A World Reimagined

The American Interest |

By Parag Khanna

Why 1814 should tell us more than 1914 about 2014.

This year brings a slough of World War I centennial books, many bearing foreboding questions as to whether we stand on the cusp of another calamitous 1914 moment. The emotive power of the analogy is sufficient to make most of us forget to ask whether the onset of World War I is actually a useful comparison for our times. It turns out that it isn’t. The allure of self-fulfilling centennialism is, as Henry Ford once said of history more generally, bunk. If one insists on applying supposed lessons from the centennial cycle, 1814 is more relevant than 1914.

Certainly, the differences between the canvass of World War I and that of our own time matter more than any similarities. The world of 1914 was a European order, not a global one. The globalization of a century ago pales in every respect with the scale, intensity, and depth of globalization and interdependence today. The major powers of 1914 could not foresee the speed with which their alliances would propel an escalation into a multi-party, cataclysmic war, nor did they restrain their proxies. (Indeed, Germany stoked Austrian wrath as it made demands on Serbia after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.) Today, by contrast, all the great powers have much better knowledge of each other’s capabilities and interdependencies, and are volubly risk-averse when it comes to direct confrontation. No doubt the existence of nuclear weapons contributes to this sobriety, and so constitutes a major break on World War III occurring out of the blue.

Perhaps most important, 1914 was not a year in which statesmen sought to build or nurture a new world order, or were even mindful of the task. It was rather a year in which a taken-for-granted order fell apart. As is widely recognized, what today’s world needs most is to recast and strengthen the partial settlement of 1989–91 into a new equilibrium among major powers before the outbreak of war, rather than wait for crisis, conflict, and aftermath. For that, 1814 is a much better guide than 1914 or even 1919, which by almost any measure was a miserable failure.

Whereas in 1914 a war began, in 1814 an order was built. Immanuel Kant’s liberal idea of a universal federation of republics was the most notable modern expression of the idea of global governance beyond the hegemony of empires. Just two decades after his On Perpetual Peace (1795), the first instantiation of global governance was born—but one directed by conservative statesmen rather than Enlightenment philosophers.

In Vienna between September 1814 and June 1815, ministers of Europe’s major powers—Britain’s Lord Castlereagh, France’s Talleyrand, Russia’s Czar Alexander I and Count Nesselrode, and Austria’s Prince Metternich—redrew Europe’s political map after the defeat of Napoleonic France. They represented a Europe that was multipolar and multi-regime, with autocratic Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire alongside more liberal and proto-democratic Britain and France. Motivated by their exhaustion and desire to prevent any singular hegemon from emerging in Europe, the parties to the Congress of Vienna brought an end to nearly three decades of war and gave birth to a negotiated system of great power relations that maintained relative continental peace for a century.

The effort to restore stability to the continent was of course complemented by the feudal atavisms of the European aristocracy. European monarchs ceded and traded territories as if they were family heirlooms. Having already been thrice partitioned, Poland was reduced once more to the Romanov’s advantage, and Napoleon’s wife Mary Louise was accorded several newly created Italian duchies such as Parma, while other duchies were slated to revert ownership upon her death. But there is a deeper lesson in this seeming anomaly: European royalty represented what was broadly understood as civilization, and civilizations thrive on account of a network of often implicit rules. The rules, which legitimate power into authority, matter.

Thus, while the Vienna system rested on balance-of-power politics underpinned by ambient fear of another hegemonic war, it was as much about building habits of dialogue as it was about building formal institutions. Henry Kissinger saw the magic of the Vienna system resting in its autopoietic nature, organically self-replicating and re-creating to adjust to circumstances. In A World Restored (1954) he wrote, “Civilization, then, was the degree to which change could come about ‘naturally,’ to which the tension between the forces of destruction and conservation was submerged in a spontaneous pattern of obligation.” Similarly, the great English scholar Herbert Butterfield argued in Diplomatic Investigations (1966) that Vienna symbolized the beginning of diplomacy’s potential to civilize international relations through negotiation and international law.

The concert system was fluid, dynamic, and cooperative. It is true that its lubricant allowed for competition and a host of sub-hegemonic wars at the fringes of Europe and beyond. But this is a far cry from today’s slow, bureaucratic, sanctimonious, and largely symbolic diplomatic ritualism, embodied in the mummified procedures of the United Nations, which, for all its self-congratulatory buffoonery, is less capable of restraining geopolitical maneuverings and political violence than the concert system was in its time. It also compares favorably to the mess that European statesmen—and one noteworthy American pretender along with them—made in 1919.

