Wandering "Weevils"

Are Iran, Russia and China an axis burrowing away beneath the foundations of the international system?

While discussion of the “end of history” has largely faded in recent years—as reality has made painfully clear that we are still lodged firmly in the middle of history—Walter Russell Mead has recently taken up the topic in his provocative essay “The End of History Ends,” published by The American Interest. While the piece makes for engaging reading, it provides little that is genuinely new. In particular, its analysis of China, Russia and Iran—and the near absence of specific policy recommendations in an article that attempts to frame U.S. foreign policy for decades to come—is disappointing.

No doubt much of Mead’s article is quite sensible. He accurately points out that notwithstanding their mutual antagonism and suspicion, China, Russia and Iran (which he terms the “Central Powers”) are united in their resentment of the current U.S.-led international order. He correctly notes that they are gaining ground—in no small part due to the Obama administration’s weak management of U.S. foreign policy—and appropriately calls for a coherent American strategy to respond to this significant challenge to U.S. leadership. And he is more honest than most in admitting that triumphalism and moralism have thus far constrained our analysis and our policy-making.

Mead is also an effective polemical writer who knows well how to push the right buttons in appealing to the foreign-policy wonks among Washington’s chattering classes—though his extravagant language significantly weakens his overall case. His highly quotable characterization of his “Central Powers” as an “axis of weevils … looking to hollow out the imposing edifice of American and maritime power” still elicits chuckles from the present author, despite its patronizing and dismissive tone simultaneously minimizing their power and glossing over their goals. Phrases like “Butcher Assad” and “flabby and uncertain European diplomacy” (over Ukraine)—not to mention references to Hitler—likewise win cheers from the audience but do little to advance understanding.

Nevertheless, there are several flaws in Mead’s argument. Perhaps most fundamental, because it shapes the rest of the essay, Mead never persuasively explains why the Central Powers are bent on undermining the existing international system. In fact, he goes no further than stating that “the balance of power it enshrines thwarts their ambitions; the norms and values it promotes pose deadly threats to their current regimes.” What are their ambitions? Do they want to rule the world? To dominate their respective regions? Or something else? Does the international order itself threaten their regimes, or are they more concerned with assertive efforts to impose Western values? Are they trying to undermine global order or to rewrite it? What changes might they want? They clearly are not challenging the international system in its entirety and, from a Chinese and Russian perspective, may even be trying to defend their vision of the status quo by empowering the UN Security Council in order to block “unauthorized” military action and outside interference in national governance, a pillar of the Westphalian state system. Mead’s “weevils” metaphor, and his concluding call for “an understanding that there are hostile and, from our point of view, destructive powers in the world,” both imply that the Central Powers are burrowing away at the international system because they are weevils and that is what weevils do. It goes no further.

Since Mead also makes little if any effort to describe America’s post–Cold War foreign policy conduct—or to assess concretely how leaders in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran think about it—one is left with a strong impression that he believes these three countries would oppose the United States almost without regard to U.S. policy. But is this actually the case? Psychologists would see a clear-cut case of fundamental attribution error (others do things because of who they are) and self-serving bias (I do things because the circumstances force me to) in Mead’s analysis. Is Russia defending Assad because Moscow likes poking the United States or because Russian officials think that Assad’s rule is the best way, for now, to stabilize a country that is falling apart and attracting and breeding extremist terrorists? Would China and Russia resist UN Security Council resolutions on military action in Syria so strongly if the United States had not stretched prior resolutions on Iraq and Libya well beyond what they thought they had accepted? Would they cooperate as closely with one another if the United States provided them with fewer convenient opportunities?

Most important in looking ahead, can America take advantage of the cracks between the Central Powers, like Chinese-Russian rivalry in Central Asia or Chinese and Russian fear of Iran-related instability in the heart of Eurasia? Likewise, Washington already succeeded in persuading Beijing and Moscow to support UN sanctions on Iran (several times), in getting Russia to withhold S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Tehran, and in discouraging Chinese oil purchases from Iran. A successful deal on Iran’s nuclear program that leads to a lifting of sanctions could stoke Iranian-Russian competition in energy markets.