A Global Order in Flux

The Washington Post

When the history of these times is written, it may well be that the headlines of the day – Iraq and the controversies it has aroused – will pale in comparison to other international upheavals of our period. The center of gravity of world affairs is moving to the Pacific, and almost all major actors on the international stage are defining new roles for themselves.

The transformation is about basic concepts rather than tactical issues. For example, differences between America and Europe are serious and substantive. But the reason the results of recent U.S.- European diplomatic encounters have proved so disappointing – despite serious efforts on both sides – is that the historic evolutions underway on the two sides of the Atlantic are different. The most important event in Europe is the progressive erosion of the European nation-state, which has been the foundation of international politics and the focus of political loyalties since the 17th century. European leaders spend more time on issues of European unification than any other. And these issues involve not traditional diplomacy but esoteric constitutional arrangements. Because the historic rivalries of Europe have been civilized into a domestic consensus, European diplomats seek to apply their new domestic experience in the international arena. They insist that resorting to military force is legitimate only if sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council. The proposition that the alliance involves no special obligations would have sent shivers down the spines of European statesmen had America applied it to the Berlin crisis during the Cold War. On issues of war and peace, Europe finds itself suspended between institutions not yet sufficiently cohesive for a strategic foreign policy and nations sufficiently advanced on the road toward European unification to have lost their historic convictions about a national foreign policy.

By contrast, America remains a traditional nation-state, insistent on sovereign freedom of action. Europe, even as it embraces American pop culture, almost subconsciously edges towards identifying itself politically with what is not American. With a European national interest yet to be defined, these non-state attitudes towards international relations are becoming deeply embedded in European public opinion. Confirmed Atlanticists are increasingly troubled by whether the non-state aspect of European unification can ever be again fully reconciled with the experience of a country driven by state concepts or with the notion of alliance as traditionally conceived.

Paradoxically, the structural estrangement of America from Europe is taking place as the center of gravity of international politics is shifting to Asia, where relations have been far less confrontational. Countries such as Russia, China, Japan and India still view the nation-state as the United States does, and as European states did before World War II. To them, geopolitics is not anathema; it is the basis of their internal analysis and their external actions. The concept of national interest still rallies public and leadership opinion. The balance of power affects their calculations.

Because their perceptions of national interest are so comparable to ours, Russia, China, India and Japan have had far less fractious relations with America than some European allies. Though they reject what they consider hegemonical aspects of U.S. policy, they do so on a case-by-case basis via traditional diplomacy, and they generally prefer a strategic dialogue to a test of will. To these countries, Iraq is not a litmus test of American moral fitness to lead but of American endurance in pursuit of strategic insights. It affects their judgment about America's reliability as a partner and its capacity to achieve its goals. For each of these countries has an interest, at a minimum, in averting U.S. defeat in Iraq: India because of its large Muslim population; Russia because of its fear of turmoil on its southern flank; Japan because of its continued stake in a strong America and the American alliance during its period of transition; China because it believes a partnership with America is the best road to a decade of stability.

All the countries involved are redefining their identities. Russia, returned to frontiers it has not known since Peter the Great, finds decolonization involving countries at its borders particularly painful. To give up imperial rule and rely on cooperative relationships runs counter to Russian historical experience. Russians are bound to ask themselves the nagging question: If we are not an empire, what are we? Russia is facing traumatic choices: redefining its relations to what it calls the near- abroad – the former republics, especially to the west and south; the proximity of a dynamic China; the emptiness of its Siberian space; the future of the energy resources of Central Asia, around which what, in the 19th century, was called the "great game" between Russia, China, India and America is restarting. America can play a constructive role through permanent dialogue that is sensitive to Russia's concerns without acquiescing in all of Russia's answers to them.

China's emergence as a great power – and potential superpower – is already a principal element in shifting the international center of gravity to Asia. As China reinterprets the ideological premise of its revolution, the temptation of nationalism may become a substitute endowing the issue of Taiwan with a profoundly symbolic aspect. China seems to have made a decision for an extended period of cooperation. The opportunity must be used to lift the relationship above the tactical and to encourage in a new generation of leaders a sense of compatibility between U.S. and Chinese long-range purposes.

The issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea is a good example of the need for a long-range approach. On one level, it has been treated as an arms-control problem caused by a rogue state and has therefore been confined to North Korean-American issues. But a fundamental solution must go deeper. It requires a Chinese-American understanding regarding the political evolution of Northeast Asia, including the future of North Korea, the pace of Korean unification and nuclear restraint in Northeast Asia. This is not a task to be brought to a conclusion at the assistant secretary level of the six-party talks in Beijing; it requires a concept that goes beyond the technical issues of denuclearization, addressing the broad direction of the political and military evolution of Northeast Asia.

Perhaps the most complex transition is taking place in Japan. For a half-century after World War II, Japan, sheltered under a bilateral security treaty with the United States, concentrated with characteristic self-discipline on its economic recovery and return to political respectability. For the first time in its millennia-old history, Japan subordinated its foreign policy to another country. As its international environment is in rapid transition, Japan tenaciously, subtly, indirectly, is systematically widening the margin of action available to it. Beyond the war on terrorism, Japan is adapting its role as an American auxiliary and is preparing to enter the international arena as a principal – a challenge and also an opportunity for America. The North Korean challenge has accelerated this process. Since Japan has historically considered Korea an essential aspect of Japanese security, it will not accept nuclear weapons in North Korea without offsetting measures. To the extent that the six-power talks in Beijing legitimize the retention of some nuclear military capacity in North Korea, Japan will consider a nuclear option for itself and will, at a minimum, place itself in a position to implement it rapidly.

These trends will be accelerated by China's growth. As time goes on, Japan will examine at least three options: (a) to continue a foreign policy based on U.S. alliance; (b) to seek to develop an Asian political entity analogous to the European Union, perhaps in some sort of partnership with China; (c) to refuse to make a choice and adopt a kind of nonalignment to maximize its national interest. For the moment, Japan is content to await developments while building a consensus over the next decade with the indirection and stern insistence on the national interest that are the hallmarks of the subtle Japanese diplomacy.

The rise of India to great-power status is one of the principal events of the next decade. This is all the more true because the geographic area of most interest for India – the Muslim world and Central Asia – coincides with a major concern of the United States, and the interests of the two countries run parallel there in important respects.

Since the days of the British Empire, India has resisted the emergence of a dominant outside power in the arc between Singapore and Aden. With its Muslim population of 150 million, which in a generation will exceed 300 million, India has a greater stake than almost any other country in the outcome of the war in Iraq – and in the wider sense of the war on terrorism – not providing an impetus to radical Islam, because the consequences could not be arrested at its borders.

The global scene is more fluid than it has been for centuries. America's task is to contribute to shaping this ferment. U.S. diplomacy is asked to bring about the elements of a new world order much as it successfully did in the decade immediately after World War II. Yet current conditions are more complex because the area to be integrated is global rather than Atlantic and because the symptoms of crisis often mask the underlying reality. With respect to Europe, even the most intense consultation will ultimately come up against the philosophical question of what makes the Atlantic relationship special under current circumstances. As an institution, the European Union is likely to recoil from the use of force except under conditions – unanimity in the Security Council – that deprive the alliance of its special status. The challenge of Atlantic policy is whether the nations of the alliance can regain a sense of common destiny. In its absence, the Atlantic nations will drift into a world order of constantly shifting constellations in pursuit of narrow national or regional concerns not unlike that preceding World War I.

The Asian countries discussed here march to a different drummer. Their consultation procedures with America are adequate and functioning. The short-term incentives are for collaboration. There are, however, three medium-term challenges. The nations involved will judge our relevance to their concerns by the outcome of Iraq. Somewhat contradictorily, concern over U.S. hegemonical power may tempt these countries to explore options for constraints on American power, though for motives opposite those of Europe – as an exercise not of moral or judicial principles but of the balance of power. U.S. policy needs to be sensitive to these attitudes. American power is a fact of life, but the art of diplomacy is to translate power into consensus. This requires more than good relations with all countries to provide the greatest number of options. It implies, above all, a unifying vision especially on challenges that affect all countries: proliferation; control of epidemics; development.

An international system is vital if its members consider maintaining it more important than the inevitable difficulties that arise in its operation and when it is alive to opportunities for creativity. Amidst the passions of the Middle East, American foreign policy must look beyond immediate frustrations to the vision of a world waiting to be built.