As is well known, but nevertheless deserves to be remembered afresh, for six months in Paris in 1919, France’s Georges Clemenceau, Britain’s David Lloyd George, Italy’s Vittorio Orlando, and the American President, Woodrow Wilson, negotiated military disarmament, exchanges of territory, payment of reparations, the dismantling of empires and colonies, and the creation of a League of Nations. It seemed the whole world was in their hands, and in a way it was. But they dropped that particular ball, otherwise known as the globe.

British diplomats and scholars, always fearful of losing their advantage as an offshore arbiter of continental affairs, were the most cynical of the lot, but not the most damaging. Halford Mackinder, the godfather of modern geopolitical theory, wrote in Democratic Ideals and Reality (1919):

The temptation of the moment is to believe that unceasing peace will ensue merely because tired men are determined that there shall be no more war. But international tension will accumulate again, though slowly at first; there was a generation of peace after Waterloo. Who among the diplomats round the Congress table at Vienna in 1814 foresaw that Prussia would become a menace to the world?

Two decades later, arch-realist E.H. Carr famously delivered his own blistering critique of ungrounded utopianism in The Twenty Years’ Crisis (1939), faulting in particular Wilson’s League of Nations as a technocratic exercise divorced from the emotional realities of geopolitics. Both Mackinder and Carr clearly preferred to put their faith in the balance of power rather than in hopes of voluntary restraint.

Carr’s influence is clearly visible in Kissinger’s Cold War-era contention that the supreme challenge of diplomacy lay in grafting a multilateral order on what was actually a bipolar system. That is what Franklin D. Roosevelt had looked to do as World War II drew near its end. Taking first 1814, then 1919, as guidance, he envisioned a global version of the Concert of Europe, this time with “Four Policemen” guaranteeing global stability: the United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. The United Nations was to be but a global congress to ratify this structural reality. And so it was. The real diplomatic story of the Cold War did not unfold at the high table of the UN Security Council but at the U.S.-Soviet summits in Yalta, Vienna, Helsinki, and Reykjavik.

Luckily, the Cold War ended without nuclear catastrophe, but no new global architecture that reflects the rapidly changing realities of power and influence has emerged in its wake. The partial settlement of the Cold War in 1989–91 marked an unrequited beginning still without an end. The 19th-century world was run by a few key powers overseeing their colonies, and the 20th-century by power blocks. The 21st century, however, is far too complex for a U.S.-China summit at Sunnylands in California to re-order the world.

We are left, then, with the same dilemma Metternich, Carr, and Kissinger face. The United States and China agree on little of lasting consequence, and visibly intrude into each other’s supposed spheres of influence. At the same time, international society is not evolved enough for states to cede authority to supposedly neutral global authorities. To the extent that international organizations have built any independent room to maneuver, it has been in morally urgent but strategically peripheral issues such as humanitarian relief and research. The capacity of international diplomacy to live up to the Renaissance ideal of forging a transnational community to represent common interests beyond narrow raison d’état still has a long way to go. In the meantime, we must cope.

It is tempting to believe that the presence of China as an ascendant superpower automatically entails the resumption of a familiar balance-of-power pattern, whether creakily bipolar or perhaps something more broadly distributed. It probably does, but alongside that pattern is a potentially more fundamental trend toward systemic entropy. The units central to the system, the Westphalian territorial states, are increasingly out of sync with economic realities, demographic dynamics, and the normative vapor trails of the accelerated cultural pluralization that issues from both. This entropic trend is more by accident than design, but it is what it is.

One crucial reason to study both 1814 and 1919 together is that we are, in a way, still experiencing both 1814’s negotiation among empires and the continuation of 1919’s imperial collapse. Wilson’s ideal of popular self-determination, scraped and molded from the bloody dust of empires, continues to play out across the former eastern Ottoman territories: Witness the dissolution of Iraq and Syria, and the current birth pangs of Palestine and Kurdistan. Only in the past decade have the former western Ottoman (and, before that, mostly Hapsburg) nations of the Balkans been sorted out—first through the wars of Yugoslav succession in the 1990s and now through their membership applications to the European Union.

