Recently, the case has been made for “preserving” U.S. primacy using primarily military means. With respect to de Gaulle’s “The sword is the axis of the world” thinking, this stance fails to recognize that economic power is the foundation of a state’s influence in the 21st century. Even more fundamentally, it fails to take into account both great and minor powers’ pursuit of self-interest, both historically and in today’s multi-polar world.
Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. assumed primacy in the post-modern world after defeating the Former Soviet Union. Yes, the U.S. was able to weaken the Former Soviet Union militarily through supporting proxy fighters in Afghanistan, and economically through having it overspend on defense in a futile effort to overcome SDI (“Star Wars”). However, what is not in dispute is that there was no direct military conflict between the two powers. Had that happened, the odds are great that not only would I not be here typing this article, but you also wouldn’t be here reading it.
The conclusion reached during the Cold War that a direct military conflict between the superpowers would have been detrimental to all of humanity seems to have been forgotten by some when discussing current U.S-China hostilities. War with China is just as equally untenable nowadays as military conflict with the Former Soviet Union was during the Cold War. Actually, it’s even more untenable as China is not only a nuclear power, but is increasingly the epicenter of today’s interconnected global economy. The economic fallout from any shooting war with China would not leave any nation on Earth, including, but especially the U.S., unscathed.
Because of all of this, it is critical for the U.S. to draw several conclusions. First, it’s going to need to effectively separate economics from politics in its dealing with states, especially China. While the phrase “Hot Economics, Cold Politics” may have once referred to Sino-Japanese relations, it can be broadened to refer to relations between all states in the 21st century, even if hot is a misnomer in the wake of the global economic crisis.
Even more importantly, the U.S. needs to recognize that the world has returned to the era of great power politics, if it ever truly left it at all. To survive in this world, it will be increasingly critical to recognize, and not deny, the role of self-interest in all nations’ foreign policies, large and small. A first step in this process would be to go even further back in time before the Cold War and revisit certain WWII-era terminology, notably “ally”, “axis”, and “accommodation/appeasement”.
The word “ally” does not mean supplicant. Historically, allies have served one another’s foreign policy objectives because they understood how an alliance served their own self-interest and because they were ready to seal the agreement in blood if necessary, not because they necessarily liked one another. Only through combined U.S. and Soviet power was Nazi Germany eventually defeated. Even on the verge of imminent collapse, the Former Soviet Union contributed to the U.S.’ coalition in the Gulf War. Despite initial hiccups, is Russian cooperation in Syria today any less vital?
The term “axis” has been used rather carelessly recently as well. In the wake of Turkish overtures to Russia, a “Moscow-Ankara axis” has been mentioned. Following Russia’s warmer ties with Beijing and post-sanctions Iran, a “Moscow-Beijing-Tehran axis” has been voiced. Lastly, in the wake of Russian power assertion in Syria and intelligence-sharing efforts with other powers in the region, a possible “Moscow-Tehran-Baghdad(-Damascus?) axis” has been written on. It’s quite moronic to continue to label other countries’ foreign policy goals with lexicon dating back almost three generations, as if a foreign policy that doesn’t clearly support the “rules-based order” is inherently evil.
Related to this are the terms “accommodation” and “appeasement”. It is equally idiotic to use these terms when describing, for example, German and Japanese outreach efforts to Russia in the wake of U.S.-Russian hostilities. First, a state (ally or not) is always going to follow its own interests, especially where economics is concerned. Secondly, the use of these terms to describe policies of former actual Axis powers reeks of historical amnesia.
Following this logic, is the U.K. an “ally”, part of an “axis”, or “appeasing” other powers? The U.K. recently withdrew from the EU and became a founding member of the AIIB, both despite U.S. protestations. The point is that if the U.S.’ strongest ally in its historically most-important geographic area of interest does this, it’s realistic to assume that this is a harbinger of a larger trend, and not just an outlier.
The issue is not whether it was actually in the U.K.’s interest to make these moves. Rather, the point is that the U.K. perceived that these actions were in its own self-interest and that it, along with all other states, will continue to make decisions based on this criteria, not dictation from other powers. This is also reflected in recent moves by both the Philippines and Vietnam to improve economic relations with China. These maneuvers, combined with global economic interdependency, are simultaneously a harbinger of the future and a reminder of the past and will continue to undermine any attempts to “preserve” U.S. primacy.