The big reason you don’t hear anyone confidently characterizing the current, overall geopolitical condition of the planet is that it doesn’t fit any model from the last 500 years – and if you go back further than that, the conditions of technology and human development were too different to make comparisons very meaningful.
Don’t let anyone tell you, for example, that it’s the 1930s all over again. There were some reasons to make that assessment up through 2-3 years ago, with Barack Obama exhibiting a grab-bag of characteristics from Jimmy Carter, Neville Chamberlain, and FDR, and the leaders of Europe oddly fussy, fatalistic, and passive in the face of growing danger.
But the fiction that American policy is a continuation of our longstanding posture after World War II – which became more brittle by the year under Obama – is now shattered. As with the transformation under Obama, it is useless to cry over spilled milk about this. The Pax Americana was lost during the Obama years, and it is now clear that there will be no effort to recover it. Besides a set of irreversible trends overseas, American herself is pretty preoccupied internally at the moment. We are where we are.
The Trump policy looks more like the U.S. posture before World War I, in terms of geopolitical systematization (or lack thereof) and basic elements – and there is no reason to think that will change any time soon.
Instead of exercising the U.S. dominance of the post-World War II period – which Obama formally disavowed, while yet seeking to leverage it for certain purposes – Trump operates much more in the “young great power” mode of Theodore Roosevelt.
America is, of course, no “young” great power at this point. But Trump’s posture is a kind of reversion to our youth on the world stage, in that it doesn’t operate from a comprehensive, systematic geopolitical vision for “national security.” It appears to be more surely motivated by an older-style conception of national interests.
We spent most of the last 100 years like the other super-great powers, emphasizing systematic worldviews, existential-level threats, and schemes of international organization as the policy framework for our national security business. Now and then a “concert of nations” diplomat came along to add the sauce of Westphalian allusions and chess-master proclivities to an increasingly bureaucratized 20th-century entrée.
But it’s been a long time since we had a president who might wave his hand at all that and say, “So when do we talk turkey with China on trade?” Or who, when there’s a regional eruption somewhere, seems to turn to his military leaders and say, “Well, take care of it.”
Since 1945, that mode has been unthinkable for the United States. Trade is a matter of international principles on which the policy priority is multilateral agreements. Regional eruptions are developments to be interpreted in light of systematic worldviews, in which the perceived interconnectedness of implications and consequences amounts to a set of mandates. There is no such thing as a pick-up game: just taking events as they come, and deciding if there’s a compelling American interest in each particular one.
Back when we operated more in that latter mode – before World War I – the United Kingdom played something similar to (although not as comprehensive as) the role American played after 1945. Now there is no one playing that role.
People’s minds are not adjusted to that yet, but it’s true. The things Russia and China have been doing in the Eastern hemisphere since 2014 (when Russia invaded Ukraine) would have been intolerable to our posture of 10 years ago, which was far more like the posture of 1987 or 1967 than like the posture of today. The “Pax” spell is broken. It’s not coming back.
An older style of American exceptionalism
There are other characteristic features of our earlier, long-ago posture, besides navigating from one event to another without trying to make everything fit a systematized, visionary template. One is emphasizing an expeditionary stance, at the level of executing geopolicy. By that, I mean that we downplay alliances and entangling priorities that penetrate too far inland, preferring a lighter ruck and a getaway ship offshore. If the ruck is going to get too heavy, maybe we don’t really need to do this one.
I see that in our posture in Syria and Iraq, where we are eschewing any semblance of the role we would have played at any time between FDR and Bush 43: a political role, trying to significantly influence the outcome of the national-cohesion negotiations in both countries.
Trump appears to be legitimately limiting our purpose in that theater to knocking back ISIS. I deduce that this suits his comparative lack of interest in the romance of international affairs, as well as a pragmatic view that ISIS is all the war-on-terror AUMF really gives him a basis for attending to. His senior leaders occasionally complain about Iran’s intrusive footprint, but no one does anything about it. (Whether this is a good thing or not is another issue. On balance, I don’t think it is. Not on this particular slice of territory. But I also don’t think it’s going to change.)
