David Brooks asks a grand strategic expert to help him make sense of his impression that the international system is collapsing:
All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific. I help teach a grand strategy course at Yale, and I asked my colleagues to make sense of what’s going on. Charles Hill, who was a legendary State Department officer before going to Yale, wrote back:
“The ‘category error’ of our experts is to tell us that our system is doing just fine and proceeding on its eternal course toward ever-greater progress and global goodness. This is whistling past the graveyard.
“The lesson-category within grand strategic history is that when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation. When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure.
“This is what Putin is doing; this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”
This is correct. Notice in particular the phrase “when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration”. Emphasis on “its phase” rather than “a phase”. The phase is terminal. It is not part of a gentle cycle. And it usually ends in a considerable amount of war before its successor system is established.
Brooks more or less accurately describes the establishment of modern nationalist civilization, although he neglects to observe that this was a Christian civilization that imposed the modern order. The combination of religious homogeneity and technogical dominance is what made the establishment of the order both desirable and possible.
When Hill talks about the modern order he is referring to a state system that restrained the two great vices of foreign affairs: the desire for regional dominance and the desire to eliminate diversity. Throughout recorded history, large regional powers have generally gobbled up little nations. Powerful people have generally tried to impose their version of the Truth on less powerful people.
But, over these centuries, civilized leaders have banded together to restrain these vices. As far back as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, dominant powers tried to establish procedures and norms to secure national borders and protect diversity. Hegemons like the Nazis or the Communists tried to challenge this system, but the other powers fought back.
However, Brooks goes awry and leaves out two of the primary threats to the system when he considers the opponents of what he calls “liberal pluralism”:
Today that system is under assault not by a single empire but by a hundred big and little foes. As Walter Russell Mead argues in a superb article in Foreign Affairs, geopolitics is back with a vengeance. Whether it’s Russia seizing Crimea or China asserting itself, old-fashioned power plays are back in vogue. Meanwhile, pre-modern movements and people try to eliminate ethnic and religious diversity in Egypt, Ukraine and beyond.
China, Russia and Iran have different values, but all oppose this system of liberal pluralism. The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. It’s not worth it to spend huge amounts of treasure to establish stability in Syria or defend a Western-oriented Ukraine. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system. No individual ailment is worth the expense of treating it, but, collectively, they can kill you.
These two additional threats are globalism and multiculturalism. Both are also attempts to eliminate ethnic and religious diversity at the national level. But nations exist for a very important reason: to provide sufficient homogeneity within a political entity to prevent tribal power struggles by reducing violent conflict to mere political conflict. Attempting to spread the nations externally (globalism) while mixing them internally (multiculturalism), puts even more pressure on liberal pluralism than pre-modern movements. Indeed, it is mass immigration, which is the bastard child of globalism and multiculturalism, that has injected these poisonous pre-modern movements into Western civilization.
John Gaddis, another grand strategy professor, directs us to George Kennan’s insights from the early Cold War, which he feels are still relevant as a corrective to the death-by-a-thousand-cuts mentality. He argues that we should contain these menaces until they collapse internally. The Moscow regime requires a hostile outside world to maintain its own internal stability. That’s a weakness. By not behaving stupidly, by not overextending ourselves for example, we can, Gaddis argues, “make sure Putin’s seeds of self-destruction are more deeply rooted than our own.”
That’s smart, but I think I’m less sure that time is on our side. The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation. How do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?
It was barely possible when we were facing an obviously menacing foe like the Soviet Union. But it’s harder when the system is being gouged by a hundred sub-threshold threats.
Gaddis’s answer is a complete non-starter, which Brooks would have realized if he had properly taken the two additional threats I have mentioned into account. How can the West “contain these menaces until they collapse internally” when the West has taken those menaces into itself? The Moscow regime and the Muslim world may both require their Dar al-Harbs to maintain their internal stability, but at least they have an internal stability. The West has little more than termites in its foundations, clogged arteries in its heart, and parasitic cysts in its brain.
Republicans seem to have given up global agreements that form the
fabric of that system, while Democrats are slashing the defense budget
that undergirds it. Moreover,
people will die for Mother Russia or Allah. But it is harder to get
people to die for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway
places. It’s been pulling teeth to get people to accept commercial pain
and impose sanctions.
liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous natural thing.
Preserving that hard-earned ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric
of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably
system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and
hard power enforcement.
It is true that liberal pluralism is not a spontaneous natural thing. The rest is meaningless gobbledy-gook. The globalist, multiculturalist West is no longer liberal or pluralistic, so it should be no surprise that the system of liberal pluralism is on the verge of collapse and that its rivals are increasingly confident that they need neither fear nor respect it. There will be no “saving the system”, not when its self-appointed defenders neither understand the extent of the problem and are more than a little sympathetic towards some of the threats posed.