Taken together, 1814 and 1919 remind us that we are still seeking a global arrangement that has space for both large states and small, an arrangement that can bind them all in a system that is flexible enough to reward effort but restrained enough to allay envy, fear, and violence. While Wilson’s League of Nations dream quickly collapsed in the face of German rearmament, today’s European Union as a commonwealth of peace would probably impress him. After all, it has expanded not by conquest but through an ensemble of economic and cultural attraction—mergers and acquisitions, as it were. It therefore generated a brief fad among international relations scholars to speak of a global Europeanization toward a supranational “global state.” The European Union suited as the role model for humanity’s broader geopolitical evolution.

The idea proved premature in more ways than one. Yet there is a sense in which that expectation still rings true, for while global institutions have proven remote, weak, and hard to consolidate, regional organizations beyond Europe are rapidly becoming the building blocks of world order. This is logical in the context of a system no longer populated by around fifty but instead nearly 200 countries. Africa has built increasingly meaningful subregional groupings such as ECOWAS (for West Africa) and the East African Community (EAC); both coordinate customs, investment promotion, and cross-border infrastructure projects. The same is happening with the Union of South American Nations (USAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) graduation into an Arabian Gulf Union (AGU). ASEAN, Southeast Asia’s regional grouping, is now making rapid advances in trade facilitation and shared infrastructure, and is becoming a demographic and economic force in Asia.

Though this process has been organic, it is no accident: Small states must band together or succumb to the divide-and-conquer practices of modern empires such as China. The major world regions are thus Europeanizing in function and form, even if European mores are nowhere to be found. Yet with Europe’s own history and present as a guide, we can see that interregional relations account for more of the variance in the world today than international relations.

A landscape of more interdependent and stronger continents and regions rather than a repeat of bipolar hegemony or a supranational Leviathan is thus the most likely scenario for the decades ahead. It is a milieu unseen since the Middle Ages, when the dynastic empires of China, India, and the Middle East (Umayyads, Abbasids and so on) were more powerful than Europe’s Holy Roman Empire. In the past decade alone, America’s stature has swung from that of a preponderant colossus to a bankrupt and distracted debtor; China’s from an unstoppably ascendant superpower to a fragile, corrupt oligarchy; and Europe’s from a coalescing superstate to a limping, over-bureaucratized cross between a retirement community and a theme park. Perhaps the world is waxing 19th century-ish, with multiple Habsburg-like dynasties, each self-absorbed with getting their own houses in order while doing the bare minimum to contribute to, or willfully disrupt, global stability.

We are already beginning to appreciate the new geographic logic of such a leitmotif. The “East” of the East-West Cold War has fallen away, replaced by the real East of the Pacific Rim’s populous nations. And indeed, the Pacific theaters of World Wars I and II are more instructive for today than the Atlantic ones, for it was then, as well, that Western powers sought to maintain maritime supremacy in the face of a rising Asian giant, Japan. Furthermore, the “West” maintains impressive advantages in any competition among regions. It now includes Latin America as a third pillar, ever less taken for granted as merely its backyard. Canada’s tar sands and America’s shale, combined with South America’s hydrocarbons and biodiversity—and the greatest freshwater reservoirs on the globe—make an autarkic West more plausible than ever. William Seward’s post-Alaska purchase dream of a unified hemispheric pan-region (with its second capital in Mexico City) is becoming reality.

This is the new shape of the world, and with it comes a novel diplomatic logic. It is a world of strong states but no clear global hierarchy. There is no single global order, but diverse regional orders. There is massive interdependence inter-regionally with global economy and supply chains, but only limited global integration in terms of military and political systems. During the 1990s, many thought that post-Soviet republics, Arab monarchs, and Asian authoritarian regimes would necessarily become Western-style democracies. By now we appreciate the permanent plurality of political regimes. The West barely preaches democracy anymore in the sour aftermath of the “forward strategy for freedom.” “Good governance” is the new mantra, exported as much by Singapore as by Sweden.

Diplomacy has become mercenary by inspiration, too. Emerging powers from Turkey to Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan do not align with one superpower; they “multi-align” to get the best deal for themselves. NATO member Turkey has just arranged to buy missiles from a Western-sanctioned Chinese arms dealer. Saudi Arabia has signed up to $60 billion in arms from the United States, but contracts most of its oil to China and has ramped up its defense dealings and investments with China as well.

