Sunday, October 26, 2014
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Back to the Future in Ukraine and Asia

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.

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  1. Commentedjames durante

    OK if this is "our Hobbesian world" then what the hell is the author even going on about??! Wow--an undergrad paper of this sort would get a C minus for a gratuitous mixing of philosophical assumptions. If this is what we have for global investment advisor, NSC member and state dept. officer then we are in a world of hurt.

  2. Commentedjames durante

    This glossing over of Iraq allows Metzl to hold on to the ideological tenet of American exceptionalism. Was the Cheney-Wolfowitz administration not "behaving as if power is a zero-sum game dictated by the old rules of Realpolitik?" fter all, the whole point of the axis of evil was to establish US hegemony for the long term--the New American Century. This could only be achieved if US military power was extended by establishing a direct presence in key regions. Just as in the case of torture, the US lost whatever credibility it might have had with the occupation of Iraq. The Russian and Chinese moves appear quite benign by comparison.

  3. CommentedCarl Rylett

    An interesting article but I disagree with its conclusion. As soon as you make compromises on the rule-based international system, as George W Bush did in Iraq, you lose moral authority, and head down a slippery slope to 'nineteenth century' might-is-right geopolitics.

    For supporters of democracy, freedom and rule of law (east, west, north and south), these three concepts and the principles underlying them are our greatest weapons. Don't blunt them by comprising on them.

    And to those who seem to believe no westerner has the right to criticise Putin because of previous mistakes, I really can't see the inconsistency in criticizing both Bush's war in Iraq and Putin's actions in Crimea. Two wrongs don't make a right

  4. CommentedJeff GE

    Using "soft power" to overthrow a democratically elected government is 21st century behavior, while Putin responded forcibly is 19 century behavior. It is precisely such self-righteous attitude coupled with ignorance that is the West's problem. Rightly or wrongly, Putin moves to protect what he sees as Russia's vital interest. Calling it 21st or 19 century behavior does not change anything.

  5. CommentedCarol Maczinsky

    Wait, drone killing in other sovereign nations is "twenty-first-century, G-8, major-nation behavior". Let's face it, the West broke the deals first when it expanded NATO eastwards. Now it sponsored another revolution in the backyard of Russia and expects to get its way. It won't. So far not much damage is done. If Russia takes Crimea, so be it. No big deal. Poor Ukraine which we convinced into nuclear disarmament. In fact the Russians move drive Ukraine towards the West. Excellent. As long as we avoid a hot civil war the results will be okayish.

  6. CommentedGerry Hofman

    If Russia taking control of Crimea means it's going back to practicing 19th century politics, then what was the American led invasion of Iraq all about again? Oh, don't remind me, it was about freedom, democracy and national security, right?
    Europeans don't want Ukraine, it's just another corrupt and bankrupt country to them. And Crimea is just the tail end of it, the bit that most belongs to Russia anyway. But American interests presently focus on pushing Russian influence back to the Russian border, thereby expanding western influence eastwards. It's still the same 19th century politics, like it or not, but served up with a thick coating of hypocrisy.

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