Among those who comment influentially from the sidelines of power, there are new trends visible in thinking about American foreign policy. The most salient of these concerns is a shift away from the post-9/11 counterterrorist agenda to a new phase of mainstream policy advocacy that emphasizes the renewed strategic importance of geopolitical rivalry among leading sovereign states. There is also a shift away from the temptations of military intervention and regime change as a favored Western tactic for sustaining influence in the post-colonial world. There is a realization, at least temporarily, that adventures in military intervention, whether Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, are just that—‘adventures,’ if not fiascos. And costly, too; rarely a success even when overwhelming military superiority is brought to bear.
After the Vietnam War, there emerged a similar reluctance to intervene overseas that was derisively labeled ‘the Vietnam Syndrome.’ It endured for more than a decade, being finally overcome by the low-casualty victory in the Gulf War. I think it is safe to assume that for the rest of the Obama presidency, barring a major unforeseen development, that both counterterrorism and military intervention will occupy a much lower place on the foreign policy agenda. This observation does not mean that such issues will disappear from view, as the recurrent debate on Syria shows. It does argue that they will be treated by political leaders as Gordian Knots, and addressed only warily and tangentially.
But power centers abhor a geopolitical vacuum. Policymakers must find something to take the place of the al-Qaeda sequel to the Cold War and the liberal embrace of aggressive forms of ‘democratic peace’ that for a time built support for periodic interventions in the non-Western world. It seems that vacuum is likely to be filled by a return to ‘the great game’ of great power politics.
It is not surprising that we should look first to Wall Street for clues, and we will not be disappointed. The gold standard of finance capital in the age of globalization, Goldman Sachs, already in 2001 alerted the attentive public to the relevance of the changing geopolitical landscape with its clever acronym of BRICs, that is, Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Jim O’Neill, an economist at Goldman Sachs, had initially proposed the acronym in an analytical paper on global trends. It did not catch on in the wider literature until 2008 or 2009.
In effect, Goldman Sachs was telling the investing world to take account of challenges to and opportunities for American and Western interests in global economic policy associated with these rising powers. Of course, putting Russia on the list seemed strange to some because their military prowess, size, and resource endowments meant that they were never really off the list, and from an opposite viewpoint, its economic achievements were not so impressive as to put it in the same class as the most rapid growth economies. Others suggested that the BRIC enclosure excluded such other states as South Africa, Turkey, and Indonesia that deserved a similar recognition in light of their economic success, political stability, and increasing regional and global assertiveness.
Yet, broadly speaking, the BRIC hypothesis possessed geopolitical plausibility and caught on, not least among the BRIC countries themselves, which welcomed this certification of status and relevance. It was given intellectual validation by that neocon heavyweight, Robert Kagan, in his book, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008), who in effect suggested that the interval after the Cold War in the 1990s that seemed free from geopolitics was a deceptive hiatus. The geopolitical backbone of world politics had recovered.
For India and Brazil, old dreams of Security Council membership and regional influence became new political projects. The move from the G-8 to the G-20 for global economic policymaking was an indirect acknowledgement that the global context was changing in ways that required more representation of the South to have any hope of effectiveness and legitimacy.
At present, there seems to be a further reassessment of geopolitical concern: Brazil and India have for the time being lost their claims to be regarded as candidates for front row seats, while China and Russia have maintained, if not enhanced their claims. China, especially, despite the slowing of its extraordinary growth economy to a rate that would still make Western political drool with joy and pride, is increasingly perceived as a threat to American global dominance. The Obama presidency seemingly admitted this reality by its much proclaimed ‘pivot’ to Asia that was a thinly disguised message to Beijing: the United States intended to pursue a diplomacy of ‘soft containment’ of China as the highest priority in its future foreign policy. This adjustment was a notable sequel to the 1990s pivot from Europe to the Middle East.
