The same is true with China. China has twisted its economy into an irrational form out of a desire to avoid unemployment. The Chinese Communist Party is afraid of instability, which would certainly follow unemployment. The irrationality of the Chinese economy, a combination of inefficient businesses kept operating by loans that are unlikely to be paid and exports that are barely profitable, is not an economic phenomenon but a political one. The United States would not underwrite China's excesses even if it could. Nor will Beijing withdraw money from U.S. government bonds because it has nowhere else to put it -- Europe is becoming less reliable, and it cannot invest it in China. That is China's core problem -- its economy can't absorb more money, and that is a profoundly unhealthy situation.
When we consider the core architecture of the international system, it becomes readily apparent that the United States can do nothing to preserve it. The strategy of allowing nature to take its course is not so much an option chosen as it is a reality imposed. What will evolve from this will evolve on its own. Europe will return to the order that existed prior to World War II: sovereign nation states pursuing their own interests, collaborating and competing. China will remain an inward-looking country, trying to preserve its institutions in a new epoch. The United States will observe.
Iran's Regional Influence
A similar situation has emerged with Iran. From 2003 onward, when the United States destroyed the balance of power between Iraq and Iran, Iran has been an ascendant power. With the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Iran became the most influential foreign power there. But Iran has overreached and is itself in crisis.
The overreach took place in Syria. As the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad came under attack, the Iranians threw their resources and prestige behind the effort to save it. That effort has failed in the sense that while al Assad retains a great deal of power in Syria, it is as a warlord, not the government. He no longer governs but uses his forces to compete with other forces. Syria has started to look like Lebanon, with a weak and sometimes invisible government and armed, competing factions.
Iran simply didn't have the resources to stabilize the al Assad regime. For the United States, an Iranian success in Syria would have created a sphere of influence stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. The Iranian failure, undoubtedly aided by U.S. and others' covert assistance to al Assad's enemies, ended this threat. Had the sphere of influence materialized, it would have brought pressure to the northern border of Saudi Arabia. The United States, whose primary interest was the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf as part of the global economic system, would have faced the decision of intervening to protect the Saudis, something the United States did not want to do, or accepting Iran as the dominant regional power.
The United States might have had to negotiate a radical reversal of policy as it did with China in the 1970s. Indeed, I suspect that attempts to reach out to Iran were made. But Iran committed the gravest of mistakes. It failed to recognize how shallow its power was and how vulnerable it was to countermeasures. The collapse of its position in Syria has opened the door to pressure in Iraq. Add to this that the financial sanctions on Iran finally had some impact, sending the economy into a tailspin, and we have seen a historic reversal since the summer; Iran has gone from a regional power with a nuclear program to a country with declining influence, domestic economic problems and a nuclear program. Given that it is more threatening to have one or two operational nuclear weapons openly deployed than to have a perpetual threat of a nuclear weapon, Iran is not in a powerful position.
Russia and Energy
Russia, of course, remains a robust power, but like the others it suffers from an underlying disease. In Georgia, Russia saw the election of a prime minister deeply opposed to the presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili, whom the Russians see as an enemy. Russian influence, particularly via its intelligence service, is not trivial. But Russia has a deep problem. Its national power rests on a single, massive base: energy exports. These have been of enormous value financially and in terms of influencing the politics of its neighbors. Indeed, Russia's interest in Georgia had as much to do with pipelines as with governments; Georgia is Azerbaijan's route for energy exports to Europe.