When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the triumphalism on the American side was palpable. Our attitude was: we won; they lost: Tough on them! And in that winner take all arrogance; we lost a real opportunity to move Russia along a more democratic path.
Despite Russia’s efforts to be a responsible player in the international community, prior to their suspension from the G8 over Crimea, the US has continually tried to cut Russia down to size, boxing them in on all sides by pushing the limits of Nato membership closer and closer to the Russian heartland, including proxy interventions in Georgia and Ukraine.
The Obama administration has, at the same time, focused more attention on limiting China’s influence in the South China Sea region, sending in warships and planes to assert the “interests” of America and its friends in the region. Leaving large countries like Russia and China with no room to maneuver, with no spheres of influence where the US does not intrude, is a dangerous game that will leave no winners.
How did we come to this zero sum, winner take all, approach to foreign policy? Perhaps a product of the cold war, it was best articulated by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was not timid in making the claim for US global hegemony. He asserted that America’s chief task is to maintain its “global primacy” over the vast area of Eurasia, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, and, “to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitrating role.” Stop for a moment and contemplate the stunning conceit wrapped up in that formulation: control of the entire Eurasian landmass. Napoleon and Hitler had similar delusions.
This theme was also taken up by America’s neocons in their Project for the New American Century in the spring of 1997. Facing no global rivals, America’s grand strategy should aim to “preserve and extend [our] advantageous position as far into the future as possible, … maintaining global US pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests.”
In their 2016 Manifesto, the neocons are still at it, despite the abject failure of their predictions about Iraq. They contend that the US should be the “guarantor of global order.” Thus, they deem Beijing’s aspirations unacceptable and decry “replacing the American-shaped order that enabled China’s ‘peaceful rise’ with a system in which we are only one of multiple, equal participants.” Russia, Iran, North Korea … also qualify as key threats.
The zero sum approach to foreign policy, where any gain by Russia or China, or any other country, is viewed as a loss to us, appears to have a strong hold over our foreign policy and military elites. But we have to ask; does this approach help to prevent and resolve conflicts around the world, or does it make them worse? Look around. Have we been able to guarantee global order? The opposite is the case. The US has actually contributed to world disorder by its invasion of Iraq, among other unilateral actions.
In 1945, at the end of WWII, world leaders understood clearly the principles upon which world order needed to be built to avoid the death and destruction unleashed by that war. Those principles were clearly spelled out in the Charter of the United Nations. Current leaders have apparently forgotten the gruesome lessons of the past and brushed aside these principles of collective security as somehow naïve, passé or no longer relevant to national and global interests.
Among the principles they enumerated as essential to regulating relations among countries are: (1) the sovereign equality of all states, regardless or size or national wealth; (2) not to use force or the threat of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any country; (3) to settle all disputes between countries by peaceful means; (4) preventive or enforcement action against a country to be taken only through a collective decision by member states in the context of the Security Council.
There is no provision in the Charter for unilateral action by one country against another for any reason, humanitarian or otherwise, except for self-defense when a country is subject to attack or outright invasion by another. These principles have the additional strength of being incorporated as a formal treaty under international law and fully ratified under US law.
Although he doesn’t credit the UN Charter, these are the same characteristics Henry Kissinger identifies in his book ‘World Order’, (Penguin Publishing, 2014) derived from the Treaties of Westphalia, namely, the principles of national independence, sovereign statehood, national interest, noninterference in the affairs of other states, and a balance of power or interests.
If we know the principles for maintaining peace and collective security and have the institutions, treaties and laws that incorporate those principles, what keeps us from doing better?
There is no defect in the principles of the UN Charter, but leaders at the time adopted a structural impediment: the veto power of the five permanent members. On critical votes, this has curtailed the ability of the Security Council to take effective action when the interests of a permanent member are at stake. But, the bigger challenge to collective security is the dominant claims of a single “exceptional” country to act as global policeman to enforce its vision of world order. John Bolton probably expressed it most clearly, when he said: “If I were redoing the Security Council today, I’d have one permanent member, because that’s the real reflection of the distribution of power in the world – the United States.” “There is no United Nations,” he said. “There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that’s the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along.”
This myopic view seriously underestimates the power and capacity of both Russia and China, either separately or collectively to do damage, if we push our unilateralist claims too far. Further, it overestimates the economic strength of the US, as evidenced by the near meltdown of the economic system in 2008. While we have spent trillions of dollars on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, with catastrophic results (no winners here), our domestic infrastructure and the economic well-being of our own people have deteriorated precipitously.
A country crumbling on the inside with increasing social divisions, and an economic system held together by baling wire and chewing gum, should look to its own internal problems rather than playing the international busy-body seeking to regulate everyone else’s business. Building a more stable, prosperous and peaceful world should be the collective responsibility of all states, not just the one, which conceives itself to be “indispensible.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Zero Sum Foreign Policy: the UN Option’.