America and the Geopolitics of Upheaval

America and the Geopolitics of Upheaval

The friendly contours of the post–Cold War system have given way to a darker and more challenging environment.

“THE ESSENCE of a revolution is that it appears to contemporaries as a series of more or less unrelated upheavals,” Henry Kissinger wrote in 1969. “But the crises which form the headlines of the day are symptoms of deep-seated structural problems.” Kissinger wrote this passage as the postwar international system was coming under unprecedented strain, with profound shifts in the global distribution of power driving incessant disruptions in U.S. foreign policy. His admonition applies just as well today, at the onset of a new era of upheaval.

During Donald Trump’s presidency and after, U.S. foreign policy is likely to be wracked by crises. The instability and violence along a resurgent Russia’s periphery, the growing frictions with an increasingly assertive China, the provocations of a rapidly nuclearizing North Korea and the profound chaos at work throughout the Middle East: these and other challenges have recently tested U.S. officials and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. The world now seems less stable and more dangerous than at any time since the Cold War; the number and severity of global crises are increasing.

Yet crises do not occur in a vacuum; they are symptomatic of deeper changes in the international order. Accordingly, America’s responses will be ill-informed and astrategic unless Washington first forms a deeper conception of the current moment.

The geopolitical changes underway are often framed in terms of “polarity”—the debate on whether America’s “unipolar moment” is over and a multipolar world has emerged. But this debate is misleading. On the one hand, discussions of polarity frequently exaggerate American decline, obscuring the fact that even though Washington’s international superiority has diminished, its global lead over any single challenger remains quite impressive. On the other hand, the polarity debate actually obscures both the degree and breadth of the ongoing changes in the international system, and of the challenges facing American officials.

The fundamental fact of international politics today is that the post–Cold War era has ended. The defining features of that period were uncontested U.S. and Western primacy, marked declines in ideological struggle and great-power conflict, and remarkable global cooperation in addressing key international-security challenges. Now, however, the world has returned to a more normal—which is to say, more dangerous and unsettled—state.

The core characteristics of the emerging era are the gradual erosion of U.S. and Western primacy, revived great-power competition across all three key regions of Eurasia, renewed global ideological struggle, and empowerment of the agents of international strife and disorder. What makes the present period so tumultuous is that these forces often compound one another’s destabilizing effects; moreover, their collective impact is magnified by a growing uncertainty about whether America and other traditional defenders of the international system will continue playing that role in the future. American primacy is not dead, in other words, and true multipolarity is still a long ways off. But U.S. primacy is far more contested than at any time in a quarter-century, and the friendly contours of the post–Cold War system have given way to a darker and more challenging environment.

THE BEST way to understand the present era is to compare it to the previous one. The post–Cold War era was defined by four phenomena that made it historically favorable to American interests.

The first was uncontested U.S. primacy. America emerged from the Cold War with clear economic dominance, possessing nearly 25 percent of global GDP in 1994. It controlled nearly 40 percent of world defense outlays, along with utterly unrivaled advantages in global power-projection capabilities. Crucially, these capabilities not only gave Washington an enormous lead over any geopolitical competitor; they also provided the ability—as Saddam Hussein discovered in 1991—to marshal decisive military might in virtually all the key strategic regions around the world. In the nineteenth century, the British ship of the line symbolized London’s global primacy; in the late twentieth century, the American carrier strike group symbolized an even more imposing preeminence.

Nor was American dominance purely unilateral, because it was powerfully accentuated by the strengths of the broader Western coalition. In 1994, America’s treaty allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific accounted for 47 percent of global GDP and 35 percent of global military spending, giving Washington and its closest friends upward of 70 percent of global economic power and military spending. Throughout the post–Cold War era, allied involvement thus lent added force to U.S. diplomacy on key issues of international order; from the Gulf War to the war in Afghanistan, allied contributions reinforced America’s ability to project military power overseas. This was no balance of power; it was one of the most pronounced imbalances the world had ever seen.

U.S. dominance was also evident in a second phenomenon—the decline of international ideological competition. Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis has been much derided, but it captured three indisputable facts about the post–Cold War era: that democracy and markets were spreading more widely than ever before; that there was no credible global competitor to the liberal-capitalist model; and that even former U.S. enemies, such as Russia, and authoritarian states, such as China, were making unprecedented efforts to integrate into the liberal order either economically, politically or both. To be clear, Western concepts of human rights and political democracy were far from fully accepted in these countries, and Russian and Chinese leaders—among others—sooner or later came to see liberal proselytism as a grave threat. But the intense ideological struggles of the twentieth century were clearly over, and the liberal model seemed incontestably ascendant.

