NEW YORK – With Russian troops occupying Ukrainian territory and the Chinese Navy inhabiting Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea, the world is now entering a dangerous time warp.
In geopolitical terms, Russia and China are reenacting the norms of the nineteenth-century, when states competed by amassing hard power in a system of unbridled nationalism and rigid state sovereignty. Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to reassemble the nineteenth-century map of Czarist Russia by holding on to Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and other parts of the old empire at all costs.
Similarly, China is staking its claim to the South China Sea in full violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the basis of vague histories of bygone empires. Both countries are now behaving as if power is a zero-sum game dictated by the old rules of realpolitik.
But, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s admonition that Russia’s occupation of Crimea “is not twenty-first-century, G-8, major-nation behavior,” the United States and its allies are struggling to hold on to the postwar twentieth-century world.
For the US, the destruction wrought by Europe’s rapacious nationalisms, reflected in colonialism and two world wars, had to end in 1945. America’s postwar planners concluded that if excessive nationalism was the problem, transnationalism was the answer. The US took the lead in building a system of international law, creating the UN, and fostering free trade and open markets around the world, while maintaining the security umbrella that allowed transnational institutions like the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to develop.
The US was far from consistent or perfect in this process, sometime to murderous effect in places like Vietnam. But its steadfast defense of an international system that was more mutually beneficial than any that had preceded it ushered in seven decades of the greatest innovation, growth, and improvement our species has ever known.
Now, however, with China rising, global power rebalancing, and the US worn down by two decade-long wars that have eroded its credibility, the postwar international order is under intense strain.
Contemporary Japan, a stalwart supporter of the US-led postwar system, was also transformed by it. When US Commodore Matthew Perry blasted his way into Tokyo harbor in 1854, he found a weak, isolated, and technologically backward country. Fourteen years later, Japan began a massive modernization drive under Emperor Meiji; thirty-seven years after that, its victory in the Russo-Japanese war shocked the world. Rapidly appropriating the lessons of nineteenth-century Europe, Japan in 1894 launched a brutal five-decade effort to dominate Asia and secure its resources, stopping only when America’s atomic bombs flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, under America’s protection and initial guidance, Japan emerged as a champion of a rule-based international system. It financed the UN to a greater degree in relative terms than any other country, engaged meaningfully in other international institutions, and supported the development of its Asian neighbors, including China.
But, with China’s leaders now aggressively demonizing Japan and pressing disputed territorial and maritime claims more assertively than ever before, the country is being thrust in a direction that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with his penchant for historical revisionism and highlighting Japan’s nationalist past, may in some ways have already favored: back to the nineteenth century.
Europe, too, embraced the postwar international system. With security outsourced to America, European governments shifted their focus and expenditures to social welfare and set about building a twenty-first-century post-sovereign utopia that has blurred national divisions and replaced aggression and hostility with negotiation and compromise.
The EU’s twenty-first-century dream now confronts the nineteenth-century Czarist bear, flashing its atavistic claws on the Russia-Ukraine border. And, just as ASEAN has been unable and unwilling to stand up to China over its encroachment in the South China Sea, the EU is already discovering the limits of its soft-power, consensus-driven approach to Russia.
If a twenty-first-century post-sovereign system remains an unreachable dream in our Hobbesian world, and reverting to nineteenth-century norms by acquiescing to aggressive behavior by Russia and China is unpalatable, defending the postwar international system may be the best option we have.
Ironically, a nineteenth-century response, featuring balance-of-power politics and the rearmament of Europe and Japan, may be part of what is required to do it.