Back to the Future in Ukraine and Asia

Read Time:3 Minute, 58 Second YORK – With Russian troops occupying Ukrainian territory and the Chinese Navy
inhabiting Philippine territorial waters in the South China Sea, the world is now
entering a dangerous time warp.

In geopolitical terms, Russia and China are reenacting the norms of the
nineteenth-century, when states competed by amassing hard power in a system of
unbridled nationalism and rigid state sovereignty. Indeed, Russian President
Vladimir Putin seems to be trying to reassemble the nineteenth-century map of
Czarist Russia by holding on to Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and other parts of
the old empire at all costs.

Similarly, China is staking its claim to the South China Sea in full violation of
the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the basis of vague histories
of bygone empires. Both countries are now behaving as if power is a zero-sum game
dictated by the old rules of realpolitik.

But, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s admonition that Russia’s occupation
of Crimea “is not twenty-first-century, G-8, major-nation behavior,” the United
States and its allies are struggling to hold on to the postwar twentieth-century

For the US, the destruction wrought by Europe’s rapacious nationalisms, reflected in
colonialism and two world wars, had to end in 1945. America’s postwar planners
concluded that if excessive nationalism was the problem, transnationalism was the
answer. The US took the lead in building a system of international law, creating the
UN, and fostering free trade and open markets around the world, while maintaining
the security umbrella that allowed transnational institutions like the European
Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to develop.

The US was far from consistent or perfect in this process, sometime to murderous
effect in places like Vietnam. But its steadfast defense of an international system
that was more mutually beneficial than any that had preceded it ushered in seven
decades of the greatest innovation, growth, and improvement our species has ever

Now, however, with China rising, global power rebalancing, and the US worn down by
two decade-long wars that have eroded its credibility, the postwar international
order is under intense strain.

Contemporary Japan, a stalwart supporter of the US-led postwar system, was also
transformed by it. When US Commodore Matthew Perry blasted his way into Tokyo harbor
in 1854, he found a weak, isolated, and technologically backward country. Fourteen
years later, Japan began a massive modernization drive under Emperor Meiji;
thirty-seven years after that, its victory in the Russo-Japanese war shocked the
world. Rapidly appropriating the lessons of nineteenth-century Europe, Japan in 1894
launched a brutal five-decade effort to dominate Asia and secure its resources,
stopping only when America’s atomic bombs flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After the war, under America’s protection and initial guidance, Japan emerged as a
champion of a rule-based international system. It financed the UN to a greater
degree in relative terms than any other country, engaged meaningfully in other
international institutions, and supported the development of its Asian neighbors,
including China.

But, with China’s leaders now aggressively demonizing Japan and pressing disputed
territorial and maritime claims more assertively than ever before, the country is
being thrust in a direction that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with his penchant for
historical revisionism and highlighting Japan’s nationalist past, may in some ways
have already favored: back to the nineteenth century.

Europe, too, embraced the postwar international system. With security outsourced to
America, European governments shifted their focus and expenditures to social welfare
and set about building a twenty-first-century post-sovereign utopia that has blurred
national divisions and replaced aggression and hostility with negotiation and

The EU’s twenty-first-century dream now confronts the nineteenth-century Czarist
bear, flashing its atavistic claws on the Russia-Ukraine border. And, just as ASEAN
has been unable and unwilling to stand up to China over its encroachment in the
South China Sea, the EU is already discovering the limits of its soft-power,
consensus-driven approach to Russia.

If a twenty-first-century post-sovereign system remains an unreachable dream in our
Hobbesian world, and reverting to nineteenth-century norms by acquiescing to
aggressive behavior by Russia and China is unpalatable, defending the postwar
international system may be the best option we have.

Ironically, a nineteenth-century response, featuring balance-of-power politics and
the rearmament of Europe and Japan, may be part of what is required to do it.

Jamie Metzl, a partner in a New York-based global investment firm and Senior
Fellow of the Asia Society, served on the US National Security Council and in
the US State Department during the Clinton administration.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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