These first two phenomena related to a third—the remarkable great-power comity of the post–Cold War era. The end of the Cold War did not, as was widely expected, see a fragmenting of America’s alliances, or a resurgence of Japanese and German revisionism. Rather, the major Western powers remained tied to America, largely because Washington continued to provide crucial global public goods such as security and leadership of an open global economy. Moreover, the sheer geopolitical dominance of the Western coalition meant that it was dangerous if not impossible for countries like Russia and China to mount serious great-power challenges of their own. Admittedly, there remained sometimes-serious disagreements between the United States and these countries, over issues from NATO enlargement to Taiwan, and those disagreements would grow more pronounced with time. But the danger of great-power war was nonetheless historically low during the 1990s, and great-power rivalries were more muted than at any time since the Concert of Europe.

All of these characteristics fed into a final post–Cold War phenomenon: remarkable multilateral cooperation in addressing the relatively mild international disorder of the day. With great-power conflict dormant, U.S. foreign policy and the international community focused largely on combating lesser geopolitical “spoilers,” from ethnic cleansing to mass-casualty terrorism to the actions of aggressive regional powers such as Iraq or North Korea. These efforts, in turn, were greatly aided by the relatively tranquil state of international politics. The absence of great-power conflict made it far easier to organize broad coalitions to confront malevolent actors, whether Saddam Hussein in 1990–91 or Al Qaeda after 9/11. In the same vein, great-power peace allowed America and its allies to devote increasing attention to other forms of post–Cold War disorder. The fact that NATO could focus on “out of area” interventions for roughly two decades after the Soviet collapse, for instance, was directly related to the paucity of more traditional geopolitical threats.

It would be a mistake, of course, to exaggerate how benign or pliable the post–Cold War environment really was. The “global disorder” of the period hardly seemed mild for the victims of catastrophic terrorism or ethnic cleansing; U.S. primacy was not omnipotence, as Washington’s travails in places from Mogadishu to Srebrenica to Helmand amply demonstrated. But by any meaningful historical comparison, the structure of international politics was uniquely conducive to the promotion of U.S. interests and ideals—a fact that is now the source of some nostalgia as the global system changes in five significant ways.

THE FIRST key structural shift underway is the erosion of U.S. and Western primacy. It is incorrect to see this change as a transition from unipolarity to multipolarity, for true multipolarity will not arrive anytime soon. The United States still possesses substantial economic advantages over its closest competitor, China, namely an $18 trillion GDP that (as of 2015) was more than $7 trillion larger than China’s, and a per-capita GDP roughly four times that of China. U.S. defense spending also remains around three times that of China, and Washington maintains enormous advantages in the power-projection capabilities—aircraft carriers, advanced tactical aircraft, nuclear-powered submarines and others—that allow it to command the global commons and exert disproportionate influence around the world.

What has happened over the past fifteen years, however, is that the extent of U.S. and Western primacy has diminished. The U.S. shares of global wealth and military spending have declined from 25 percent and 42 percent, respectively, in 2004, to around 22 and 34 percent in 2015. The drop-off among America’s allies has been more severe. U.S. allies in Europe and the Asia-Pacific commanded 47 percent of global GDP and 35 percent of global military spending in 1994; those shares had fallen to 39 and 25 percent, respectively, by 2015. Moreover, many of America’s most powerful allies—particularly in Europe—have undergone severe military decline. The British Royal Navy once ruled the waves, but now struggles to rule even the waters around the home islands; the German army faces equipment shortfalls so severe that its troops have had to exercise with broomsticks in place of machine guns. Western overmatch remains impressive by historical standards, but the global playing field is slanted much less dramatically than before.