The disjointed correlation between investment and alliances is perhaps the most profound reversal of historical logic before us, suggesting a shift from a traditional geopolitical paradigm to one rooted in systemic complexity. For centuries the volume of bilateral investment between countries was the surest predictor of the strength of their alliance. This still holds for Transatlantic relations, but it holds at a time when a great economy’s largest foreign investor can simultaneously be its most worrisome geopolitical rival. We could name the two countries implied here, but of course we don’t need to.

China so dominates investment and trade with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar that these countries are now passing laws to dilute Chinese control over their natural resource supply chains. China is not trying to conquer colonies but to buy them, a mix of motive and method that both enables and pushes targeted zones to open up to other suitors such as the United States. Thus the Burmese junta once coddled by China now receives state visits and investor delegations from the same countries that once led sanctions against it. Mongolia, with two giant neighbors, informally calls its foreign policy the “third neighbor” strategy. Only in a world where complexity is more foundational than traditional geopolitical alignments could such behaviors occur.

Call it the post-post-colonial world: (Almost) every nation has something to offer, yet neither checkbook nor coercive diplomacy guarantees holding onto allies for long. Lesser powers can say “no.” So not only has Burma quickly swung away from China’s embrace to cancel its major hydroelectric dam projects, but African countries are also dealing China blowback over its heavy-handed tactics of acquiring massive quantities of raw materials. What took centuries to develop in the context of British and French colonial history has descended within a mere decade upon China.

Such geopolitical fluidity is reminiscent of the 19th-century concert system, and is also a reminder of how global stability can exist—and persist—with an ever present but not dominant America. As Metternich wrote in 1807,

The great axioms of political science derive from the recognition of the true interests of all states; it is in the general interests that the guarantee of existence is to be found, while particular interests—the cultivation of which is considered political wisdom by restless and short-sighted men—have only a secondary importance. . . . Modern history demonstrates the application of the principle of solidarity and equilibrium . . . and of the united efforts of states against the supremacy of one power in order to force a return to the common law.

People talked like that circa 1814; they did not talk like that circa 1914.

Stability in the multipolar 19th and bipolar 20th centuries resulted from stalemate in the contest of wills. The question in the 21st century is whether there can be a progressive rather than a competitive dynamic among the major power centers. This is what President Obama had in mind when he spoke of a “new kind of great power relationship” with China. The phrasing is clearly influenced by Kissinger’s most recent book, On China. Kissinger’s noble obsession in A World Restored, which became his professional mission vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and eventually China, was how to accommodate revolutionary powers into a system in such a way that the order remains legitimate and stable. His decades of exposure to China’s leadership have made him an oracle on the return of the oldest superpower, but his counsel for maintaining equilibrium is vague: “co-evolution.”

Vagueness is not its only problem. While a term like “co-evolution” creates an escape route from thinking of history as a series of repetitive cycles—which is a good thing—it also propagates the assumption that a complex global system can be boiled down to simple formulas such as a “G-2” world dominated by the United States and China, with other regions being peripheral or inert—not such a good thing. That would be, to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, neat, simple, and wrong. What is the point of proposing formulations that evade historical traps if they rely on diplomatic configurations that perpetuate them?

Perhaps a stable Sino-American “co-evolution” can exist, depending, of course, on how we define what that is. But if it does, or if instead there is an eventual rupture in U.S.-China relations, we will still be faced with the need for some kind of global governance framework appropriate to a complex, post-Cold War world. During the Cold War, economic interdependence outside the West was sparse. Today, interregional interdependence is vast and deepening. China cannot and should not be “contained”, since its economic engagement with the world is crucial for growth. But China must not be allowed or enabled to turn a multiple-sum “game” into funnel for selfish aggrandizement, either.

This challenge suggests that reigning metaphors comparing geopolitics to chess games are anachronistic. A Massive Multiplayer Online Game seems more appropriate: many players, multiple levels, shifting alliances, and no winner or end-state. The new physics of geopolitics is not premised on quantities of static power, but on maintaining a gravitational pull while constantly exercising leverage in diverse strategic contexts—military, financial, cultural, and normative. Diplomacy operates in networked constellations, not bilateral transactions.Diplomacy operates in networked constellations, not bilateral transactions.

