Like every century before it, the 21st century will be a time of conflict between nation-states, not a time to beat swords into ploughshares.
On Sept. 11, 1990, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed
Congress. He spoke in the wake of the end of Communism in Eastern
Europe, the weakening of the Soviet Union, and the invasion of Kuwait
by Saddam Hussein. He argued that a New World Order was emerging: “A
hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while
a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor, and today that
new world is struggling to be born. A world quite different from the
one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of
the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared
responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong
respect the rights of the weak.”
After every major, systemic war, there is the hope that this will be
the war to end all wars. The idea driving it is simple. Wars are
usually won by grand coalitions. The idea is that the coalition that
won the war by working together will continue to work together to make
the peace. Indeed, the idea is that the defeated will join the
coalition and work with them to ensure the peace. This was the dream
behind the Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations, the United
Nations and, after the Cold War, NATO. The idea was that there would be
no major issues that couldn’t be handled by the victors, now joined
with the defeated. That was the idea that drove George H. W. Bush as
the Cold War was coming to its end.
Those with the dream are always disappointed. The victorious
coalition breaks apart. The defeated refuse to play the role assigned
to them. New powers emerge that were not part of the coalition. Anyone
may have ideals and visions. The reality of the world order is that
there are profound divergences of interest in a world where distrust is
a natural and reasonable response to reality. In the end, ideals and
visions vanish in a new round of geopolitical conflict.
The post-Cold War world, the New World Order, ended with authority on Aug. 8, 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war. Certainly, this war was not in itself of major significance, and a very good case can be made that the New World Order actually started coming apart
on Sept. 11, 2001. But it was on Aug. 8 that a nation-state, Russia,
attacked another nation-state, Georgia, out of fear of the intentions
of a third nation-state, the United States. This causes us to begin
thinking about the Real World Order.
The global system is suffering from two imbalances.
First, one nation-state, the United States, remains overwhelmingly
powerful, and no combination of powers are in a position to control its
behavior. We are aware of all the economic problems besetting the
United States, but the reality is that the American economy is larger
than the next three economies combined (Japan, Germany and China). The U.S. military controls all the world’s oceans and effectively dominates space.
Because of these factors, the United States remains politically
powerful — not liked and perhaps not admired, but enormously powerful.
The second imbalance is within the United States itself. Its ground
forces and the bulk of its logistical capability are committed to the
Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States also
is threatening on occasion to go to war with Iran, which would tie down
most of its air power, and it is facing a destabilizing Pakistan.
Therefore, there is this paradox: The United States is so powerful
that, in the long run, it has created an imbalance in the global
system. In the short run, however, it is so off balance that it has
few, if any, military resources to deal with challenges elsewhere. That
means that the United States remains the dominant power in the long run
but it cannot exercise that power in the short run. This creates a
window of opportunity for other countries to act.
The outcome of the Iraq war can be seen emerging.
The United States has succeeded in creating the foundations for a
political settlement among the main Iraqi factions that will create a
relatively stable government. In that sense, U.S. policy has succeeded.
But the problem the United States has is the length of time it took to
achieve this success. Had it occurred in 2003, the United States would
not suffer its current imbalance. But this is 2008, more than five
years after the invasion. The United States never expected a war of
this duration, nor did it plan for it. In order to fight the war, it
had to inject a major portion of its ground fighting capability into
it. The length of the war was the problem. U.S. ground forces are
either in Iraq, recovering from a tour or preparing for a deployment.
What strategic reserves are available are tasked into Afghanistan. Little is left over.
As Iraq pulled in the bulk of available forces, the United States
did not shift its foreign policy elsewhere. For example, it remained
committed to the expansion of democracy in the former Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO,
to include Ukraine and Georgia. From the fall of the former Soviet
Union, the United States saw itself as having a dominant role in
reshaping post-Soviet social and political orders, including
influencing the emergence of democratic institutions and free markets.
The United States saw this almost in the same light as it saw the
democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. Having
defeated the Soviet Union, it now fell to the United States to reshape
the societies of the successor states.
Through the 1990s, the successor states, particularly Russia,
were inert. Undergoing painful internal upheaval — which foreigners saw
as reform but which many Russians viewed as a foreign-inspired national
catastrophe — Russia could not resist American and European involvement
in regional and internal affairs. From the American point of view, the
reshaping of the region — from the Kosovo war
to the expansion of NATO to the deployment of U.S. Air Force bases to
Central Asia — was simply a logical expansion of the collapse of the
Soviet Union. It was a benign attempt to stabilize the region, enhance
its prosperity and security and integrate it into the global system.
As Russia regained its balance
from the chaos of the 1990s, it began to see the American and European
presence in a less benign light. It was not clear to the Russians that
the United States was trying to stabilize the region. Rather, it
appeared to the Russians that the United States was trying to take
advantage of Russian weakness to impose a new politico-military reality
in which Russia was to be surrounded with nations controlled by the
United States and its military system, NATO. In spite of the promise
made by Bill Clinton that NATO would not expand into the former Soviet
Union, the three Baltic states were admitted. The promise was not
addressed. NATO was expanded because it could and Russia could do
nothing about it.