Meanwhile, the relative positions of America’s principal competitors have improved significantly. Russian economic power remains unimpressive, but an aggressive military modernization program has roughly doubled defense spending over a decade while also developing the capabilities needed to compete with the West—airborne assault units, special-operations forces, ballistic and other missile systems, and anti-access/area-denial capabilities, among others. China, meanwhile, has expanded its share of global wealth more than threefold, from 3.3 to 11.8 percent, between 1994 and 2015, and its share of world military spending more than fivefold, from 2.2 to 12.2 percent. As in Russia’s case, China’s military buildup has featured the tools—ballistic and cruise missiles, diesel-electric and nuclear submarines, advanced air defenses, and fourth-generation fighters—needed to offset longstanding U.S. advantages in the Asia-Pacific, as well as capabilities, such as aircraft carriers, needed to project Chinese power even further afield. The uncontested U.S. primacy of the 1990s has become the highly contested primacy of today.

This is no academic distinction; the pernicious effects of this shift are already being seen. The decline of allied military power has made it harder for those allies to defend themselves against growing security threats, and to make more than token military contributions to addressing global challenges such as the rise of the Islamic State. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously warned in 2011 that NATO faced a “dim if not dismal future” if European capabilities continued to erode; American frustration has only become more pronounced since then. More fundamentally still, the changing power balance means that U.S. rivals and adversaries now have greater ability to shift the international order to suit their own preferences, a factor driving a second key shift in global politics today.

IF GREAT-POWER comity was the post–Cold War norm, great-power competition is the standard today. Authoritarian rivals that were never fully reconciled to the post–Cold War order, and accepted it only to the degree compelled by U.S. and Western primacy, are now using their greater relative power to push back against that order in key geopolitical regions from East Asia to the Middle East to eastern Europe. Because Washington’s principal adversaries can concentrate their resources regionally, rather than having to distribute them globally, the power shifts that have occurred in recent years are having outsized effects at the regional level. And because the regional orders now being challenged have been the foundation of the broader post–Cold War system, these countries are effectively subverting the system “from the bottom up.”

Consider Chinese behavior in East Asia. Chinese leaders always saw America’s post–Cold War dominance as a transitory condition to be suffered for a time, not something to be welcomed forever. And so as China’s geopolitical potential has soared, Beijing has taken bolder steps to erect a Sino-centric regional order. It has asserted expansive maritime claims and used techniques such as island building to shift facts on the ground without risking a premature military clash with America. It has challenged longstanding norms such as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and steadily increased efforts to coerce its neighbors. It has probed and worked to weaken U.S. alliances and partnerships, by simultaneously wooing and intimidating America’s regional friends. Finally, Beijing has conducted a major military buildup focused precisely on capabilities that will give it dominance over its neighbors and prevent the United States from intervening in their defense.

These efforts are now having an accumulating effect. Chinese coercion has dramatically altered perceptions of momentum and power in the region, while the Chinese buildup has made the outcome of a Sino-American war over Taiwan or other regional hotspots far more doubtful. Chinese economic diplomacy has drawn many countries in the region closer into Beijing’s economic orbit. “America has lost” the struggle for regional supremacy, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines announced in 2016—an exaggeration, surely, but a marker of how contested the region has become.

Great-power competition is even more unvarnished in Europe, where a militarily resurgent Russia is reasserting lost influence and undoing key aspects of the post–Cold War settlement. Moscow has waged wars of conquest against Georgia and Ukraine; it has worked to undermine NATO and the European Union through efforts ranging from paramilitary subversion, to military intimidation, to financial support for anti-EU and anti-NATO politicians and other intervention in Western political processes. In doing all of this, Russia has fundamentally contested the notion of a post–Cold War Europe whole, free and at peace; it has challenged—with some success—the institutions that have long maintained security and prosperity in the region. And as with China, these actions have been underwritten by a military buildup that has restored Russian overmatch along NATO’s exposed eastern flank and enhanced Moscow’s ability to project power as far afield as the Middle East. Russia has become an ambitious great power again: it is asserting its prerogatives in ways that only seem anomalous in contrast to the remarkable cooperation of the post–Cold War era.

Finally, geopolitical revisionism is alive and well in the Middle East. Iran is not in the same power-political class as Russia or China, but it is a regional power seeking to assert regional mastery. It is doing so via the use of proxies and its own forces in conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, via the weaponization of sectarianism in countries across the region, and via investments in asymmetric capabilities such as ballistic missiles and special-operations forces. This agenda has led Tehran into conflict with U.S. security partners such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; it has contributed significantly to the instability that plagues the region.