That’s not like the America of 2006, 1966, or 1946. It’s more like the America of 1906. So is the practice we see emerging under Trump of dealing vigorously, but narrowly, with specific problems, whether ISIS, the Taliban, North Korea, or whack-a-mole transnational terrorism. The kinetic effectiveness is ramped up under Trump, but without stately policy rhetoric or the laying out of vision.
Obama was frustrating because he basically never said anything. Trump comes across as if he’s always about to snap out “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
To go with the expeditionary stance and the serially narrow, less-systematized focus, Trump brings a brashness reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt’s. In that mode, the exercise of American exceptionalism is about taking action in salutary ways that only America can come up with or bring off. It’s not about methodically leading a pack, whose outcomes are inherently limited by the vetoes or debilities of the slowest members (cf. Bush 41 in 1991).
Your choice whether to see that as good, or annoying and awful. The point here is that it is a different mode of leadership from the more characteristic American posture since 1945. Trump’s declaration about Jerusalem last week is a prime example.
What makes all of this not pre-World War I-like is the fact that America is now embedded – however expeditionarily – in so many places overseas. In 1906, we weren’t firing flares at Russian tactical bombers in Syria, for example, and chasing them around the sky to warn them away from air space carved out for our “partners” in that exotic locale. Today, we are.
We’ve been doing it for some time, too. For a nation with only some pop-up national interests to guide us, we sure do have men and metal strewn all over the place, having encounters (some of them all too kinetic) with other men and their metal. With special forces across much of Northern Africa, where it used to be a big deal to have a reconnaissance plane deployed for a few weeks, and trainers and missile defense forces around the Black Sea, as well as Aegis destroyers patrolling in it, we’ve got a lot more uniformed Americans on really long tethers in remote places than most of us stateside understand.
Trump inherited this footprint. But it’s his now, and it’s something John McCain is right about. We need some coherent, updated guidance on what it’s all for.
Russia being Russia
That’s partly because Russia is doing today what mightier Russians than Nicholas II longed to do in earlier centuries, but never could: driving Med-ward across our absentmindedly accumulated footprint in the “great crossroads” of Asia and Europe, planting the Russian flag.
The Truman Doctrine, which sought to shoulder off Soviet Russian domination of Southwest Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean, is no more. The barriers to it took a major hit with the partitioning of Ukraine in 2014, and crumbled absolutely in mid-2016, when Russian bombers deployed from Central Asia into Syria using Iraqi air space and an Iranian base. As a pillar of our security policy, the Truman Doctrine lasted nearly 70 years, but it perished last year, with no backstop.
Russia has friction and the regional players to contend with now, and her progress is not guaranteed. But the U.S. is no longer putting up consistent, thematic resistance to it.
That’s one reason it is interesting to observe that Vladimir Putin, in a major push this week, is adhering so closely to type, pairing a grand tour of the region with the pretense that Russia is “pulling out” of Syria. For a pulled-out patron of the Assad regime, Russia was awfully active along the Euphrates with the Su-25 tactical bombers on Wednesday. The U.S. military, which knows what Russia actually has in Syria and whether any of it is being moved, disputes Putin’s claim.
The pull-out claim is partly about shedding perceived responsibility for the political outcome in Syria, given that Moscow has been unable to put together a settlement process that everyone will buy into.
But the “let’s not and say we did” method also simply relieves Russia of having to explain why she’s leaving a bigger force footprint in Syria than she ever had there during the Cold War.
Notably, besides tactical aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, patrol and logistic ships, and some yet-to-be-determined number of ground troops, Russia will leave – according to TASS reporting – the S-400 air defense systems she has brought into Syria in the last two years. That means the S-400s’ transformation of the military dynamics of the entire region will be a permanent one. Which in turn means Russia has much longer-term plans, not just for Syria but for the area for hundreds of miles around.