Today’s world lacks strong but complex institutions capable of governing a complex global society. The great debate, then, is whether we have transitioned to a global system whose multiplying organic networks and connections sustain themselves, or whether this globalization ultimately requires a hegemonic anchor. Hierarchies have always depended on networks, but the question now is do we need hierarchies if networks suffice for the purposes at hand? Most American scholars are pessimistic. Conservative realist Robert Kagan believes that without American leadership the open global system would collapse. As he cleverly puts it, “Rules and institutions are like scaffolding around a building: they don’t hold the building up; the building holds them up.” The view is not much different from that of liberal theorist John Ikenberry, who argues that restrained American leadership can maintain the global credibility of what has become a very strong liberal order and underpin security even in Asia and other regions where those norms are less well institutionalized. It is restrained leadership, but it is still American leadership.

So even where such scholars appreciate evolution, they still often mistake it for teleology. The United States and China may co-evolve, but ultimately the system must be underpinned by American primacy and its “soft” imposition of global norms and institutions. The unstated assumption, or presumption, it that the evolution points in a direction we recognize and like. Rarely does such thinking admit the possibility that emerging regions are learning to govern themselves, or that the networks across them constitute new and robust foundations of globalization that require no American arbitration or guidance.1

Thus far the evidence suggests a world of stable decentralization, one that the Bush Administration’s failed unilateralist policies helped to accelerate, and which the Obama Administration acknowledges through mantras such as “leading from behind.” The most obvious indicator of this new reality is the so-called global financial crisis, which proved not to be so global at all. In 2009, the Financial Times and other media confidently predicted that China’s economy had “hit a wall” and that China’s entire political order could come crashing down as both imports and exports collapsed in the wake of the financial crisis. By 2010, after China undertook a massive fiscal (as well as monetary) stimulus focused on infrastructure and job creation, the headlines suddenly read that developing economies were geared to lead the global economic recovery. The contrast within just one year reflects our broader ambivalence and ignorance about the dynamics of high-growth markets.

It also ignores how the interregional dimensions of the global economy are advancing globalization without a Western anchor. As Pankaj Ghemawat has noted, almost all world trade growth today is accounted for by emerging markets.2 Over the past decade, trade and investment flows among South America, Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia have risen anywhere from 700 to 1,500 percent—yes, quadruple digit growth. Of course, what was once called “South-South” trade is rising from a very low base, but China has surpassed America as Africa’s second-largest trade partner and source of investment, behind Europe. As new supply-chain connections flourish across various pairs of high-growth regions, a new pattern of diversified interdependence has taken shape. It is not entirely unlike what happened in Europe after the Congress of Vienna; it is entirely unlike what happened in Europe after Versailles.

Those waiting for China to publish the organizational chart of a rival to the Western-led multilateral system are therefore missing the plot. The risk is not that emerging powers will reject the existing order and provide an alternative one to rally around, but rather that they will usurp it from within while also evading it where it suits their interests to do so. This is evident in global trade, where bilateral and regional agreements have progressed while the WTO has stalled, or in security matters, where regional bodies authorize peacekeeping operations without consulting the UN Security Council. The most relevant symptom of America and the West’s relative decline is not merely the rising material power of thriving regions such as Asia, but rather these regions’ diplomatic confidence in building internal and external connections with each other on their own terms rather than those of the West.

This pattern will continue to unfold. A world of new investment opportunities for China has opened, allowing it to reduce its exposure to U.S. treasuries and financial institutions as its main capital destinations abroad, and instead deepen relationships with alternative partners. If globalization is unwinding without American hegemony, tell that to the beneficiaries of China’s annual outward FDI of approximately $150 billion per year.

The age of great men has passed. Thomas Carlysle’s once interesting quip about the history of the world being the biography of great men—the “Great Man Theory of History”—is interesting no longer. Great change is afoot, but no group of leaders seems to either understand or be in charge of it. In that sense our time is unlike either 1814 or 1914. In place of Metternich we have Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, a conservative reactionary from a weakened power, to be sure, but hardly a man to build global order. Meanwhile, America’s top diplomats have been little more than celebrity firemen and firewomen, leaving little dent on the international arena other than the weight of their self-congratulatory autobiographies. Our leaders scarcely seek to nudge history, let alone shape it.