Each of these geopolitical challenges is different, of course. But taken collectively, they represent a geopolitical sea change from the post–Cold War era. The revival of great-power competition entails sharper international tensions than have been known for decades, and the return of Cold War phenomena such as arms races and security dilemmas. It entails intensifying conflicts over the global rules of the road, on issues from freedom of navigation in the South China Sea to the illegitimacy of altering borders by force. It entails starker struggles over states that reside at the intersection of rival great powers’ spheres of influence, such as the Philippines, Ukraine and Iraq. Finally, it raises the prospect that great-power rivalry could lead to great-power war—a phenomenon that seemed to have followed the Soviet Union onto the ash heap of history with the end of the Cold War. The world has not yet returned to the titanic geopolitical struggles of the twentieth century, but it is returning to the historical norm of great-power strife—with all the dangers that entails.

AS GREAT-POWER competition has returned, so has global ideological struggle. If the post–Cold War era featured a widespread assumption that the dominance of the liberal political-economic model was incontestable, the current era is seeing the revival of authoritarian challenges and the reemergence of ideological differences as a driver of geopolitical conflict. Today’s world is rife not just with geopolitical revisionism, but with ideological revisionism as well.

To begin with, the spread of democracy has stalled. Between 1974 and 2000, the number of electoral democracies tripled, from thirty-nine to 120. Yet the number of electoral democracies has remained roughly stagnant since then, and in every year since 2006 more countries have experienced declines in freedom than increases. From the rise of antidemocratic leaders in Venezuela and Turkey, to the erosion of democratic norms within NATO countries such as Poland and Hungary, democracy’s travails are an increasingly global phenomenon.

Authoritarian models, meanwhile, are making a comeback. Tenacious dictators have mobilized the power of technology to better monitor and repress dissent. Moreover, the economic and social difficulties many democracies have encountered in recent years have created an opening for unabashedly authoritarian leaders. Hungary’s Viktor Orban made global headlines in 2014 when he castigated the debilities of liberal society and declared the ascendancy of the “illiberal state.” Likewise, powerful authoritarian states are assiduously working not just to repress internal challenges, but to thwart and reverse democracy’s advance overseas. Russia and China are supporting besieged authoritarian regimes, while also resisting efforts to punish gross human-rights violations through the United Nations. In recent years, in fact, all three of America’s major geopolitical competitors—Russia, Iran and China—have joined forces to support Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria, through measures ranging from intelligence and economic support to full-on military intervention. The end of history has ended; the global ideological battle has been joined once more.

That ideological battle, in turn, has reemerged as a marker and cause of great-power rivalry. The United States and its largely democratic allies increasingly find themselves in conflict with revisionist authoritarian governments in Russia and China. This is no coincidence. Opposing domestic political structures fuel mutual mistrust; they create differing visions of what type of international order is legitimate and desirable. Washington has long sought a world full of democracies, and it has viewed the persistence of powerful authoritarian states as an affront to that project. Russian and Chinese leaders are desperate to make the world safe for authoritarians, and view U.S. foreign policy as a menace to that project. A great hope of the post–Cold War world was that ideological convergence would lead to greater geopolitical harmony. Alas, today ideological struggle and great-power conflict increasingly go hand in hand.

THESE FIRST three characteristics relate to a fourth marker of the evolving international system: an intensification of global disorder. Throughout the post–Cold War era, U.S. policymakers feared that bipolarity’s end would unleash new or previously repressed forms of upheaval. And although that era has ended, we now see not an abatement, but an exacerbation of upheaval. As Hedley Bull wrote in The Anarchical Society, international politics features the continual clash between the forces of order and disorder. Today, due to factors ranging from rapid technological change to the disruptions caused by globalization, the agents of disorder seem more empowered than at any time in decades.

That empowerment is evident in phenomena that might otherwise seem unconnected. Take the emergence of super-spoilers—actors that cannot remake the international order, but can disrupt it fundamentally. North Korea now boasts an increasingly robust nuclear arsenal and is doggedly building an intercontinental delivery capability, controlled by an alarmingly bellicose leadership. Pyongyang is thus developing continually greater ability to underwrite its perpetually provocative behavior, and to threaten its opponents in the region and beyond with greater damage than ever before. Then there is the Islamic State. Although its military fortunes are in decline, the Islamic State has shown unprecedented ability, among nonstate actors, to foster chaos in a crucial geopolitical region, to master the use of technology for propaganda and recruiting purposes and to command or inspire acts of violence around the globe. Concern with rogue actors is nothing new, but not since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 1991 have the rogues been so capable of profound geopolitical disruption as they are today.

