In August of 2008 Russia and Georgia went to war, but you could be forgiven if you forgot about it. It lasted for five days, during which the wider world was focused on the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing. In the United States, the big foreign policy debate of the day was Iraq and it would be that war that would dominate the fall presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, and Georgia is known as that state directly north of Florida. But, as the Russo-Georgia War of 2008 ended almost as quickly as it began, it also shut the door on nearly two decades of post-Cold War foreign policy and marked a return to old-fashioned foreign affairs and great power competition.
When the Soviet Union fell, the United States was left in a position of unquestioned world dominance. What should the United States do with this position? The consensus that was reached by the powers that be was that the United States should engage in order building.
It seemed easy. The Gulf War erased the ghosts of Vietnam, the monetary cost of the war in terms of dollars and cents was a non-issue, and President Bush would hail the age of a new world order where the rule of law governed state actions. It saw a greater role for the U.N. and the willingness to use military force to achieve moral ends. President Clinton continued and expanded this tradition with the humanitarian interventions of the 90s.
September 11 changed things, but only slightly. The nature of the Afghan War was different than the Balkan or Yugoslav Wars because the U.S. had been directly attacked, but Bush Administration officials, and they were by no means alone in this thinking, concluded that they could defeat terrorists on the battlefield, but truly defeating terrorism required going at its root cause.
In that sense after the initial phase of combat operations, humanitarianism remained a key part of U.S. wars. This led to what is now looked down upon as “nation building.” Where in addition to trying to defeat terrorists, the U.S. also tries to build up state competency and defend human rights.
The pattern repeated itself in Iraq, after deeming Saddam Hussein a threat that had to go, U.S. officials believed it was necessary to replace him with a democracy. Such a democracy in the heart of the Arab World in the country previously ruled by a Stalinist dictator would be a light to the wider Middle East that they could solve their problems without violence and hatred.
It didn’t turn out to be quite that rosy, of course, but the idea of fighting the Al-Qaeda insurgents still fit comfortably within the country’s post 9/11 security priorities.
Then it all changed. The lead up to the Russo-Georgian War is not the subject of this article, but the war ended the post-Cold War era. To make a long and complicated story short, by 2008 old-fashioned nationalism had become dominant in Moscow and the Kremlin was determined that the upstart little country of Georgia was not about to turn their southern backyard into an NATO-friendly bit of real estate. The war saw Moscow recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, essentially ending any hope that Georgia would join the NATO. The norm that the map of Europe would not be re-drawn by the force of arms was shattered, because a norm is only a norm if it is abided by and rules are only rules if they are enforced. They weren’t.
In hindsight it should have been clear that the end of the 00s marked the end of the first Bush’s ultra-optimistic idea of a new world order. History had not ended. Geopolitics was back.
The 2010s saw this trend continue and this is the decades defining characteristic. In 2014, Putin was at it again, despite the Obama Administration’s efforts to “reset” relations. Only this time he did not just dismember a country, he annexed part of it for himself. In Georgia, the West could console itself by saying that Georgia was far away, that it was a local conflict around old ethnic grievances, or that Mikheil Saakashvili was a hot head. But no such excuses could be given in 2014 and the fact that it was the second time made it look like a pattern of wider Russian revanchism, which it was. The Ukrainian people told their Russia-aligned president to take a hike and Russia seized Crimea, essentially ending yet another country’s NATO aspirations.
In Syria, while the United States was moralizing and contemplating just what it should do, Putin went to the mat for Bashar al-Assad for the amoral purposes of saving his naval base and Russia’s last remaining bastion of influence in the region. While concerns of a Russian resurgence in the Middle East are being over-exaggerated the fact that those concerns exist is evidence of a different world.
On the other side of the world, China has begun to throw its weight around on a global scale and is now the United States’ top peer competitor. It’s naval build up is the biggest threat to U.S. military dominance in the world today, which has brought back old strategic concepts such island chains and it can woo countries over to its camp with foreign aid investments without the pesky human rights strings that the U.S. insists on. The Obama Administration tried to “pivot to Asia,” but events elsewhere attracted their attention. Now, the Trump Administration is also trying to re-orientate U.S. foreign policy priorities to the region.
As the Russian and Chinese influence raise, the every day American has noticed this trend of great power competition. Americans are by now very familiar with Russian election interference and disinformation campaigns and that the Chinese Communist Party does not just want to censor their own citizens, but also those of foreigners as well, as the NBA-Hong Kong episode demonstrated so well.
Both have capable cyber capabilities that are particularly worrisome and the concern that they may launch what the Rumsfeld Commission called a “Space Pearl Harbor” has led to the creation of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.
Even in the Middle East, the primary security concern is not non-state terrorists, but Iran. Presidents Obama and Trump have certainly had different approaches to Iran, but after the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, both have focused their Middle East policies around the country.
The biggest threat to the U.S. today in the Middle East is not that the region’s countries will become safe havens for terrorists as Afghanistan once was, but that they will become an Iranian vassal.
To be sure terrorism is still a concern, but it is markedly different than it was not that long ago. When ISIS emerged, the U.S. fought with air power and worked with local partners to do the fighting on the ground. The U.S. still has troops deployed in Afghanistan and in other areas where it trains local partners, but it is not the massive commitment that critics portray it as.
Imagine jumping in a time machine and telling someone who was voting in 2004 that in fifteen years the top foreign policy concern of voters would not be terrorism. Today, Democrats will probably say our top foreign policy challenge is Russia and Republicans will probably say its either China or Iran.
The 2020s will continue this trend towards great power competition. This isn’t to say the United States should drop its morals and take a cynical approach to the various balances of power it cares about. If the previously mentioned NBA-Hong Kong debacle shows us anything, it is that mere influence and amoral balance of power dynamics are not the only things at stake with the rise of peer competitors. American ideals gives the United States something to offer that the cynical powers of Russia and China, or that the theocratic-terrorist power of Iran, don’t have, but it does mean we have to be more realistic and prudent than we have been.
The new world order is now the old world order. Old-fashioned notions of “hard power” are now just as, if not more, important than “soft power.”