This is my 100th column for Project Syndicate. It comes nearly 20 years after my first. As is the case with most milestones, it offers a good opportunity to take stock, to look back on what I have written, and to see what it says about the world over these two decades and where we may be heading.
Three themes stand out. The first is how much the Middle East consumed the world’s attention, including mine. Think about it: This is a region that is home to around 6% of the world’s people, and, despite possessing vast amounts of oil, accounts for less than 5% of global economic output. Yet it manages to account for a large share of the world’s headlines, conflicts, terrorists, and refugees.
Some blame the Middle East’s many problems on the European colonial powers. But that era is too distant from our own to explain today’s failures. After all, many former colonies elsewhere in the world are thriving.
That said, outsiders have made things worse over the past two decades, both by what they did (the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 comes to mind, as does NATO’s intervention in Libya and Russia’s in Syria) and by what they failed to do.
Here I would list US reluctance to act in Syria even after the government there defied warnings and used chemical weapons. While the intervention in Libya was misguided, once that decision was made, it was incumbent upon the United States and its European partners to mount an effort to stabilize the country following the ouster of Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Yet the lion’s share of the responsibility for the Middle East’s terrible record lies with the region’s leaders, who have largely failed to provide economic opportunity or political rights at home and who have refused to compromise in the cause of peace. Instead, what we have seen are prolonged and costly conflicts in Syria and Yemen, stagnation in Egypt, and fading prospects for any lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The second theme that emerges from the past two decades is Asia’s emergence as the central arena of modern international relations. If Europe was the principal venue of much of twentieth-century world history, including two hot wars and one cold war, now it is Asia’s turn. The region is where one finds the bulk of the world’s population, the majority of its economic output, and increasingly its military might. It is where the major powers of this era face one another.
The good news is that for the past 20 years – in fact, since the end of the Cold War – Asia has remained stable, underpinned by America’s steadying hand and buoyed by rapid economic growth. The question now is whether stability will continue to be the rule, given China’s rise, the near-certainty that North Korea will not just retain but possibly expand its nuclear and missile capabilities, and lingering disputes over the South and East China Seas, Taiwan, and numerous islands and borders.
The third theme that runs through many of the previous 99 columns is the demise of the world that we knew. The titles of several commentaries say it all: “Liberal World Order, R.I.P.,” “Cold War II,” “Europe in Disarray,” “The Era of Disorder.”
One reason for this downbeat assessment is the growing prominence of a China that remains illiberal at home, engages in myriad unfair practices that boost its trading position, and is mostly unwilling to assume global responsibilities commensurate with its strength. Another is President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which seeks to violate sovereignty – the most basic norm of what international order there is – with traditional and digital armies alike. Moreover, the gap between global challenges, such as climate change, and the willingness of the world to deal with them has widened. The thesis of my 2013 commentary, “What International Community?” still holds: the phrase stands for a concept that is more aspiration than reality.
One factor stands out amidst this deterioration: the refusal of the United States to continue to play its traditional role in the world. The last two decades have made clear that no post-Cold War US foreign policy consensus exists. What exists is wariness born of costly military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a populist surge fueled by the 2008 global financial crisis, growing inequality, and reduced upward mobility.
This is the context that gave rise to the election of President Donald Trump. Over the past two-plus years, Trump has added to global turbulence through his own unique mix of hostility to multilateral institutions and alliances; sustained use of tariffs and sanctions on behalf of goals that are so ambitious as to be unrealistic; increased military spending but decreased military action; a much-reduced emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights, coupled with a penchant for strongmen; and a faith in his own personal diplomacy but not in professional diplomats.
As suggested above, all this has contributed to the fading of the post-World War II, post-Cold War world. What will take its place is unclear; Trump is much more a disrupter than he is a builder. The next 20 years thus promise to be even more disorderly than the last 20. Sad to say, there will be more than enough material for at least a hundred more commentaries.
Richard N. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, previously served as Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department (2001-2003), and was President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Northern Ireland and Coordinator for the Future of Afghanistan. He is the author of A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.
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