2015: A World Confused


Norms and even basic tenets of international behavior have been scattered left and right in recent years: the annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin’s little green men and his stealth invasion of Ukraine by Russian soldiers “on vacation” with their tanks; the Islamic State’s combination of medieval mores and modern capabilities to govern as well as fight; China’s on-again, off-again provocations in the East and South China Seas; and, in Syria, the ruin of a recently functional state with the world unable to stop the human and physical destruction.


Much of the blame has been laid at the United States’ door, but there is much more behind what’s happening than the U.S. government’s tactical mistakes or its unwillingness to commit ground troops to new fronts of combat.


In the Cold War, America’s role in the world was self-evident—to lead the fight against the Soviet Union and communism worldwide. Individual decisions weren’t obvious, and there were often agonizing tensions between that overriding goal and American values. But Americans largely shared a commitment to what they understood to be their country’s necessary purpose abroad.


With the collapse of the Soviet Union that clarity ended, and ever since, Americans have floundered in confusion. Is our purpose to maximize American power or to spread our democratic culture? Must the United States be the world’s policeman—even when we are not directly threatened? Should we stay at home and concentrate on our own shortcomings, or feel compelled to blanket the world in free-market capitalism?


The debate may be couched in terms of regime change vs. nation building, obeisance to international law vs. exceptionalism, unilateralism vs. multilateralism, or interests vs. values. But behind the varying terminology is the same search for a guideline or framework for deciding when and where to commit money, blood, or political capital. Without that, polls show, the American people are no clearer than their leaders have been about when the United States should act and when not, and just as liable to radically switch positions as events unfold.


Meanwhile, the world has become a much more difficult, intrusive place. Nearly all of its 7 billion people are now in one marketplace. The Westphalian black box, in which what happened within a state’s borders was no one else’s business, is gone. Borders are now porous to people, crime, information, money, weapons, pollution, and pandemics. In this cauldron, the lack of an agreed foreign policy bumper sticker to define the U.S. role—a successor to containment—is all the more acute.


Notably, the United States is not alone. China is ambivalent—even schizophrenic—about its role. It has abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s precept that it should lie low while accumulating economic strength. That much is clear: the world no longer hears about “peaceful rise.” But there is ample uncertainty too, including apparently in Beijing, about how far China’s intentions extend. Its military buildup continues at a fast clip (though from a very low base), and its actions in the East and South China Seas over small, disputed islands and offshore areas have been provocative enough to fuel anxiety throughout the region. Most unsettlingly, sometimes China demands to be treated like a major power with all the rights (though not the responsibilities) of one. On other occasions, almost in the same metaphorical breath, it morphs into a still weak, still poor (on a per capita basis) victim of colonial abuse. The two make a toxic mixture.


India has threats to counter from neighbors—Pakistan and China—and a massive task at home of reforming a government that nurtures corruption and paralyzes economic growth. Japan, still astonishingly unable to apologize for heinous behavior during World War II, provokes angry nationalism in China. That, in turn, feeds Japan’s own right wing and a growing debate over the country’s military posture.

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