IF RIP VAN WINKLE had gone to sleep in 1992 and awakened in 2017, he might have been astounded by many things, including smart phones and President Donald Trump. He might also have been astonished at how little has changed in the deep structure of world politics since the end of the Cold War.
The NATO alliance still exists, having expanded by incorporating former Warsaw Pact nations to the borders of the Russian core of the Soviet Union. Van Winkle might be surprised to discover that the United States of 2017 is engaged in what would look to him very much like new cold wars with post-Soviet Russia and post-Maoist China. In the first Cold War, many conservatives accused liberals of being Russian stooges or spies; in the new cold war, many liberals charge that President Trump and his supporters are Moscow’s agents of influence. Iran, an American adversary since it became a theocratic regime in 1979, is still considered by many Americans to be the major enemy of the United States in the Middle East. North and South Korea are still divided and in a state of perpetual conflict. If he is interested in a radically different world order, Rip Van Winkle might be tempted to resume his sleep, after setting his alarm for 2050 or 2100.
The degree of inertia in geopolitics should be a particular embarrassment for the realist school of international-relations theory. Conventional realism holds that alliances are temporary responses to external threats and that when the threats disappear, the alliances should be abandoned or transformed. When realists turn from description to prescription, they generally favor one or another variant of an offshore-balancing strategy, with the United States shifting its weight to the least threatening great powers in a multipolar world. (I called a version of this a “concert-balance strategy” in my 2006 book The American Way of Strategy.)
In the long run, realists may turn out to be right. The NATO and U.S.-Japan alliances may wither away; the United States may retrench and adopt a policy of offshore balancing. These developments may simply take more time. It has been only twenty-eight years since the Berlin Wall fell and only twenty-six years since the Soviet Union dissolved.
But those of us who consider ourselves realists must reevaluate whether we are, in fact, realistic. Realists of the offshore- balancing school may be wrong, without it being the case that neoconservative and neoliberal promoters of American global “empire” are correct. There are more than the two options of ever-shifting alliances and American global hegemony or empire. The third option is the division of the world among long-lasting geopolitical blocs.
BLOCS ARE far from unfamiliar. The division of the globe among superpower-led blocs was the central fact of the Cold War from the end of World War II until the 1990s.
The American-led bloc was sometimes called the “Free World.” At best this was a euphemism, at worst an Orwellian distortion of reality. America’s Cold War bloc was not made up exclusively of liberal or democratic countries. It included despotic monarchies in the Persian Gulf and pro-American dictators in South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Vietnam (before its conquest and absorption by the Communist North in 1975) and most of Latin America.
The Free World was no more the world than it was free. It was challenged by the Communist bloc, whose rulers considered themselves to be part of a single Marxist-Leninist movement, even when, beginning in the 1950s, Mao began to challenge Stalin’s heirs for leadership. The “Third World” was a not a true bloc but a catch-all category, including nonaligned nations like India and many other postcolonial states in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which sought to maximize their independence from the two superpowers.
The Cold War blocs were less integrated than many premodern empires but much more integrated than old-fashioned arm’s-length alliances among independent states against a common threat. Postwar West Germany and Japan were “semisovereign” states at best, denied truly independent foreign policies and subject to a high degree of informal U.S. domination. They might be described as “protectorates,” at a midpoint in the spectrum between directly governed imperial colonies and truly independent allies.
The Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe was even closer to a traditional empire. In a sphere of influence defined solely in military terms, a great power may insist on having a veto over foreign military alliances on the part of the countries within the sphere, while allowing them to be otherwise independent. This was the situation in Cold War Finland, but it was never the case in the nations of the Warsaw Pact, from the time that Moscow installed subservient Communist satrapies throughout the areas of its post-1945 control until the end of the Cold War. The “Brezhnev Doctrine” asserted the right of the Soviet Union to intervene in the affairs of fraternal Communist- bloc nations. The Soviets suppressed anti-Communist rebellions by invading East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Martial law under the Jaruzelski regime in Poland, beginning in 1981, possibly averted another invasion. With good reason, the subordinate Communist regimes of the Eastern bloc were described as Moscow’s “satellites.”
