The Corner

Mead and the ‘Best Way Forward’

Walter Russell Mead has an optimistic piece over at the Wall Street Journal, on the “Myth of America’s Decline.” Mead has been writing about this frequently at his blog Via Meadia, noting evidence of American manufacturing revival, continued leadership in the global community, and the like. His weekend piece continues these themes, arguing that the global change occurring today is not the setting of the American sun, but rather, the superseding of the 1970s trilateral order of America, Europe, and Japan as the pacesetters of global norms. 

He’s certainly right that both Europe (crippled by the euro) and Japan (crippled by a never-ending stagnation) are being outstripped by China, though I’m less sure how much weight India, Brazil, and Turkey have in the current global calculus; each is certainly trying to play a bigger role in their respective regions, but Turkey has run into push-back, India is continually distracted by Pakistan, and both are also starting to slow down economically.

But Mead’s far more provocative point — indeed the point on which he hangs his entire argument — is that all these rising powers will not merely play by the trilateral rules, but will in fact step up to their responsibilities of nourishing and further developing the post–World War II liberal international order. Thus, Mead urges Washington to “enter into deep strategic conversations” with each of these powers, so as to start building effective partnerships. 

The problem is, we’ve already tried that, with most of them. And the results have been less than gratifying. China has continually rebuffed any attempts at reducing tensions or upholding norms, despite being given the U.S. equivalent of being made a Member of the Order of the Garter: the annual G2 Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the two presidents. India has blown hot and cold on closer cooperation, especially in the security sphere, while Turkey has done end runs around the U.S. vis-a-vis Iran, stoked tensions with Israel, and mused about an Ottoman revival. Urging deep strategic conversations is not new, but rather is calling for more of the same, despite a lack of meaningful progress.

I think Mead’s argument is weakest in at least two points. The first is the values question. Mead’s assumption is that the self-evident strengths of the system will triumph over any opposition, thereby pushing Beijing, Ankara, New Delhi, and the like ultimately to accept the Anglosphere’s liberal international order, and in essence swear fealty to it. Yet Beijing and Turkey share very different views of social and international order than we do; New Delhi, too, seems far more content to remain in a neo-Nehruvian public posture than to pledge its troth to our view of the world. Moscow, one of Mead’s potential partners, has been steadily regressing for over a decade under Vladimir Putin. 

On the other hand, there is a reason Western Europe and Japan agreed to a trilateral approach to the world back in the 1970s. For all their individual variations, they shared our values and agreed with our vision of the world — which benefited them enormously. Mead presumes that China, because it, too, benefits enormously from an open world economic and political order, will make a similar calculation. 

#more#But it might be time for us to conclude that there is an indissoluble link between domestic political order and worldview (or foreign policy). States that repress openness at home do not champion it abroad. Thus, China pressures its neighbors over the South China Sea, refuses to negotiate over territory (including entire countries) that it considers its own, and builds up an offensive force designed to eliminate the American ability to operate in Asia. Russia invades Georgia; Turkey underwrites illegal flotillas to Gaza. Thus, there is little reason to simply assume that rising states will support a liberal international order, especially if those states either are non-democratic or lean that way (I know that doesn’t answer the question about India, but Nehruvian foreign policy remains strong enough in India that, despite increased U.S.-Indian cooperation, we likely will get less mileage out of that relationship than we expect for quite some time). 

The second way in which Mead falls short, I think, is in assuming the success of rational calculation and self-interest. As he writes:

The American world vision isn’t powerful because it is American; it is powerful because it is, for all its limits and faults, the best way forward.

Yet that is simply no assurance that foolishness, miscalculation, greed, or delusions of grandeur won’t cause states to act in ways that directly and materially harm them, their neighbors, and the system as a whole. In fact, the whole history of the world is a catalog of one seemingly irrational act after another, often ending in genocide. In 1914, Europe could clearly say that “the European world vision isn’t powerful because it is European; it is powerful because it is the best way forward.” And at that time in history, they would have been right. On top of that, Europe in 1914 had a century of diplomatic experience in managing the demands, expectations, and failings of states large and small, which is something we’re lacking today.

Wanting a share of the spoils when there is no policeman around often leads to taking what one can get, and not the spontaneous self-organization of order. A decline, even relative, in America’s ability to patrol the skies and seas, or to fight for the strengthening of liberal norms, may well lead some to calculate that they can get more on the cheap in the short run than playing by the rules for the long run. We’ve seen ages when there was a passing of the torch from tired out nations to rising powers, and very rarely have those periods been peaceful, even if the benefits of the system they were fighting over seemed self-evident. 

This is not a prediction of armed conflict, let alone world war. It is, however, an argument that we have a very large body of evidence cautioning against assuming the best, or imputing our views of what the best world system is, to others. Any diminution of America’s role will have effects throughout the globe. Some will undoubtedly be benign, and will pass unremarked. Others, especially when they affect the calculations and actions of major players, may well wind up destabilizing the global order to a degree we cannot yet comprehend. And such may well happen even if those states do not themselves wish to upend the system from which they have benefited, but those around them become increasingly insecure and concerned at their growth. Such a dynamic may force action on the part of China, or Turkey, or Russia that would lead precisely to the type of collapse that Mead assumes no one wants.


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