These latest expressions of concern about U.S. adaptation to a changing security setting is giving rise to two kinds of reaction. The first is illustrated by a thoughtful comment of Colin Dueck, a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, on the overall importance of geopolitics for constructing foreign policy. Dueck faults American foreign policy not for the pivot to Asia, but for what he calls its ‘under-resourced’ implementation, which he insists is evidenced by recent cuts in the budget of the U.S. Navy. He concludes that “the U.S. response to a rising China has simply not been adequate” (Colin Dueck, “Geopolitics Reborn,” E-Notes, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia, PA, July 2013). Such a view of geopolitics is explicitly tied to hard power calculations based on the historical agency of military superiority, and takes no account of globalization, networking, soft power diplomatic creativity, and the rise of non-state actors and transnational social movements that in aggregate constitute the alternate promise of a ‘new geopolitics.’
Then there is the view of Leslie Gelb and Dimitri Simes, two titans of the American foreign policy intellectual establishment, who writing in the New York Times, want us to consider not separate states as challenges, but an emergent cooperative anti-American relationship that joins China and Russia together in thwarting the American global design (“A New Anti-American Axis,” July 6, 2013; Gelb is former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and Pentagon official; Simes is president of The Center for the National Interest and publisher of The National Interest) . Oddly, they use as their telling example of a menacing development, the cooperation between China and Russia in enabling Edward Snowden to elude American efforts to gain custody over him by facilitating his flight from Hong Kong to Moscow. What might have been proclaimed as the protection of someone charged with ‘political crimes’ (and hence, exempt from extradition), is presented in crude foreign policy terms by Gelb and Simes.
They point to the incident as evidence of China and Russia’s “growing assertiveness and their willingness to take action at America’s expense.” Among the additional examples cited are the refusal to back the West at the UN with respect to Syria, Chinese hacking of American corporate websites, and Russian cyber attacks on their enemies. Aside from Syria, these other complaints refer to national policies that are not cooperatively undertaken by the two countries. Also, with characteristic American myopia, there is no recognition that the United States might be doing things that are deeply threatening to Beijing and Moscow, and that their cooperation may be actually, on balance, prudent and beneficial for the global public good. Such nationalistic approaches to geopolitics consider ‘balance’ only desirable to contain the ‘other,’ never the ‘self.’ From an objective historical standpoint, considering the global role of the United States in the last two decades, it would seem that Washington’s diplomacy of force that has produced long and destructive wars, unbalanced support for Israel, cyber attacks against Iran, global surveillance regime, and notorious places of detention associated with Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is of greater threat to a benevolent world order than giving sanctuary to Snowden.
The larger argument being put forward by Gelb and Simes is more nuanced. It suggests that it would be important to avoid either passivity or aggressiveness in response once it is understood that such global cooperation between China and Russia, if not properly addressed, “could pose grave risks for America and the world.” It recognizes that despite this obstructionism by these adversary states, there are also strong common interests in trade and global economic stability, as well as in some aspects of security concerns, including North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs. Gelb and Simes are clear about not wanting to revive the Cold War, and certainly are not counseling policies that risk military confrontations, but rather favor a policy of selective firmness and pragmatic cooperation. There is a recognition of a certain level of multipolarity with respect to the management of conflict, suggesting that such security challenges as currently posed by Iran, Syria, and North Korea could only be handled in an effective and practical way if China and Russia agree to cooperate with the United States. They might have added climate change, food security, and refugee policy as areas where cooperation seems vital. To fail to produce this mix of resistant and cooperative diplomacy would be, in their words, “folly of historic proportions.”
What is worth noticing is this return to the abandonment of any pretension of the sort that surfaced after the Cold War in various guises such as ‘the unipolar moment’ or ‘the end of history.’ There also seems to be a tacit realization that the 20th century struggle over the future of Europe is no longer of geopolitical interest, nor is Europe an independent political force on the global stage in the way that China and Russia are. It also represents a step back from the BRIC worldview as Brazil and India can once again be safely ignored from a global perspective. Perhaps, but only as an outside possibility, Gelb and Simes are the intellectual precursors of ‘a new trilateralism’ that is built around the idea that the new circle of ‘indispensable nation’ has been enlarged beyond the United States to include China and Russia.