No Communist government potentially aligned with Moscow ever came to power in any NATO country, so it is not clear what the Western response would have been. However, the United States sought to weaken Communist parties in Western Europe and strengthen their opponents by means of covert action in the immediate postwar period. And in other places, the United States engaged in a series of covert operations to prevent clients from falling, or pro-Soviet or nonaligned leaders from coming to power. The United States covertly helped to topple the Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953, tried to overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro, encouraged coups in Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, and invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983, to name only a few of the many U.S. interventions in the politics of other countries. And the United States fought major wars in the Korean Peninsula and Indochina during the Cold War to keep pro-American, anti-Communist dictatorships in power.
The Cold War blocs were economic and cultural as well as military and ideological entities. The Cold War was, among other things, a war of financial, commercial and industrial attrition by the American bloc against the Communist bloc, employing a variety of stringent economic sanctions over a period of half a century. As part of its Cold War strategy, the United States encouraged the economic integration of Western Europe and turned a blind eye to the mercantilist trade policies of its Japanese, South Korean and Taiwanese protectorates. The Soviet Union had its own Cold War economic bloc, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (1949–91), known in the West as COMECON.
The Cold War was also an ideological war. Beginning with the Communist seizure of power in 1917, the Soviet Union sought to manipulate public opinion in the rest of the world, including the United States, by means of local Communist party members, spies and sympathetic but non-Communist “fellow travelers.” In the Cold War, the United States, its allies and protectorates set up their own counter-Communist propaganda networks and institutions. Some, like Radio Free Europe, were public. In other cases, anti-Communist propaganda was secretly encouraged by the U.S. government, which via the CIA, funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom and the magazine Encounter.
In some ways the Cold War blocs were far more integrated than the older European colonial empires or dynastic monarchies had been. To be sure, the dynastic empires had state religions, and colonial empires, at one time or another, claimed to be carriers of a universal idea—counter-Reformation Catholicism in the case of Spain, liberty in the case of Britain, the mission civilisatrice in the case of France. But the combination of hegemonic military alliances, integrated transnational industrial economies and a permanent version of wartime propaganda directed at the masses for half a century was something new in history.
It was also something temporary—or so many realists expected (I was one of them). Once the Berlin Wall crumbled, many of us believed that the Cold War’s alliances and mind-sets, like its institutions, would fade away or be drastically reconfigured. In the “new normal” that followed, nation-states large and small would reconsider old alliances on the basis of cold calculations of their national interests.
This may very well happen. But, so far, it hasn’t. To be sure, the Philippines and Turkey, former close U.S. allies, are flaunting their independence from Washington. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule of the continuing survival of America’s Cold War bloc. In the 1990s, many feared that the newly reunited Germany would rapidly re-emerge as a great power, seeking to create its own Mitteleuropa. Instead, the United States maintained its hegemony within NATO and the alliance expanded eastward until it encountered serious resistance from post-Soviet Russia in Georgia and Ukraine.
A CASE can be made that realists are mostly right about the dynamics of world politics—but not necessarily about the major actors. What if the main actors in world politics are, and will continue to be, not many independent nation-states but a small number of more or less permanent hierarchical, multinational blocs, each led by one or more dominant nation-states?
The belief that the world in the industrial era is being organized into one or a few military-economic-political agglomerations goes back to the nineteenth century. The idea helped to inspire the late nineteenth-century competition among Western powers for overseas possessions. It was also the underlying cause of both world wars, which occurred when German and Japanese regimes sought to carve out and consolidate their own blocs or empires through regional conquest.
In The Managerial Revolution (1943), James Burnham, a former Trotskyist who became a founder of American Cold War conservatism, predicted that three major blocs would emerge after World War II, with the United States, Germany and Japan as nuclei. His work influenced the dystopian vision of George Orwell’s 1984, of perpetual low-level conflict among the imaginary superpower blocs of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia.
