The Three Revolutions

The Washington Post

The long-predicted national debate about national security policy has yet to occur. Essentially tactical issues have overwhelmed the most important challenge a new administration will confront: how to distill a new international order from three simultaneous revolutions occurring around the globe: (a) the transformation of the traditional state system of Europe; (b) the radical Islamist challenge to historic notions of sovereignty; and (c) the drift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Conventional wisdom holds that disenchantment with President Bush's alleged unilateralism is at the heart of European-American disagreements. But it will become apparent soon after the change of administrations that the principal difference between the two sides of the Atlantic is that America is still a traditional nation-state whose people respond to calls for sacrifices on behalf of a much wider definition of the national interest than Europe's definition.

The nations of Europe, having been drained by two world wars, have agreed to transfer significant aspects of their sovereignties to the European Union. Political loyalties associated with the nation-state have proved not to be automatically transferable, however. Europe is in a transition between its past, which it seeks to overcome, and a future it has not yet reached.

In the process, the nature of the European state has been transformed. With nations no longer defining themselves by a distinct future and with the cohesion of the European Union as yet untested, the capacity of most European governments to ask their people for sacrifices has diminished dramatically. The states with the longest continuous histories, such as Britain and France, have been most willing to assume international military responsibilities.

The disagreement over the use of NATO forces in Afghanistan is a case in point. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the North Atlantic Council, acting without any request by the United States, invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty, calling for mutual assistance. But when NATO set about to assume military responsibilities, domestic constraints obliged many of the allies to limit the number of troops provided and to constrict the missions for which lives could be risked. As a result, the Atlantic alliance is in the process of evolving a two-tiered system — an alliance a la carte whose capability for common action does not match its general obligations. Over time, one of two adaptations must take place: either a redefinition of the general obligations or a formal elaboration of a two-tiered system in which political obligations and military capabilities are harmonized through some system of alliances of the willing.

While the traditional role of the state in Europe is being diminished by the choice of its governments, the declining role of the state in the Middle East is inherent in the way those states were founded. The successor states of the Ottoman Empire were established by the victorious powers at the end of the First World War. Unlike the European states, their borders did not reflect ethnic principles or linguistic distinctiveness but the balances between the European powers in their contests outside the region.

Today it is radical Islam that threatens the already brittle state structure via a fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran as the basis of a universal political organization. Jihadist Islam rejects national sovereignty based on secular state models; it seeks to extend its reach to wherever significant populations profess the Muslim faith. Since neither the international system nor the internal structure of existing states has legitimacy in Islamist eyes, its ideology leaves little room for Western notions of negotiation or equilibrium in a region of vital interest to the security and well-being of the industrial states. That struggle is endemic; we do not have the option of withdrawal. We can retreat from any one place, such as Iraq, but only to be obliged to resist from new positions, probably more disadvantageously. Even advocates of unilateral withdrawal from Iraq speak of retaining residual forces to prevent a resurgence of al-Qaeda or radicalism.

These transformations take place against the backdrop of a third trend, a shift in the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Paradoxically, this redistribution of power is to a part of the world where nations still possess the characteristics of traditional European states. The major states of Asia – China, Japan, India and, in time, possibly Indonesia — view each other the way participants in the European balance of power did, as inherent competitors even when they occasionally participate in cooperative ventures.

In the past, such shifts in the structure of power generally led to war, as happened with the emergence of Germany in the late 19th century. Today the rise of China is assigned such a role in much alarmist commentary. True, the Sino-American relationship will inevitably contain classical geopolitical and competitive elements. These must not be neglected. But there are countervailing elements. Economic and financial globalization, environmental and energy imperatives, and the destructive power of modern weapons all impose a major effort at global cooperation, especially between the United States and China. An adversarial relationship would leave both countries in the position of Europe after the two world wars, when other societies achieved the preeminence the nations of Europe sought through self-destructive conflict with each other.

No previous generation has had to deal with different revolutions occurring simultaneously in separate parts of the world. The quest for a single, all-inclusive remedy is chimerical. In a world in which the sole superpower is a proponent of the prerogatives of the traditional nation-state, where Europe is stuck in halfway status, where the Middle East does not fit the nation-state model and faces a religiously motivated revolution, and where the nations of South and East Asia still practice the balance of power, what is the nature of the international order that can accommodate these different perspectives? What should be the role of Russia, which is affirming a notion of sovereignty comparable to America's and a strategic concept of the balance of power similar to Asia's? Are existing international organizations adequate for this purpose? What goals can America realistically set for itself and the world community? Is the internal transformation of major countries an attainable goal? What objectives must be sought in concert, and what are the extreme circumstances that would justify unilateral action?

This is the kind of debate we need, not focus-group-driven slogans designed to grab headlines.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.