Back to the Future in Ukraine and Asia

In geopolitical terms, Russia and China are reenacting nineteenth-century norms. Ironically, a nineteenth-century response, featuring balance-of-power politics and the rearmament of Europe and Japan, may be required to uphold the postwar international system.

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.

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