This is the theme of Robert Kagan's important new article in the Policy Review:
The world has not been transformed [since the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991]...Nations remain as strong as ever, and so too the nationalist ambitions, the passions, and the competition among nations that have shaped history. The world is still “unipolar,” with the United States remaining the only superpower. But international competition among great powers has returned, with the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, and others vying for regional predominance. Struggles for honor and status and influence in the world have once again become key features of the international scene. Ideologically, it is a time not of convergence but of divergence. The competition between liberalism and absolutism has reemerged, with the nations of the world increasingly lining up, as in the past, along ideological lines. Finally, there is the fault line between modernity and tradition, the violent struggle of Islamic fundamentalists against the modern powers and the secular cultures that, in their view, have penetrated and polluted their Islamic world.I expect Kagan's article to become a benchmark reference for international relations scholarship in the years ahead. He handily puts away some of the recent speculation on the decline of American global leadership, a staple of realist theory, and found most recently in arguments that U.S. power has been badly damaged by the Iraq war:
Yet American predominance in the main categories of power persists as a key feature of the international system. The enormous and productive American economy remains at the center of the international economic system. American democratic principles are shared by over a hundred nations. The American military is not only the largest but the only one capable of projecting force into distant theaters. Chinese strategists, who spend a great deal of time thinking about these things, see the world not as multipolar but as characterized by “one superpower, many great powers,” and this configuration seems likely to persist into the future absent either a catastrophic blow to American power or a decision by the United States to diminish its power and international influence voluntarily.This is not to say the United States is omnipotent, only that its current preponderance is not in jeopardy by recent foreign policy challenges.
Beyond this, Kagan lays out the central elements of the contemporary great power political system. Two key actors: China and Russia, who exemplify classic cases of traditional autocratic regimes, jockeying for power and position in international affairs. Their location and aspirations in the current system are reminiscent of the nationalist great-power dynamics of the 19th century. China and Russia are revisionist powers, opposed to the post-Cold War settlement, abjuring the institutional niceties characteristic of the EU's Franco-German led global profile.
Kagan also puts in perspective the ongoing global war on terror. Radical Islamists are enraged by civilizational threats from modernization and transnationalism. It is true that Islamist extremism -- the potential source of another catastrophic attack on the homeland -- is one of greatest near-term threats to the U.S. Yet Kagan describes this danger as somewhat out of place in the broader realm of great power politics:
It is odd because the struggle between modernization and globalization, on the one hand, and traditionalism, on the other, is largely a sideshow on the international stage. The future is more likely to be dominated by the struggle among the great powers and between the great ideologies of liberalism and autocracy than by the effort of some radical Islamists to restore an imagined past of piety. But of course that struggle has taken on a new and frightening dimension. Normally, when old and less technologically advanced civilizations have confronted more advanced civilizations, their inadequate weapons have reflected their backwardness. Today, the radical proponents of Islamic traditionalism, though they abhor the modern world, are nevertheless not only using the ancient methods of assassination and suicidal attacks, but also have deployed the weapons of the modern world against it. Modernization and globalization inflamed their rebellion and also armed them for the fight.Read the whole thing. Kagan states the traditional neorealist case for the continuity of international political conflict among nation-states, the key actors of global life.
As Kenneth Waltz famously observed, balances of power recurrently form in the international realm. And while, today, a counterbalancing coalition has not yet successfully emerged to challenge American preponderance, Kagan's point is that the world system's interactions today reflect more the distribution of capabilities at the end of World War II than the constellation of hopes that underpinned the end-of-history proclamations of the early post-Cold War era.