From the Russian point of view, the strategic break point
was Ukraine. When the Orange Revolution came to Ukraine, the American
and European impression was that this was a spontaneous democratic
rising. The Russian perception was that it was a well-financed CIA operation
to foment an anti-Russian and pro-American uprising in Ukraine. When
the United States quickly began discussing the inclusion of Ukraine in
NATO, the Russians came to the conclusion that the United States
intended to surround and crush the Russian Federation. In their view, if NATO expanded into Ukraine,
the Western military alliance would place Russia in a strategically
untenable position. Russia would be indefensible. The American response
was that it had no intention of threatening Russia. The Russian
question was returned: Then why are you trying to take control of
Ukraine? What other purpose would you have? The United States dismissed
these Russian concerns as absurd. The Russians, not regarding them as
absurd at all, began planning on the assumption of a hostile United
If the United States had intended to break the Russian Federation
once and for all, the time for that was in the 1990s, before Yeltsin
was replaced by Putin and before 9/11. There was, however, no clear
policy on this, because the United States felt it had all the time in
the world. Superficially this was true, but only superficially. First,
the United States did not understand that the Yeltsin years were a
temporary aberration and that a new government intending to stabilize
Russia was inevitable. If not Putin, it would have been someone else.
Second, the United States did not appreciate that it did not control
the international agenda. Sept. 11, 2001, took away American options in
the former Soviet Union. No only did it need Russian help in
Afghanistan, but it was going to spend the next decade tied up in the
Middle East. The United States had lost its room for maneuver and
therefore had run out of time.
And now we come to the key point. In spite of diminishing military
options outside of the Middle East, the United States did not modify
its policy in the former Soviet Union. It continued to aggressively
attempt to influence countries in the region, and it became
particularly committed to integrating Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, in
spite of the fact that both were of overwhelming strategic interest to
the Russians. Ukraine dominated Russia’s southwestern flank, without any natural boundaries protecting them. Georgia was seen as a constant irritant in Chechnya as well as a barrier to Russian interests in the Caucasus.
Moving rapidly to consolidate U.S. control over these and other
countries in the former Soviet Union made strategic sense. Russia was
weak, divided and poorly governed. It could make no response.
Continuing this policy in the 2000s, when the Russians were getting
stronger, more united and better governed and while U.S. forces were no
longer available, made much less sense. The United States continued to
irritate the Russians without having, in the short run, the forces
needed to act decisively.
The American calculation was that the Russian government would not confront American interests in the region. The Russian calculation
was that it could not wait to confront these interests because the
United States was concluding the Iraq war and would return to its
pre-eminent position in a few short years. Therefore, it made no sense
for Russia to wait and it made every sense for Russia to act as quickly
The Russians were partly influenced in their timing by the success
of the American surge in Iraq. If the United States continued its
policy and had force to back it up, the Russians would lose their window of opportunity. Moreover, the Russians had an additional lever for use on the Americans: Iran.
The United States had been playing a complex game with Iran for
years, threatening to attack while trying to negotiate. The Americans
needed the Russians. Sanctions against Iran would have no meaning if
the Russians did not participate, and the United States did not want
Russia selling advance air defense systems to Iran. (Such systems,
which American analysts had warned were quite capable, were not present
in Syria on Sept. 6, 2007, when the Israelis struck a nuclear facility
there.) As the United States re-evaluates the Russian military, it does
not want to be surprised by Russian technology. Therefore, the more
aggressive the United States becomes toward Russia, the greater the
difficulties it will have in Iran. This further encouraged the Russians
to act sooner rather than later.
The Russians have now proven two things. First, contrary to the
reality of the 1990s, they can execute a competent military operation.
Second, contrary to regional perception, the United States cannot intervene. The Russian message was directed against Ukraine most of all, but the Baltics, Central Asia and Belarus are all listening.
The Russians will not act precipitously. They expect all of these
countries to adjust their foreign policies away from the United States
and toward Russia. They are looking to see if the lesson is absorbed.
At first, there will be mighty speeches and resistance. But the reality
on the ground is the reality on the ground.
We would expect the Russians to get traction. But if they don’t, the
Russians are aware that they are, in the long run, much weaker than the
Americans, and that they will retain their regional position of
strength only while the United States is off balance in Iraq. If the
lesson isn’t absorbed, the Russians are capable of more direct action,
and they will not let this chance slip away. This is their chance to
redefine their sphere of influence. They will not get another.
The other country that is watching and thinking is Iran.
Iran had accepted the idea that it had lost the chance to dominate
Iraq. It had also accepted the idea that it would have to bargain away
its nuclear capability or lose it. The Iranians are now wondering if
this is still true and are undoubtedly pinging the Russians about the
situation. Meanwhile, the Russians are waiting for the Americans to
calm down and get serious. If the Americans plan to take meaningful
action against them, they will respond in Iran. But the Americans have no meaningful actions they can take;
they need to get out of Iraq and they need help against Iran. The quid
pro quo here is obvious. The United States acquiesces to Russian
actions (which it can’t do anything about), while the Russians
cooperate with the United States against Iran getting nuclear weapons
(something Russia does not want to see).
One of the interesting concepts of the New World Order was that all
serious countries would want to participate in it and that the only
threat would come from rogue states and nonstate actors such as North
Korea and al Qaeda. Serious analysts argued that conflict between
nation-states would not be important in the 21st century. There will
certainly be rogue states and nonstate actors, but the 21st century
will be no different than any other century. On Aug. 8, the Russians
invited us all to the Real World Order.
George Friedman is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. This article was
first published on the Stratfor website.