Obama’s 21st-century power politics
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore an important debate about what kind of world we live in. Many critics charge that the Obama administration has been blind to its harsh realities because it believes, as the Wall Street Journal opined, in “a fantasy world of international rules.” John McCain declared that “this is the most naive president in history.” The Post’s editorial board worried that President Obama misunderstands “the nature of the century we’re living in.”
Almost all of these critics have ridiculed Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that changing borders by force, as Russia did, is 19th-century behavior in the 21st century. Well, here are the facts. Scholar Mark Zacher has tallied up changes of borders by force, something that was once quite common. Since World War I, he notes, that practice has sharply declined, and in recent decades, that decline has accelerated. Before 1950, wars between nations resulted in border changes (annexations) about 80 percent of the time. After 1950, that number dropped to 27 percent. In fact, since 1946, there have been only 12 examples of major changes in borders using force — and all of them before 1976. So Putin’s behavior, in fact, does belong to the 19th century.
The transformation of international relations goes well beyond border changes. Harvard’s Steven Pinker has collected war data in his superb book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” In a more recent essay, he points out that “after a 600-year stretch in which Western European countries started two new wars a year, they have not started one since 1945. Nor have the 40 or so richest nations anywhere in the world engaged each other in armed conflict.” Colonial wars, a routine feature of international life for thousands of years, are extinct. Wars between countries — not just major powers, not just in Europe — have also dropped dramatically, by more than 50 percent over the past three decades. Scholars at the University of Maryland have found that the past decade has seen the lowest number of new conflicts since World War II.
Many aspects of international life remain nasty and brutish, and it is easy to sound tough and suggest that you understand the hard realities of power politics. But the most astonishing, remarkable reality about the world is how much things have changed, especially since 1945.
It is ironic that the Wall Street Journal does not recognize this new world because it was created in substantial part through capitalism and free trade. Twenty years ago, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, as hardheaded a statesman as I have ever met, told me that Asian countries had seen the costs of war and the fruits of economic interdependence and development — and that they would not choose the former over the latter.
This is not an academic debate. The best way to deal with Russia’s aggression in Crimea is not to present it as routine and national interest-based foreign policy that will be countered by Washington in a contest between two great powers. It is to point out, as Obama did eloquently this week in Brussels, that Russia is grossly endangering a global order that has benefited the entire world.
Compare what the Obama administration has managed to organize in the wake of this latest Russian aggression to the Bush administration’s response to Putin’s actions in Georgia in 2008. That was a blatant invasion. Moscow sent in tanks and heavy artillery; hundreds were killed, nearly 200,000 displaced. Yet the response was essentially nothing. This time, it has been much more serious. Some of this difference is in the nature of the stakes, but it might also have to do with the fact that the Obama administration has taken pains to present Russia’s actions in a broader context and get other countries to see them as such.
You can see a similar pattern with Iran. The Bush administration largely pressured that country bilaterally. The Obama administration was able to get much more effective pressure because it presented Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to global norms of nonproliferation, persuaded the other major powers to support sanctions, enacted them through the United Nations and thus ensured that they were comprehensive and tight. This is what leadership looks like in the 21st century.
There is an evolving international order with new global norms making war and conquest increasingly rare. We should strengthen, not ridicule, it. Yes, some places stand in opposition to this trend — North Korea, Syria, Russia. The people running these countries believe that they are charting a path to greatness and glory. But they are the ones living in a fantasy world.