Putin’s Russia appears less focused on an alternative global order than on its irredentist agenda—Crimea being the most ostentatious—to glue together as many pieces of the former USSR as possible and re-establish itself as a world power—and a potential spoiler if it is ignored. Its Eurasian, ethno-nationalist, Russian Orthodox traditionalism has generated some international appeal among white nationalists, but it appears primarily a domestic political device to rationalize Moscow’s kleptocracy—one increasingly challenged by COVID-19, demographic decline, and economic stagnation.
Both Russia and China are pursuing spheres of influence. In Moscow’s case, this is the former Soviet Union, along with a larger footprint in the Middle East and globally. Beijing, while prioritizing East Asia, through its BRI it seeks to build influence across the Eurasian landmass, and with massive loans and investment in Africa and Latin America as well. In addition, its “united front” tactics seek to build networks of influence in the United States and elsewhere. Its assertive maritime activities, in defiance of international law, is “enforcing sovereignty” over contested reefs and islets in the South China Sea, creating a fait accompli, a bit like Crimea, reclaiming islets with a “great wall of sand” and military installations.
In theory, the United States opposes sphere of influence geopolitics, which the U.S.-enforced rules-based order had, until recently, largely precluded. But as Graham Allison has argued, the United States has de facto opted to live with many of the spheres of influence carved out in this century (and in the previous century, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968). In the cases of Crimea and previous Russian actions toward Georgia, the United States has not defined them as vital interests to go to war over; with regard to China, despite increasingly high-profile freedom of navigation operations and escalated military deployments, the United States, while rejecting the legality of Beijing’s territorial claims, as did the World Court at the Hague in 2016, has not contested the revised status quo China is creating in the South China Sea. In effect, there appears to be something of a hybrid system, fraying multilateral rules-based institutions and norms, growing major power competition and a grudging toleration of spheres of interest in a world of a diffused distribution of power. What are China’s legitimate interests, and what sort of bigger footprint can the United States live with? Similarly, with regard to Russia, what is required for a business-like modus vivendi?
The current situation appears to be a downward spiral of incremental disorder and confrontation. The evidence strongly suggests that a stable equilibrium, perhaps even human survival, requires some fundamental constraints, agreed standards and rules among major powers. It is difficult to conceive of a stable, prosperous bifurcated world order, with a core of like-minded democratic states shaping rules and norms, and a hope that China, Russia, and their clients would simply be rule-takers. Rather, it would more likely resemble a less functional version of current reality, careening toward greater misfortune.
This is not to say avoiding such a fate will be quick or easy. Indeed, it may take a catastrophic shock before the major powers bottom out and gain a new sobriety. The recommendations the authors, and many similar treatises offer are mostly sensible, but much easier said than done. They tend to understate U.S. political malaise and buoyant populist nationalism worldwide impeding corrective action and assume an inflated sense of U.S. leverage. To their credit, they point out that the United States has an over-militarized foreign policy and has failed to coherently employ the tools of national power to maximize its leverage, and recognize that a radically different approach to U.S. allies and partners is required. However, some are well-trodden ground or too facile: phase down in the Middle East; ramp up the U.S. military posture in Asia to increase leverage with China; condition dialogue with Russia on non-interference in U.S. elections and resolution of the Ukraine conflict; reform and strengthen multilateral institutions; enhance ties to India; and create a “competent model of U.S. governance.”
The point is that many analysts have pointed to the direction things need to go in order to avoid worst-case scenarios. It is not enough to simply issue a wish list. The challenge is to explain how movement toward desired outcomes can be made possible. Rejuvenating the U.S. political system, of course, but how to end the rot of tribal politics?
RECLAIMING U.S. leadership requires redefining it. It requires a new mental map and an adjustment in U.S. strategic culture. Strategy is the aligning of means and ends, otherwise, it is just hallucination. This requires reassessing and recalibrating vital U.S. interests in light of past failures and changing global dynamics.
That, in turn, requires understanding the changing nature of power, and not least, understanding the limits of power. Power is the ability to obtain desired outcomes. Look no further than the failed U.S. policies toward Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela—not to mention the endless Middle East wars. One lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan is that military prowess, more often than not, does not necessarily translate into policy outcomes. As former Secretary of State James Baker wrote in his political memoir, “Effective US leadership often depends on the ability to persuade others to join us so we can extend our influence; to build a coalition, a diplomat needs to appreciate what objectives, arguments, and trade-offs are important to would-be partners.” Contrast that with tariffs, sanctions, and demands for surrender, the hallmark of Trump foreign policy.
Power has diffused, and is situational: 5+1 Iran nuclear talks and the six-party talks on North Korea are good examples. Ad hoc multilateralism, coalitions of the willing with partners assembled based on what they bring to the table on a given issue, is key to problem solving. For all its flaws, the G20, which represents 85 percent of the world population and 80 percent of the global economy, played an important role in the 2008–09 financial crisis. Reform to increase functionality, perhaps by adding an executive committee of major powers, could result in a more useful forum for building consensus and legitimizing power. Such variable geometry may be as important as longstanding alliances in many cases. This may mean including non-state actors in some cases, whether the Gates Foundation on global health issues or Big Tech companies on cybersecurity in some cases.
There remains a broad desire for credible U.S. leadership, and no clear, widely-accepted alternative. But reclaiming U.S. leadership requires moving beyond the assumption of primacy, which, in reality, has already been dissipating, to a new model. The one that comes to mind is primus inter pares, a sharing of power and responsibility. It requires a more agile mentality, one that challenges U.S. political culture and the tyranny of the familiar. This first among equals approach would restore a broad sense of legitimacy to U.S. power, pooling it with others that would gain a greater sense of enfranchisement. The flip side is that burdens would be more shared. Gulf oil goes mainly to China, Japan, and India; why should the United States be the guardian of the Gulf? This sense of shared responsibility would also be likely to garner more domestic support. Aligning U.S. politics to foreign policies is crucial to establishing a stable domestic foundation for a future U.S. role in the world.
Mathew Burrows, a former career intelligence official and author of The Future Declassified, is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative.
Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. He served as a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group, 2008–2012.