Burnham proved to be a poor prophet. World War II gave way to a bipolar world order, with the United States and Russia, now “superpowers,” as rival bloc hegemons, Japan a U.S. satellite, Germany divided between the blocs, and East Asia and other regions contested by the superpowers in proxy wars.
But Burnham, true to the Marxist tradition from which he had only recently emancipated himself, sought to integrate a theory of global economic and social change with his theory of geopolitics. This was, and remains, an advantage for something like Burnham’s approach against contemporary mainstream Western academic approaches to world order, which tend to isolate a single factor and try to build a theory on it.
IN INTERNATIONAL-RELATIONS theory, neorealism in its purest form isolates power, usually equated with military power. Some variants try to explain the foreign policies of particular states as reactions to conditions of polarity: bi-, multi-, uni- or a-. Meanwhile, in another department on the university campus, conventional neoclassical economics ignores both nation-states and blocs as economic actors in their own right and theorizes trade in terms of individuals and firms specializing in an idealized global market that does not exist. In yet another academic silo, housed elsewhere in the university, is found political theory, including theories of liberal democracy, which tend to pay little attention to real-world developments in national security or the economy.
Idealized models can be useful in some lines of scholarly endeavor. But they are not helpful in understanding world politics. In this case, the three isolated approaches of international-relations theory, academic economics and political philosophy can yield a hypothetical world in which each state, in theory, can join one set of security alliances for purposes of military protection, a different trade bloc for commercial purposes and a third set of international alliances, perhaps drawn together by political creed and social values.
In the real world, this kaleidoscopic complexity does not exist. There has always been significant alignment among nations in the military, economic and political realms, both during the Cold War and in the quarter century since its conclusion.
In Europe, there is a high, though imperfect, degree of overlap between membership in NATO and membership in the European Union. And there is strong pressure for members of both the EU and NATO to conform to a common liberal-democratic ideology. For example, Poland and Hungary today are condemned by other EU and NATO members as dangerously backsliding “illiberal democracies” for controversial policies involving public television (Poland) and the regulation of nonprofits and immigration (Hungary)—policies that, in comparison with those of autocratic China or Saudi Arabia, are hard to distinguish from those of their “liberal” European neighbors.
Elsewhere, there is significant overlap between military alliance membership and membership in trade blocs. The “megaregional” trade pacts promoted by the Bush and Obama administrations, the TTIP and TPP, were intended in part to bolster U.S.-led security alliances in Europe and East Asia. China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was equally geopolitical in its manifest intent, including many of the same Asian nations as the TPP but excluding the United States. And there is significant overlap in membership among the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a military alliance headed by China that includes Russia, and new economic institutions promoted by China, including the BRICS’ New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union is as much a geopolitical as a commercial project.
To treat security and trade policy as distinct realms, each with its own internal logic and unconnected to the other, can only make us as confused as the sages in the Indian fable about the blind men and the elephant who did not realize that what they felt—a snake-like trunk, a leaf-like ear, a tree-like leg—were in fact parts of the same beast. The beasts, in this instance, are blocs.
Taking blocs seriously means rejecting the idea of the national interest as a list of discrete priorities, in favor of recognizing that the national interests of both dominant and subordinate powers are often defined by leaders as the preservation or expansion of the bloc to which they belong.
For the hegemonic power that orchestrates a bloc, the bloc multiplies national military power and wealth by adding foreign populations and foreign resources to its own. Given low fertility rates and the difficulty of raising productivity levels by innovation, the quickest and most effective way to boost the overall GDP of a bloc is to add more countries to it.
A bloc can even augment the status of second-tier powers. For example, the population of the Eurasian Economic Union—which includes Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia—is 179 million, compared to only 143 million for Russia itself.