The rise of the Islamic State also illuminates another aspect of intensifying disorder, which is that contemporary instability is now manifesting itself on a scale not seen for many years. To say that today’s Middle East is in crisis is a laughable understatement; the region is suffering a generalized breakdown of order comparable to what befell Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Military conflicts are raging in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, the Levant and Libya; violent instability flourishes nearly from one end of the region to the other. The traditional authoritarian Arab state model has been undermined in some countries and collapsed in others; international borders have been rendered irrelevant. Whether—let alone when—the Middle East will be put back together is anyone’s guess; in the meantime, Middle Eastern instability has spread to neighboring areas such as Europe, with refugee flows and terrorist attacks having profound political and security effects.

A final manifestation of intensified global disorder is the proliferation of issues that are increasingly difficult to address through existing international fora. In recent years, global governance has worked fairly well on some issues—addressing the 2007–8 financial crisis, or suppressing piracy off the Horn of Africa. But on other issues, from the threats posed by cyberespionage and cyberwarfare, to the dilemmas of reconciling state sovereignty to the protection of human rights, to the challenges of making globalization work for communities that often feel themselves battered by impersonal economic and technological forces, the complexity of transnational problems seems to be outpacing the capacity of extant institutions. All of these issues contribute to an international environment in which instability has taken on alarming dimensions. And if it was hard enough for the international community to address such issues amid great-power comity, it is now harder still amid surging great-power competition.

Compare the painfully slow, but ultimately effective, international response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the 1990s with the utterly ineffective efforts to address a greater catastrophe in Syria today. In the former case, U.S. dominance and decent relations with Russia made possible international consensus on the need to use force in Bosnia, and Moscow even participated in the subsequent NATO-led peacekeeping mission. In the latter case, resurgent Russian rivalry with Washington has consistently frustrated efforts to bring the Syrian Civil War to an end.

Great-power conflict has also complicated efforts to develop international norms regarding cyberspace. In fact, as demonstrated by aggressive Russian and Chinese hacking of U.S. systems—including Moscow’s effort to influence the 2016 presidential election—cyberspace has become an arena for geopolitical rivalry. The contested nature of the new global politics is exacerbated by the fact that the sources of today’s international upheaval often exacerbate one another.

THAT UPHEAVAL, in turn, is magnified by a fifth characteristic of contemporary global politics: pronounced uncertainty about the willpower of the chief defenders of the post–Cold War system.

The European allies, for instance, have long represented America’s most crucial partners in upholding international stability, yet Europe is now experiencing a profound systemic crisis. The fate of the European Union—and thus the basic cohesion of Europe—is uncertain at best, in view of Brexit and the anti-integration sentiment roiling countries from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. Beneath a veneer of unity, geopolitical divisions are also increasing. Countries like Greece and Italy urge a return to normalized relations with Russia; polling indicates that populations in many NATO member countries are unenthusiastic about defending the alliance’s easternmost members if they are attacked. Illiberal movements are on the rise, tarnishing Europe’s image as a bulwark of democratic values. Stagnant economies and excessive government debt are sapping the vitality of many European societies. Whether the European project is unraveling is hard to say, but Europe’s capacity to exert a stabilizing influence in a more ominous international environment has surely been undermined. And meanwhile, U.S. leadership is also facing its greatest crisis in decades.

That crisis has deeper origins than many observers realize. There was always likely to be a certain ennui with American globalism after the Cold War, for the threat that had originally catalyzed that globalism—the Soviet Union—had vanished. That ennui temporarily retreated before the missionary zeal that followed 9/11, but it returned with a vengeance after two frustrating wars. Barack Obama called for a return to nation building at home, and by 2013, 52 percent of Americans, the highest share in decades, thought that the country should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” More recently, of course, the crisis of American leadership has been manifested in the election of a president who has assiduously stoked domestic grievances with globalization, and who has framed America’s traditional international responsibilities as sucker bets that have allowed other nations to enrich themselves at Washington’s expense. What Donald Trump’s rise thus augurs, in the eyes of many American internationalists, is not a return to isolationism, but a retreat from the idea that Washington should bear the primary burdens of global stability and prosperity, because doing so serves its own interests as well.

