The Bear Is Back!

Thanks to Eugene for inviting me to join this blog. Let me start with a prediction. When historians write about the post-cold war era, which began in 1989, the date of its termination will not be 9/11/2001, as has been frequently claimed, but 8/7/2008, when Georgian forces attacked separatists in South Ossetia and Russia responded with an invasion. August 7 marks the end of American sole-superpowerdom, or hyperpowerness, or hegemony, or whatever you want to call it, an interval somewhat longer than but still very similar to the periods of global preeminence the United States enjoyed for a few years after World War I and World War II.

There are other notable similarities. In all three of these periods, Americans and others believed that an era of the rule of international law had begun, and in all of these periods, the United States was initially lauded for its leadership and then criticized for putting its interests first.

There are some differences, however. In the great powers era that ended with the world wars, national governments derived their authority from unembarrassed chauvinism — their peoples' instinctive belief in their own ethnic, racial, or national superiority. With the cold war, the conflict was not between competing nationalisms but between competing ideologies — democracy versus socialism, capitalism versus communism. Today, the conflict is shaping up as one between an ideology, on the one hand, and a bunch of different nationalisms, on the other. On one side, we have American/European commitment to democracy and rights. On the other side, we have Russian and Chinese nationalism, and who knows what other countries with similar agendas will emerge over the next few decades.

These differences play out in many ways. Americans believe that every country should have our system or at least a constitutional democracy; Europeans similarly believe that every country should respect human rights. The Chinese and Russians, by contrast, are preoccupied with restoring or promoting national greatness — something that few Europeans and even Americans would say about their own countries. The Americans and the Europeans -- well, the west, I guess -- are willing, at cost to themselves, to pressure states (like Sudan) that violate western values. Russia's main concern is protecting -- Russians, those who live in neighboring countries. China seeks to do deals with other countries, not to convert them to the Chinese system.

Of course, America's ideological goals serve its interests; they are just the goals that American governments believe that Americans ultimately support. It will be hard for future historians to see the post-Cold War period as anything other than a series of steps that the United States took to expand its sphere of influence, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, and in Central Asia, into the vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. But each step was accompanied by a consistent ideological agenda: we are doing this for your own good! China's rise has slowed down this agenda in Africa, and Russia's recovery will almost certainly defeat it in Central Asia. The United States won the battle of ideologies in 1989, but its global power was only a temporary thing, as is becoming clearer every day.

The implication for international law is troubling. The busy international legal activity that occurred during the post-Cold War era -- the establishment of international courts, the involvement of the Security Council, the advance of international trade law -- will slow down and perhaps even reenter the deep freeze into which it was shunted during the Cold War. The irony is that liberal internationalism could advance only as long as the United States was the sole superpower and in the mood to advance it.