The Old Order Collapses, Finally

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There has been something both conclusive and convulsive -- and yet sustaining -- about the crisis in Ukraine that has caused people to believe we have now entered a new chapter in international relations. As other commentators have noted, the old order has collapsed. By that they mean the period erstwhile labeled the Post Cold War.

This is a stunning formulation because it means at face value that all the blood and tragedy in Afghanistan and Iraq were not enough to signal a new phase in history, while the past few months in Ukraine were. But how can that be? The answer is that historical periods evolve very gradually -- over the years, during a decade of fighting in the Middle East, say -- whereas our recognition of these changes may happen only later, in an instant, as when Russia annexed Crimea.

Let me define what others have referred to as the "old order," as well as where I think we stand now.

In Asia, the old order, or the Post Cold War, meant American naval dominance, in essence a unipolar military world where the Chinese were developing a great economy but not yet a great military and the Japanese were safely entrenched inside a semi-pacifistic mindset. That Post Cold War order actually started decaying only a half-decade after the Berlin Wall fell, in the mid-1990s, when Chinese naval development first began to be demonstrably noticed. Over the past two decades Chinese naval power has grown steadily to the point where that American unipolar military order is giving way to a multipolar one, even as Japan, as a response to the Chinese threat, has slipped out of semi-pacifism and has rediscovered nationalism as a default option. The old order, in a word, is collapsing -- though we have only recently noticed it. The recent Chinese-Vietnamese naval standoff in the South China Sea has only punctuated the matter.

In the Middle East, the Post Cold War initially meant that the Americans kept Saddam Hussein's Iraq in check by ejecting him from Kuwait and then suffocating him with a no-fly zone. Saddam's Iraq, in turn, helped keep the mullahs' Iran in check. The American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, and America's subsequent acceptance of stalemate in those wars, certainly undermined Washington's credibility and allowed Iran to expand its geopolitical influence. But with the American Navy and Air Force in the eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Sea and elsewhere -- not to mention the deployment of drones and Special Operations Forces to a place like Yemen -- American power is still not wholly to be trifled with. Indeed, the Persian Gulf -- whose security is underwritten by U.S. sea power -- has always been safe for hydrocarbon transport, relatively unaffected by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Of course, state collapses and partial-state collapses in Syria, Libya and Yemen have weakened American influence in those countries, but they have also weakened great power influence there in general. Nevertheless, we can say that as anarchy has increased over the years in the region, the ability of America to influence things has diminished. Thus, we have the slow-motion demise of the old order.

In Europe, the old order began unraveling toward the end of the last decade with the onset of the European Union's fiscal crisis. But because the crisis was for years defined by the media as merely economic, it was naturally seen as, well, an economic event and not also as a geopolitical event -- which it was. In fact, the crisis weakened the European Union's influence in the former satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe, allowing Vladimir Putin's Russia to regain a foothold there: Russia built and enlarged energy pipelines and invested in various infrastructure projects throughout the region. But the old order soldiered on. After all, the expansion of NATO and the European Union into the former satellite states and the three Baltic republics, the nominal independence of Belarus, and the emergence of Ukraine and Moldova as buffer states effectively moved Russia bodily eastward and contained it.

This situation lasted at first because of Boris Yeltsin's weak and chaotic rule in Russia itself. But that began to change toward the turn of the millennium when the more capable Putin took charge and as Europe -- especially Central and Eastern Europe -- became more dependent on Russian natural gas pipelines. The annexation of Crimea, triggered by the fall of the pro-Russian regime in Kiev, signaled to the world that Russia was no longer contained. And thus everyone has come to realize that the old order in Europe is gone, too.

The Ukraine crisis was especially symbolic because, while the Chinese threat in Asia has been noticeable for a while now and instability in the Middle East is considered a given, European security had been taken for granted by too many for too long.

So what has, or will, replace the old order?

Some have suggested a system of regional hegemons: the United States in North America, Brazil in South America, Germany in Europe, Russia in Eurasia, China in Asia and so on. The problem with this scenario is that it implies equality among hegemons where none exists. It also assumes that these hegemons are themselves stable, which they often are not. Brazil has profound institutional problems and social unrest. Russia will not dominate energy markets as much in the future, even as its own population declines. Germany is too entrapped in the Russian economy and energy sector to maintain a forceful foreign policy. China sits atop a vast credit bubble, which is only one of its structural and economic challenges. The United States has its problems, to be sure: partisan gridlock, a broken health care sector, increasing disparity between the poor and wealthy and so forth. But the problems that burden the other hegemons are in a number of cases worse and far more fundamental.

In other words, some of the hegemons themselves may severely stumble in the coming years, for Russia and China both may undergo significant social unrest. It is more likely that post-Putin Russia will be more anarchic than democratic; the same goes for China, if the Communist Party there fundamentally weakens.

And while the United States may be, in a relative sense, the strongest of the hegemons for many years to come, its ability to intervene in world crises may, nevertheless, diminish. American power depends on capable central authority elsewhere -- for where else can an American president apply pressure except upon other rulers? But if central authority itself gives way to weak democracies and anarchy where nobody is really in charge, there will be no address where America can go to demand action. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that the American people are simply more hesitant to underwrite security in distant theaters than they were during the Cold War, when they saw themselves in an existential battle against a rival ideology.

Policy elites have no trouble imagining a world of rival hegemons to replace an American imperial-like system -- because even a world of rival hegemons implies some degree of recognizable order and organization. What they have a more difficult time imagining is a world in which nobody is sufficiently in charge anywhere, where formlessness rules, where hierarchy itself has decayed. This anarchic formlessness combined with postmodern technology may help define the world that ultimately awaits us.

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