Finally, geopolitical revisionism is alive and well in the Middle East. Iran, the primary state author of that revisionism, is not in the same power-political league as China or even Russia. But it is a proud civilization that never accepted a Middle Eastern order led by Washington, as well as a revolutionary state that has long sought to export its ideology and influence. Amid the vacuum of regional power that was created first by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and then by the Arab Spring, Iran has been making its bid for primacy. “Our borders have spread,” announced Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Quds Force, in 2011. “We must witness victories in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.”30
Iran has sought those victories by intervening, either directly or through proxy forces, in conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq; by promoting a sectarian agenda that seeks to polarize the region and create wedges for Iranian influence; and by investing in its nuclear program and niche capabilities such as ballistic missiles and special operations forces. As of mid-2018, the nuclear program had apparently been frozen for several years (although how long that would remain the case was becoming increasingly uncertain), but other initiatives have proceeded apace. And if Iran has fewer material means than other revisionist powers, it compensates—like Moscow—with asymmetric strategies and a high tolerance for risk.
Iran used the Syrian civil war, for instance, as an occasion to flood that country with Shia militias, to push its military presence ever closer to Israel’s northern frontier, to arm its proxy, Hezbollah, with ever more advanced missiles and other weapons, and even to launch its first-ever military attacks on Israel itself. Likewise, it used the Yemeni civil war to provide Huthi rebels with the ballistic missiles that they subsequently fired at Saudi Arabia. Through these and other gambits, Iran has come into deeper conflict and even violence with traditional U.S. partners such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and it has fueled—while also benefiting from—intensifying strife across the Middle East. Most worrying, it has steadily ratcheted up the chances of an outright war that could easily take on regional dimensions.
Each of these geopolitical challenges is different, and each reflects the distinctive interests, ambitions, and history of the country undertaking it. Yet there is growing cooperation between the countries that are challenging the regional pillars of the U.S.-led order. Russia and China have collaborated on issues such as energy, sales and development of military technology, opposition to additional U.S. military deployments on the Korean peninsula, and naval exercises from the South China Sea to the Baltic. In Syria, Iran provided the shock troops that helped keep Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, in power, as Moscow provided the air power and the diplomatic cover. “Our cooperation can isolate America,” supreme leader Ali Khamenei told Putin in 2017. More broadly, what links these challenges together is their opposition to the constellation of power, norms, and relationships that the U.S.-led order entails, and in their propensity to use violence, coercion, and intimidation as means of making that opposition effective. Taken collectively, these challenges constitute a geopolitical sea change from the post-Cold War era.
The revival of great-power competition entails higher international tensions than the world has known for decades, and the revival of arms races, security dilemmas, and other artifacts of a more dangerous past. It entails sharper conflicts over the international rules of the road on issues ranging from freedom of navigation to the illegitimacy of altering borders by force, and intensifying competitions over states that reside at the intersection of rival powers’ areas of interest. It requires confronting the prospect that rival powers could overturn the favorable regional balances that have underpinned the U.S.-led order for decades, and that they might construct rival spheres of influence from which America and the liberal ideas it has long promoted would be excluded. Finally, it necessitates recognizing that great-power rivalry could lead to great-power war, a prospect that seemed to have followed the Soviet empire onto the ash heap of history.
Both Beijing and Moscow are, after all, optimizing their forces and exercising aggressively in preparation for potential conflicts with the United States and its allies; Russian doctrine explicitly emphasizes the limited use of nuclear weapons to achieve escalation dominance in a war with Washington. In Syria, U.S. and Russian forces even came into deadly contact in early 2018. American airpower decimated a contingent of government-sponsored Russian mercenaries that was attacking a base at which U.S. troops were present, an incident demonstrating the increasing boldness of Russian operations and the corresponding potential for escalation. The world has not yet returned to the epic clashes for global dominance that characterized the twentieth century, but it has returned to the historical norm of great-power struggle, with all the associated dangers.
Those dangers may be even greater than most observers appreciate, because if today’s great-power competitions are still most intense at the regional level, who is to say where these competitions will end? By all appearances, Russia does not simply want to be a “regional power” (as Obama cuttingly described it) that dominates South Ossetia and Crimea. It aspires to the deep European and extra-regional impact that previous incarnations of the Russian state enjoyed. Why else would Putin boast about how far his troops can drive into Eastern Europe? Why else would Moscow be deploying military power into the Middle East? Why else would it be continuing to cultivate intelligence and military relationships in regions as remote as Latin America?
Likewise, China is today focused primarily on securing its own geopolitical neighborhood, but its ambitions for tomorrow are clearly much bolder. Beijing probably does not envision itself fully overthrowing the international order, simply because it has profited far too much from the U.S.-anchored global economy. Yet China has nonetheless positioned itself for a global challenge to U.S. influence. Chinese military forces are deploying ever farther from China’s immediate periphery; Beijing has projected power into the Arctic and established bases and logistical points in the Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa. Popular Chinese movies depict Beijing replacing Washington as the dominant actor in sub-Saharan Africa—a fictional representation of a real-life effort long under way. The Belt and Road Initiative bespeaks an aspiration to link China to countries throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe; BRI, AIIB, and RCEP look like the beginning of an alternative institutional architecture to rival Washington’s. In 2017, Xi Jinping told the Nineteenth National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that Beijing could now “take center stage in the world” and act as an alternative to U.S. leadership.
These ambitions may or may not be realistic. But they demonstrate just how significantly the world’s leading authoritarian powers desire to shift the global environment over time. The revisionism we are seeing today may therefore be only the beginning. As China’s power continues to grow, or if it is successful in dominating the Western Pacific, it will surely move on to grander endeavors. If Russia reconsolidates control over the former Soviet space, it may seek to bring parts of the former Warsaw Pact to heel. Historically, this has been a recurring pattern of great-power behavior—interests expand with power, the appetite grows with the eating, risk-taking increases as early gambles are seen to pay off. This pattern is precisely why the revival of great-power competition is so concerning—because geopolitical revisionism by unsatisfied major powers has so often presaged intensifying international conflict, confrontation, and even war. The great-power behavior occurring today represents the warning light flashing on the dashboard. It tells us there may be still-greater traumas to come.
The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order. Section II from Chapter 6.
Hal Brands is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs in the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Charles Edel is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and previously served on the U.S. Secretary of State's policy planning staff.