Needless to say, strength based on territorial expansion as well as internal growth was the strategy of past empires. In the modern era, based on the rules of national self-determination and popular sovereignty, incorporation of additional territories by conquest would be resisted as illegitimate. But blocs that are similar to informal empires can be built up by means of security alliances and trade deals, which may be hard to distinguish from de facto colonialism where one partner is a weak protectorate and the other a great or superpower.
AT THIS point, neoclassical economists and libertarians (two overlapping sects) may object that in a global free market the size of economic blocs would not matter. That is true but irrelevant; a borderless global market has never existed and, in the absence of a world government, never will exist. In a world economy divided among great-power blocs, industries with increasing returns to scale, like manufacturing, are likely to be most productive and dynamic in the blocs with the largest integrated markets—that is to say, the internal markets of populous nation-states and even more populous blocs. Technological and commercial efficiencies enabled by scale can, in turn, permit higher growth, higher per-capita income and the possibility of raising more taxes in absolute terms, even with lower rates of taxation—taxes to be spent on, among other things, the military. This is the successful strategy the larger and richer American bloc used to drive the smaller and poorer Soviet bloc into bankruptcy. In a zero-sum, mercantilist world of rival blocs, the bigger the bloc, the better.
For the leaders of relatively weak and small countries—that is, the majority of countries in the world—membership in a bloc can also bring benefits, even if power relations within the bloc are more hierarchical than egalitarian. The exporters and importers of small nations can be guaranteed access to bloc-wide markets and suppliers, and incorporated into bloc-wide supply chains. As de facto protectorates of the bloc’s dominant nations, weak countries can engage in “free riding” when it comes to defense, spending relatively little on the military.
In addition to being united by shared security and economic interests, blocs may be united by a sense of shared identity or values. The Communist regimes in the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet republics paid lip service to Marxist-Leninist ideology. Today, not only liberal democracy in the abstract but an ever more left-wing version of it—characterized by support for multiculturalism and mass immigration—is becoming something like the official ideology of the European Union. In Europe, many members of the social elite claim to consider themselves “Europeans” first and British, French, Spanish or Greek nationals second.
But modern blocs can exist without this third element of common identity and values, on the basis of shared military and economic policies alone. Saudi Arabia remains part of the U.S. bloc, although its values could hardly be more antithetical to America’s liberal and democratic creed. And the approach to international relations, including bloc building, of the Chinese and Russian governments has been described as “sovereigntism”—a high degree of respect for (or indifference to) the internal politics and social structure of allies and clients.
Realist critics of post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy tend to attribute policies of which they disapprove to naïve idealism or utopianism. This may seem plausible, in light of the utopian rationalizations invoked by defenders of NATO expansion (“expanding the circle of market democracies”), the war in Iraq (“the global democratic revolution”) and regime change in Libya (“the responsibility to protect”). But these rationalizations for public consumption are not necessarily the actual rationales.
America’s bipartisan foreign-policy establishment treats as an article of faith the belief that the existence of the American bloc is in the national interest. From this axiom it follows that anything that strengthens the American bloc is in the national interest as well. The bloc may expand, if possible; in any event, it must not be allowed to shrink.
While the interests of the America-centered bloc are identical with the long-term interests of the United States, so this logic goes, in the short term it may be necessary to sacrifice narrowly national American interests to the imperatives of bloc maintenance. If preserving the multinational bloc requires sacrifices on the part of the American people, so be it. If some American soldiers must die demonstrating U.S. credibility to weak client states, thereby preventing some or all of the other protectorates from losing faith in America as a security guarantor, then the price is worth it, from this perspective. If some American businesses and industries must be sacrificed, in order to bribe foreign countries into joining or remaining in the bloc by means of one-sided access for their exporters to U.S. markets, then the sacrifice should be made. What is good for the American bloc is good for America.