It is wholly fictional, the claim that Russia is in any meaningful sense “pulling out.” Rather, Russia is staying, and intends to use Syria as a fulcrum to leverage the great crossroads with.
But it is so characteristic of Putin to lie about it – lie brazenly for headlines and talking points – as to seem pathological.
If a European Westphalian were making this move 150 years ago, his fellow Europeans might regard with cynicism his justifying rhetoric, but the rhetoric would still match what he was actually doing.
Putin lies when he doesn’t have to. It’s not like anyone is trying to stop him from staying in Syria. He could even use this moment to make some positive, environment-shaping statements about his vision and Russian intentions. Yet he proclaims he is leaving, as if someone might jump out at him from behind the door.
This, right here, is why it is essential to understand that Russia is not somehow “taking over” for the United States in the dominant superpower role. There is no taking over for the United States. There is only being Russia, unopposed. The experience for the other nations will be a different one.
Push across the Great Crossroads
Other nations are lining up, however. (See the “grand tour” piece at The Drive, above.) They need to hedge their bets, to be sure. (Based solely on geographic location, Turkey will never spend a day not having to think in those terms.) But at least one nation – a major one – is putting some big things in Russia’s hands.
Egypt is not just signing on to have Russia’s Rosatom build her a nuclear power plant; she’s agreeing to let the Russian air force use her air bases, on the understanding that Russia will basically provide reconnaissance and security on the Egyptian border with Libya.
UPI notes correctly that Russia’s interest is really in Libya, and affecting the course of events there. That interest will get crossways of the U.S. and Europe soon enough, assuming Russia and Egypt support the head of the Libyan National Army, Khalifa Haftar, who has been something of a spoiler for the Government of National Accord supported by the West, but who – unlike the GNA – exercises meaningful military control of a large swath of Libya.
As with Syria, Putin is arranging to be invited into a local fight, coy about his obvious but undeclared intentions. The Mediterranean will not be the same place when there are S-400s in Libya too, and Russian patrol ships and tactical aircraft able to use her airfields. The security of shipping in the Strait of Sicily won’t look the same, just as the security of pipelines and cables to Europe from North Africa won’t. The western approach to the Suez Canal won’t be guaranteed open and free for all; it will be one velvet-gloved political veto away from turning into a gauntlet.
That, at least, is the vision of Putin’s Russia. Somebody’s got to fight off the Islamist threat, after all. It’s becoming an all-purpose excuse for Russian expansion, like Imperial Rome fending off marauding tribes and constantly ending up with more territory to administer.
The West, inert
NATO has no apparent intention of doing it. What is Europe doing, anyway? In the military realm, oddly enough, constituting another collective armed force, to go with the one for which the European nations already don’t want to meet their spending commitments.
Might Brussels use the EU armed force to address problems like Libya? It hasn’t been sold on that basis. (Some EU populations are concerned that the EU armed force doesn’t seem to have an external security purpose, which would certainly carry an ominous implication.)
Moreover, as creaky and troubled as Britain’s military fortunes are at the moment, Brexit must also throw a serious monkey wrench into that EU machinery. The Brits are professional and combat-tested across disciplines; an EU armed force without them would start with big holes in it, especially for external uses. What Europe is doing right now is hard to see as focused or purposeful.
It’s a point I’ve been making for two and a half years now: where we are today is a place we have never been. The world has been without a functioning “global” hegemon before – centuries ago – but never when we were so interlinked, so heavily armed, so able to reach out and touch each other.
No stasis remains of its own accord, especially when it is being pushed against relentlessly, as all of Russia, China, Iran, and the kinetic factions of radical Islamism are now doing. Each of them has a parsable vision, suitable for the means of men and nations; America doesn’t. Europe certainly doesn’t. We have been in thrall, among our “elites,” to map-less supranationalism for too long.
There is no need to despair: God does look out for fools, drunks, and the United States. Another several years of Perdicaris, Raisuli, and some expeditionary operations may get us through. But it will be a different world we end up with. If nothing else, unlearning our mistaken impression that international situations are naturally permanent will make for an interesting time.