With Russia growling over the downfall of its ally running Ukraine and still protecting its murderous ally running Syria, there is much talk that the globe is returning to the Cold War — and that US President Barack Obama’s team is not up to defending our interests or friends. I beg to differ.
The Cold War has not come back — today’s geopolitics are actually so much more interesting than that and, also, Obama’s caution is not entirely misplaced.
The Cold War was a unique event that pitted two global ideologies, two global superpowers, each with globe-spanning nuclear arsenals and broad alliances behind them. Indeed, the world was divided into a chessboard of red and black, and who controlled each square mattered to each side’s sense of security, well-being and power. It was also a zero-sum game, in which every gain for the Soviet Union and its allies was a loss for the West and NATO, and vice versa.
That game is over. The West won.
What exists today is the combination of an older game and a newer game. The biggest geopolitical divide in the world today “is between those countries who want their states to be powerful and those countries who want their people to be prosperous,” argues Michael Mandelbaum, professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University.
The first category would be countries such as Russia, Iran and North Korea, whose leaders are focused on building their authority, dignity and influence through powerful states, and because the first two have oil and the last has nuclear weapons that it can trade for food, their leaders can defy the global system and survive, if not thrive — all while playing an old, traditional game of power politics to dominate their respective regions.
The second category, countries focused on building their dignity and influence through prosperous people, includes all the countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the EU, the MERCOSUR trade bloc in Latin America and ASEAN.
These countries understand that the biggest trend in the world today is not a new Cold War, but the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution. They are focused on putting in place the right schools, infrastructure, bandwidth, trade regimes, investment openings and economic management so more of their people can thrive in a world in which every middle-class job will require more skill and the ability to constantly innovate will determine their standard of living. (The true source of sustainable power.)
However, there is also now a third and growing category of countries, which cannot project power or build prosperity. They constitute the world of “disorder.”
They are actually power and prosperity sinks because they are consumed in internal fights over primal questions like: Who are we? What are our boundaries? Who owns which olive tree?
These countries include Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and other hot spots. While those nations focused on state power do play in some of these countries — Russia and Iran both play in Syria — the states that are more focused on building prosperity are trying to avoid getting too involved in the world of disorder. Though ready to help mitigate humanitarian tragedies there, they know that when you “win” one of these countries in today’s geopolitical game, all you win is a bill.
Ukraine actually straddles all three of these trends. The revolution there happened because the Ukrainian government was induced by Russia, which wants to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence, into pulling out of a trade agreement with the EU — an agreement favored by the many Ukrainians focused on building prosperity. This split has also triggered talk of separatism by the more Russian-speaking and Russian-oriented eastern part of Ukraine.
So what is to be done?
The world is learning that the bar for US intervention abroad is being set much higher. This is due to a confluence of the end of the Soviet Union’s existential threat, the experience of investing too many lives and at least US$2 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan to little lasting impact, the US’ rising energy independence, the intelligence successes in preventing another Sept. 11-style terror attack and the realization that to fix what ails the most troubled countries in the world of disorder is often beyond the US’ skill set, resources or patience.
In the Cold War, policymaking was straightforward. There was “containment.” It described what to do and at almost any price.
Today, Obama’s critics say he must do “something” about Syria, which is understandable. Chaos there can come around to bite other nations. If there is a policy that would fix Syria, or even just stop the killing there, in a way that was self-sustaining, at a cost the US could tolerate and not detract from all the things the nation needs to do at home to secure its own future, I’m for it.
However, the US should have learned some lessons from its recent experience in the Middle East — First, how little is understood about the social and political complexities of the countries there; second, that military and diplomatic pressure can, at considerable cost, stop bad things from happening in these countries but cannot, by themselves, make good things happen; and third, that when nations try to make good things happen they run the risk of assuming the responsibility for solving future problems.