THE TRANSACTIONAL nationalism of Donald Trump horrifies the bipartisan foreign-policy establishment, because it suggests the president does not realize that bloc maintenance is not merely one of several goals, but the overriding objective, of U.S. strategy. From the elite perspective, asking whether Americans are getting their money’s worth by protecting Japan, South Korea and rich NATO allies is tantamount to asking for a cost-benefit analysis of federal-government protection of the American South or West Coast. Most members of the foreign-policy elite can no more conceive of South Korea or Poland outside of the U.S. military bloc than they can conceive of Virginia or California outside of the United States of America. Their alarm may be premature, because Trump appears more interested in pressuring American allies to contribute more to U.S.-led alliances than in dissolving them.
Like their American counterparts, the foreign-policy establishments in European nations are not dominated by Bismarckian realists, coldly calculating on a day-to-day basis whether the costs of membership in NATO and EU outweigh the benefits, from the point of view of national interests, narrowly defined. In the campaign that culminated in the vote for Brexit last summer, it was the outsider populists who made arguments in favor of the British (or English) national interests. The British elite was almost entirely opposed. Sometimes they argued on pragmatic grounds that the cost of Brexit would be disastrously high. But it was clear that being part of the European Union, like being part of a trans-Atlantic Euro-American system, was a major part of their personal and professional identities. For most elite Britons, a British departure from the EU could only be thought of as a joke or a nightmare.
The mystery that puzzled Rip Van Winkle in our fable is solved, then. The Soviet threat may have been the original stimulus to the formation of NATO and, indirectly, of an integrated Europe. But the trans-Atlantic Euro-American bloc is so integrated, so held together by ties of military cooperation, economic interdependence and shared values, and so fundamental to the personal identity of elites on both sides of the Atlantic that it endures even in the absence of a credible Russian superpower threat, to which Putin’s limited revisionism cannot be compared.
In other regions, like East, Central and South Asia and the Persian Gulf, there is less deep transnational integration and more traditional arm’s-length alliances. And there is nothing like the common, crusading ideology of Marxism-Leninism in the former Communist bloc or the dominant, if not universal, left-liberal variant of democracy in the contemporary European Union. It is in Asia, rather than in the North Atlantic, that something like the traditional realist account of transactional national diplomacy based on calculations of discrete state interests can still be found.
But even there, in the heartland of twenty-first-century realpolitik, conventional American realists are likely to be refuted. The reason is that the offshore-balancing strategy favored by many realists, with the United States as the “holder of the balance” among multiple great powers, is likely to be rendered irrelevant by the long-term growth of Chinese wealth and power and its consequent regional hegemony.
One alternative to shifting balances of power is provided by more or less fixed geographic spheres of influence. Spheres of influence are disliked by both realists and idealists, including neoconservatives and hawkish neoliberals. But this is a relatively recent development in American history. Before the world wars, the United States channeled the Monroe Doctrine and identified its own sphere of influence. The Open Door doctrine promoted by the United States and Britain more than a century ago was compatible with European and Japanese spheres of influence within the territory of a then powerless and divided China. Although Franklin Roosevelt seems to have envisioned his “Four Policemen”—the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and China—policing their regions after World War II, the Cold War quickly became a contest among rival liberal and Communist visions for the loyalties of postcolonial nations and the “captive nations” of Soviet-controlled Europe. In practice, of course, the United States and USSR defended their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Central America. But the idea that the weak neighbors of a regional great power or superpower should defer to the local hegemon fell out of favor. Indeed, in November 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry declared, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”
One interpretation of this would be that the historic Monroe Doctrine had lost its relevance in the post–Cold War period, in which the United States asserted its exclusive sphere of influence as the world’s only superpower, not only in the Americas but also in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and every other region. Today, however, America’s project of converting hegemony within its Cold War bloc into universal hegemony—turning the entire planet into a single sphere of influence, as it were—has collapsed thanks to Chinese and Russian resistance and the war-weariness of the American public. But the U.S. foreign-policy establishment refuses to acknowledge the failure of America’s recent bid for global hegemony, pretending instead that the so-called “liberal world order” is under unjustified assault by China, Russia and perhaps Iran. Because China and Russia are engaged in moderate pushback against the American bloc in Asia and Europe, they are supposed to be threats to liberalism, the rule of law and global democracy. Meanwhile, America’s illiberal and antidemocratic allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, responsible for promoting Salafist jihadist proxies in Syria and elsewhere, are supposed to be understood as states that uphold the liberal world order. This is just propaganda, of a particularly Orwellian kind. What the bipartisan U.S. foreign-policy elite and its allies abroad call the liberal world order is nothing more than the contemporary American bloc, like the “Free World” of the Cold War.