Predictions of such an American retreat have been proven wrong before, of course, and they may be proven wrong again. But there is now deep uncertainty about U.S. policy, and that uncertainty is itself destabilizing. It may promote hedging by U.S. allies who no longer believe that America’s security commitments are ironclad; it may provoke sharper challenges from aggressors who assess that the restraining forces arrayed against them are no longer so purposeful or unified. It may hasten the decay of liberal institutions like the EU and compound the stresses on the global trading system. Most broadly, if Washington behaves more erratically in global affairs—and there are already signs of this, such as Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris climate accord, and his berating of traditional U.S. allies—then the perception of U.S. steadiness that has underpinned the international order could be eroded. A period of growing turmoil is a bad time to stoke uncertainty about America’s traditionally stabilizing global role, but this is just what is happening today. The effects on international politics are unlikely to be either trivial or benign.

“THE CURRENT international environment is in turmoil,” Kissinger wrote in 1969, “because its essential elements are all in flux simultaneously.” This diagnosis is just as apt today. U.S. officials will encounter myriad crises in the coming years, on issues from great-power relations to nuclear proliferation to counterterrorism. Yet underlying these challenges is the fact of an international system undergoing profound structural change. The international order is being shaken by declining U.S. and Western overmatch, resurgent geopolitical revisionism and ideological conflict, intensified global disarray, and sharpening questions about the future of U.S. and European leadership. During the post–Cold War era, the primary—and generally positive—characteristics of international affairs were mutually reinforcing; today, these destabilizing factors are now compounding one another’s adverse effects.

Each of the issues identified here will be difficult enough to resolve on its own; positioning America to grapple effectively with the combination of structural changes at work today will be a task extending beyond any single presidency. That work should begin from three preliminary observations.

First, it would be a grave mistake to try to evade the current challenges by retreating into a “Fortress America” mentality. It is still premature to say which of the trends described here will ultimately prove to be transient, and which will become lasting elements of international politics. Moreover, a U.S. withdrawal would hardly mitigate the growing disorder; it would simply exacerbate the disruptive trends and increase the prospect that those trends would eventually reach out and touch America itself. Finally, the United States retains many comparative strengths over its adversaries and challengers, and those strengths still give it an enormous—albeit somewhat reduced—capacity to shape the international system. It is the art of statesmanship for policymakers to maximize the nation’s advantages and exploit its adversaries’ weaknesses. Doing so requires a prior commitment to actively influencing global affairs rather than retreating from them.

Second, making such a commitment requires confronting the question of whether the American public is willing to sustain such a role. There are many reasons it should be willing to do so; U.S. engagement has been vital to shaping an international order in which America has been relatively secure and enormously prosperous. Yet the public mood is nonetheless ambivalent. Whether a consensus in support of a robust American internationalism can be resolidified remains to be seen. What is clear is that supporters of that tradition will have to go back to first principles if they are to make a compelling case; they must once again articulate the basic logic of policies that American internationalists have long taken for granted. Making that case, in turn, will require a national leadership that is willing to recognize and bet on the resilience and resourcefulness of the American people—that is to say, it will require leaders who recognize the things that have made America great in the past and continue to make it great today.

Third, and most importantly, addressing the current state of affairs will require recognizing the fullness of what the United States is up against. The history of global politics since World War II suggests that both American leadership and the liberal international system have been capable of regenerating themselves when necessary. Indeed, the United States and its geopolitical partners have rebounded from situations that looked far worse—as was the case in the 1970s, for instance—before. But doing so again today will require more than pursuing specific policies aimed at particular problems. It will require forming a broader conception of just how much global politics have changed, and the way in which particular dangers or crises are rooted in this larger structural transformation. Only once the intellectual work of apprehending the basic nature of the international environment is completed can the essential policy work required to constructively tackle its challenges proceed.

Hal Brands is senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) and Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Eric Edelman is counselor at CSBA and the Hertog Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at SAIS.

This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “The Upheaval.”

Image: An M1A2 main battle tank assigned to 1st Battalion, 35nd Armored Regiment breaches obstacles during AWA 17.1 at Fort Bliss on October 2016.