Grand strategy is supposed to be an interconnected set of doctrines and policies that link means to ends. It should leverage, wherever possible, trends that are advantageous to its objectives. Since the end of the Cold War, American grand strategy—insofar as it was conscious of its calling—has traced an arc from hegemonic internationalism to deferential retrenchment. Diplomatic minimalism is the order of the day. One might think, judging from from Cold War history, that only immigrants to America are capable of global strategic thought. But President Obama’s international childhood and travels fed hopes that he would not only redress the Bush Administration’s foreign policy failures, but also deploy a fresh strategic vision. But hopes are not self-fulfilling anymore than hope is a policy. The Obama Administration has been mostly reactive to events. The platitudes in the President’s inaugural address are long forgotten amid the collapse of allies in Egypt and mass murder in Syria. The Fed’s monetary policy, once hailed as having saved the financial system, is now viewed as a driver of future economic instability, to say nothing of the government shutdown in October 2013. The NSA surveillance revelations have damaged relations with allies from Germany to Brazil. The “reset” with Russia was stillborn, and then buried once and for all when Russia harbored NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and recently invaded Ukraine. The much touted “pivot” to Asia caused more confusion than reassurance, and feels all but empty (except, perhaps, to the Philippines).

Obama’s resumption of communication with Iran’s leadership is truly historic, if long overdue. Some have argued that Obama should treat Iran as Nixon and Kissinger did China, as an opportunity to wrench a major emerging power out of revolutionary self-isolation and out of some other power’s orbit. Then, it was the Soviet fraternity with China; now it is China’s patronage of Iran. But like China was then, Iran now is nobody’s stooge. Not only might it retain a covert nuclear weapons program regardless of how current negotiations play out, but opening ties with Iran through the removal of sanctions will open the floodgates to everyone to befriend Iran, not just America.

Three recent examples prove the point. When the U.S. government lobbied the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the IAEA to allow India and the United Arab Emirates to purchase nuclear power technology, the main contracts went to French and Korean companies, respectively, not Westinghouse. The U.S. government was also instrumental in lifting sanctions on Myanmar, and while Coca-Cola and General Electric have begun distribution there, it was a Norwegian-Qatari consortium that won the prized telecom contract. And needless to say, Iraq’s oil, whose return to the global market cost 5,000 American lives, flows mostly to China and Europe. In Iran’s case, count on Turkey to continue its (currently illicit) thriving energy and commodities trade, while Arabs and Europeans will most likely lead in infrastructure and construction projects. Dubai will be the offshore capital of Iran for decades. Few will remember Obama’s phone call to Rouhani; wheeler-dealer nations will just be glad that America finally got out of their way.

What America could meaningfully do in the Middle East, with its unique diplomatic convening power, is to support the creation of a genuine regional security order, one that outlasts America’s commitments in the region (which should decrease commensurate with the ebbing of its reliance on Mideast energy supply) and remains robust in the face of Chinese encroachment. This would require bringing Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel into the same institutional fold.

This proposal, known presently as the “Gulf Security Conference”, has been widely discussed in inter-governmental fora such as the IISS Manama Dialogue. It has never been taken seriously by U.S. officials, however, on the grounds that neither Israel nor the Arabs trust Iran. But the time for these neighbors to pretend they inhabit different continents has passed. “Balancing” Iran has been code for attempting to freeze time, yet it has merely meant wasting it—decades of it.“Balancing” Iran has been code for attempting to freeze time, yet it has merely meant wasting it—decades of it. No state should rely permanently on America as a crutch, nor should America endlessly drain its treasury in the name of an offshore balancing policy that incentivizes belligerence. Geography is still destiny. These four regional anchors should be urged to encourage organic bridges to form across the region—like the Ottoman Hejaz Railway, which connected Istanbul to Mecca, with a branch to Haifa—as they did back when the Vienna Concert spelled the rules of civilized conduct among nations. But they won’t do it without American prodding.

