By DAVID BROOKS
A few weeks ago, the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia brought together some big thinkers to discuss the future of American foreign policy, and guess what? They couldn’t agree.
They couldn’t agree on whether China would replace the U.S. as the world’s leading power. They couldn’t agree on whether Islamic extremism would be central or peripheral in the years ahead. They couldn’t agree on the significance of America’s unpopularity.
But there were two competing papers that illuminated most of the issues roiling to and fro. The first was by John Ikenberry of Princeton. He argued that the U.S. will not face one big threat in the coming decades. Instead, there will be a “diffuse, shifting and uncertain” array of security challenges: collapsing nation-states, global warming, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, pandemics, energy scarcity and so on.
Therefore, the U.S. can’t pursue a grand strategy against a specific enemy. It has to embrace what Ikenberry calls a “milieu-based approach.” In essence, the U.S. would make itself the center of a series of new global institutions where nations could come together and solve common problems.
During the 1940s, the U.S. excelled at this, Ikenberry notes. Dean Acheson and others initiated the Atlantic Charter, the Bretton Woods agreements, the Marshall Plan and the U.N. The idea was that capitalism could be organized internationally. Problems could be addressed in common. The U.S. could leverage its power more effectively if embedded in multilateral institutions with broad legitimacy. This order has been torn asunder because the Bush administration refused to operate within it. And so it’s time to update. The new global architecture would have three features.
First, there would be a global social services sector, providing health care, education, shelters, emergency services and other parts of any healthy community. Second, there would be renewed security alliances, in part to enmesh China before it becomes so powerful that it’s uncontainable. Third, the U.N. would be reformed and a Concert of Democracies would be created, where the free world could respond as threats emerge.
Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment argues that this sort of global system would be workable if the great powers shared common political principles. But Russia, China and the U.S., among others, do not have common understandings or interests, so it will only lead to paralysis.
Instead, Kagan sees a world that will look as it’s always looked — a world of competing nations, vying for power. This world in his view will also have three main features.
First, continued U.S. dominance. Even events of the past few years have not undermined American economic and military supremacy. For the foreseeable future, the world will have one big global power, and a number of regional ones.
Second, increasing regional competition. Nationalism is back, Kagan argues, if it ever went away. And so in Asia, China competes with Japan and South Korea. In Central Europe, Russia competes with its neighbors. In the Middle East, Iran bids for dominance.
Third, an overarching rivalry between democracy and autocracy. A few years ago, democracy seemed on the march, but now authoritarian governments are confident and thriving. Russia, China and other nations have an interest in seeing autocracy spread and in staving off democratic reform.
In the future, Kagan concludes, the U.S. is going to have to stabilize regional conflicts and gradually push back against the autocratic tide. The U.S. will also remain the most ardent champion of liberty in the face of Islamist anti-modernism. American predominance is not a danger. It’s the only thing standing between us and regression to a more dangerous world.
For what it’s worth, I’d say Ikenberry underestimates the power of nationalism. There’s little evidence that different nations with their contradictory moral cultures can really cooperate, except in utter crisis. But I’d also say Kagan underplays postnational threats. More than in the 19th century, security threats come in the form of global guerrillas, loose nukes and disintegrating nations.
Instead, we’re trapped in a hybrid world, in which many problems are postnational but the social structures are unavoidably national. The interesting bright spot is that both Ikenberry and Kagan believe in a Concert of Democracies, an emerging body where countries that do share values can rebut autocracy and consolidate their common success.
It’s a start.