Russia’s deployment of forces to Syria is its most significant direct military intervention in the Middle East since the end of the second world war. It will further destabilise a region that is characterised by misrule, sectarianism, regional rivalries and four civil wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.
President Vladimir Putin’s gambit is only the latest indication that, after 70 years, the postwar international order is fraying. The US, the country around which the postwar order was constructed, still has a strong hand but it often plays that hand poorly.
In the past 15 years, its global approach has fluctuated. President George W Bush pursued a muscular grand strategy aimed at imposing America’s will on the world. His invasion of Iraq is one of history’s finest own goals. By contrast, President Barack Obama has run a reality-based foreign policy. But he did not merely learn the lessons of the Bush presidency; he overlearnt them. His unwillingness to act forcefully at crucial moments has weakened the deterrent effect of US power.
The recent history of US policy — both its mis-steps and its changeability — raises questions about whether Washington will continue to act as the global hegemon. To those who relish the prospect of a more modest American presence in the world, I say: be careful what you wish for.
Meanwhile, the rest of the west looks set to retire from the global stage — and not only because most western countries have ageing populations. For decades, Europe has spurned power politics in favour of forming an ever more perfect, peaceful union. The failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the bloc’s economic debacles and political wobbles, have encouraged this parochialism. Now, when European leaders come upon an unpleasant scene, for example, a neighbour set upon by an aggressor — like the priest and the Levite with the Good Samaritan — most of them prefer to pass by on the other side.
Even the UK has lowered its ambitions, stepping back from the foreign policy front line and cutting the budgets of its armed forces, the Foreign Office and the BBC World Service. The British will spend the next few years debating whether Scotland should leave the UK, and whether the UK should leave the EU. That will not leave much time to think about the rest of the world.
Even as western countries stand down, in each of the most significant global theatres — Europe, the Middle East and Asia — strong challengers to the liberal order are stepping up.
Russia seeks to establish a sphere of influence in its corner of Europe and regain its position as an indispensable global actor. Mr Putin’s tactics include subversion, propaganda and, disturbingly, the acquisition of territory by force. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 breached the central tenet of the international state system. His Syrian operation is a stick in the eye of the Americans.
Meanwhile, Iran is taking advantage of turmoil in the Middle East to extend its power. This year’s international deal is probably the best option for curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme. But, if the country can make this much trouble while tied down by western sanctions, how will it behave when they fall away?
In the long term, Beijing’s challenge to the existing order is the most serious because wealth and power are shifting east, towards Asia. China’s successes in the past four decades have been dizzying. The country is building up economic weight befitting its tremendous size. However its foreign policy is highly uneven, switching between the constructive and the combative.
The differences between these three countries — Russia, Iran and China — are as great as their similarities. None of them hopes to displace the US as the world’s leading power. Their advantage lies in the fact that they can concentrate their forces regionally while Washington must disperse its forces globally.
The west’s drooping confidence, and the rise of great-power challengers, makes it harder for global institutions to address global problems. The UN has reached its biblical threescore years and 10, and it is showing its age.
Take the most wicked problem in the UN’s care. The World Meteorological Organization reports that 2014 was the hottest year on record. This century, 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have been registered. We know the implications of global warming are likely to be severe. Yet successive UN conferences have failed to agree on binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions.
The story is similar when it comes to other international arrangements. For example, the refugee protection regime has been overwhelmed by the recent exodus from the Middle East. Clearly it no longer serves the interests of either states or refugees — but there is no prospect of it being reformed.
International co-operation has never been more vital — or more rare. Dean Acheson called his memoir of his time as President Harry Truman’s secretary of state Present at the Creation. Acheson’s generation of US statesmen did indeed create the postwar world. But, 70 years later, their creation is in trouble. There is a growing sense that we are present at the destruction — the destruction of an order that has served the world well.