This is just one of the opportunities to change how America operates both for its own sake and to reignite the sentiment that America’s leadership is necessary in the world, which has been abandoned in far more quarters than Washington would care to admit. In the two most crucial geopolitical theaters, the Persian Gulf and Far East, the new philosophical underpinning to policy would conceive of institutions not as a tool to extend U.S. hegemony or preeminence, but rather to make it ultimately unnecessary. Much like the posture toward Iran, America’s “pivot” to Asia has accelerated at the behest of insecure Pacific allies and has been conducted in a highly bilateral fashion. Rather than promote a regional security organization to induce maritime neighbors to settle their own disputes, the current policy may instead embolden the Philippines to drag the United States into a wag-the-dog confrontation with China over the insignificant Scarborough Shoals. In both regions, the lesson is that external hegemony, long considered a stabilizing force, these days is capable of little more than putting a lid on tensions temporarily until they blow.

Unlike neoconservatives, who believe in the pursuit of hegemony in the name of a morally uplifting global stability, classical realists are content to accept spheres of influence outside their core arenas of interest. Had China not in recent years begun to alienate several of its maritime neighbors through aggressive handling of South China Sea disputes, the United States would have had little occasion to declare a “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia. In the longer term, given Obama’s no-show at the APEC summit in October 2013 (due to the government shutdown) and the broader fiscal crunch that is hampering defense, America will likely return to the receding offshore posture in Asia that characterized the Clinton and Bush Administrations, allowing China to advance what amounts to a regional co-prosperity sphere. The threat of American retaliation against Chinese aggression can remain, but as long as the threat remains sheathed its function would actually be to assist as it shapes China’s peaceful ascent. It would not in the longer run assert America’s co-hegemony over East Asia.

This would anyway be the wisest course. Even the supposed universality of American values does not denote the universality of its interests. American power can be deployed prudently to defend its interests while being more restrained in promoting its values. America remains exceptional without being universal—and by so being saves itself from imperial overstretch. Being great means, in this formulation, not being too great for our and others’ own good. We can be a convener, a kind of webmaster, without insisting on controlling the content of the exchanges.

The Shell Corporation, known for its in-depth, interdisciplinary future modeling exercises, recently published a scenario playing on the Congress of Vienna titled “Concert of the Great.” It paints a picture of the 21st century in which “countries simply learn to live with each other” in order to “avoid the sort of competitive scramble that leads to mutual harm.” Pragmatic self-interest leads to a sort of deferential coordination among great power elites in America, China, Europe, India, Brazil, and other powers.

The landscape painted is essentially where we find ourselves today, with the concert embodied in the G-20, which actually represents a range of coalitions around issues such as trade and climate change. The problem, however, is that while the concert is stable, it isn’t genuinely embedded, and “people around the world begin to take the concert for granted just as they did its 19th century predecessor in the years leading up to 1914.” (Shell’s strategists, it seems, have been reading Mackinder.) The concert of powers suddenly becomes a cacophony of powers as medium and lesser states fall out of line, wag-the-dog-scenarios unfold, and conflict spirals out of control thanks to either excessively passive or excessively frenetic styles of leadership.

The 19th-century Concert of Europe, in Kissinger’s view, was not an inevitable product of peace but of the willful construction of a legitimate order. Peace does not guarantee its own continuity; the legitimacy of the order does. Today’s major powers have learned the lesson that, as Kissinger wrote, “force might conquer the world but it cannot legitimize itself.” Thus it is precisely in this time of great power peace that a legitimate order must be designed, as it was in 1814–15. For that purpose the G-20 is a convenient if so far underdeveloped tool, and the G-2 is a dangerous fiction. Neither is as legitimate an order as one in which organic regional consolidation leads to a distributed but networked system of engagement. That kind of order does need American leadership, but a leadership of a different sort than that habituated by the security crises and ideological manias of the 20th century.

The lesson of history is not to wait for events to force the need for strategy. We need strategies to avoid undesirable events. Ultimately, then, neither 1814 nor 1914 is a guide to the future. If they were, World War II would never have happened. Much as we have to stop fighting the last war, we also have to stop building the last peace. Let’s hope that in 2019, the raft of books to be published on the centennial of the Paris Peace Conference aren’t advising us on how to end World War III.

  1. This vision is a combination of Berkeley scholar Steve Weber’s “World Without the West” thesis and my focus on diplomatic dynamics among “second world” powers. See The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order (Random House, 2008).
  2.  See Ghemawat and Steven A. Altman, DHL Global Connectedness Index 2012 (IESE Business School, 2012).

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