THE CURRENT conflicts with China and Russia are not bumps on the road to U.S. global hegemony but barricades. There is not the slightest chance that Chinese and Russian regimes, of any character, no matter how liberal or democratic, will ever accept as legitimate a permanent U.S. military presence along their borders. Because the stakes are too low for the American public to support risking wars with either great power, the most likely long-term outcomes are either the neutralization of contested interstitial areas like Ukraine and the South China Sea, or the laying down of new, militarized tripwires in these areas like the Iron Curtain of the Cold War.
In either case, the nightmare scenario invoked as a warning by proponents of global hegemony—the division of the world among regional blocs and spheres of influence—will have come to pass. There would be neither enduring, widely accepted U.S. global military hegemony nor a rule-governed global free market. Instead, there would be, at least in the short run, a version of the world envisioned by Burnham and Orwell: an American-led “Oceania,” a Chinese “Eastasia” bloc of some kind, and a Russia-centered “Eurasia” much smaller and weaker than the former USSR. Over time, India might join the United States and China as a leading military and economic power, perhaps as the center of its own bloc—let us call it “Southasia.” Populist nationalism within Europe will doom any attempt to turn the continent into a centralized, independent bloc capable of acting as a unit in world affairs. Instead, Europe may remain a U.S. protectorate, drift into neutrality or, in the worst-case scenario, become a “shatterbelt” for which external powers once again compete.
There is nothing in this analysis at odds with classical realism. But it suggests that the favored strategy of many contemporary American realists, offshore balancing, may be as irrelevant as the now-moribund global-hegemony strategy of the neoconservatives and neoliberals.
Offshore balancing assumes that entry into, and exit from, alliances is relatively easy. It also requires a sufficient number of major powers, not just two or three. But a world of a few immense, integrated transnational blocs is not a world of loose, easily revocable arm’s-length alliances, in which rivals periodically switch sides. Arguably, that view of world politics projects an anachronistic version of nineteenth-century continental European power politics on the less fluid world of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.
What if the world of the future, instead, is more like the world that existed during most of premodern history, divided among a small number of large multinational empires—the Chinese, the Persian, the Roman—which expanded until they bumped up against each other at their edges? In a world of military-industrial blocs, as in the older system of agrarian tributary empires, there could be centuries of low-level skirmishes along the frontiers without the conflicts escalating to wars of annihilation.
If I am correct, then Rip Van Winkle may even be more disappointed if he goes back to sleep now and wakes up in 2050 or 2100. By then, it is possible that power politics will have been transformed beyond recognition. But it seems more likely that the major powers, as well as their spheres of influence, will seem boringly familiar. The United States will still be the hegemon of North America, perhaps of Europe, parts of the Asia-Pacific zone and other regions as well. China will have a sphere of influence yet to be defined. And there will be smoldering flash points where these and other lesser blocs intersect. Phases of cold war among the blocs will alternate with phases of cold peace. Within blocs, there may be a high degree of free trade, investment and migration, but economic relations among blocs will tend to be conflictual and governed by the zero-sum logic of strategic mercantilism.
What about a united world of truly independent nations sharing a global free market and policed by a benevolent United States or the Security Council? Rip Van Winkle will find that world only in his dreams.
Michael Lind is a senior fellow at New America and author of The American Way of Strategy. He is a contributing editor at the National Interest.
This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “Blocpolitik.”