, the two Koreas, ASEA N, and the United States play in assuring peace and security in East and Southeast Asia? Can Iran, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs restore balances of power between them that constrain their rivalry to mutual advantage? And so forth.
The current strategic drift between great powers, left unattended, is more likely to produce catastrophe than peace and security. If legacy institutions are dysfunctional, the world will have to invent new ones at both the regional and global levels. Doing so would require a level and intensity of strategic dialogue between great powers that the world has not seen since the nineteenth century.
And it would require adjustments in policy by the United States, China, Russia, and other great powers that none now sees the need to make.