As the Cold War wound down over twenty years ago, it became fashionable among some intellectual circles in the West to suggest that the ideological struggles of the 20th century were about to culminate in the irrevocable triumph of liberal democracy. That century began under the yoke of expansive European colonial empires, experienced unprecedented devastation in two successive world wars, and then held its breath under the never-ending threat of nuclear devastation during the long, tense standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. Francis Fukuyama’s well-known essay “The End of History” argued that there would not again emerge serious ideological challenges to the emerging global consensus of liberal democracy because the experience of the 20th century had discredited them all.
America’s triumphal emergence from the Cold War left it the world’s sole superpower, a state so incredibly powerful that its ability to influence global affairs with relative ease through its unparalleled military strength and rich and innovative economy. Commentators and pundits of all stripes believed that the world was about to enter a “new American century” whose direction would be shaped largely by the will of the United States. Crucially, they believed that more states would evolve to embrace liberal democracy and come to reflect the values that had been legitimized at the end of the Cold War.
It’s quite clear, however, that the experience of the first decade and three years of the 21st century shows that optimism regarding the triumph of liberal democracy is grotesquely misplaced. A mere glance at the decline of American power relative to other increasingly powerful states–principally China–reveals that the 21st century will continue to be dominated by interstate competition, and will result in a world characterized by increasingly intense Great Power struggle. The question of liberal democracy’s fate in the greater context of global affairs has not been settled. In fact, our continuing experience of the interaction of states shows ever more clearly that the fundamental drivers and movers of world affairs are not fleeting values or attachments to naïve ideological systems; they are, in fact, considerations of interest achieved by the development and projection of raw power.
The rise of China is an issue that deserves particular attention. It’s quite easy to get lost in daily headlines that–in spite of recent economic gyrations related to the ongoing global economic crisis–acclaim China’s mesmerizing rise from catastrophic poverty a mere 30 years ago to the innermost circles of global power. Richard Nixon and his then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s opening of American relations with China in the 1970s was not only a brilliant Realpolitik chessboard move designed to further constrain the Soviet Union during the Cold War; it was also, in an important sense, the beginning of a reordering of the global distribution of power.
Today, China’s influence in Asia is growing at an alarming rate (recent events surrounding the issue of sovereignty over the South China Sea and the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are indicative of this). It has been aggressively pursuing and defending its interests in Central Asia, Africa and now even the Arctic region. After a “century of humiliation” during which it was carved up and abused by foreign powers, China is eager to reclaim a position its national consciousness believes it unjustly lost: a position of unsurpassed power in the world, and of hegemonic dominance in eastern Asia, a region which is presently kept stable largely through the contribution of American military might.
This American presence has preserved stability on the Korean peninsula, prevented China from enveloping Taiwan, promoted a relative degree of calm between Japan and China and generally keeps shipping lanes open and safe for the business of high-stakes, multibillion dollar trade. China, however, sees American power in the region as a constraint on its ability guarantee its security and pursue its ends. It desires to attain enough power to exclude the United States from what it regards as its right sphere of interest. This is the next potential theater for serious Great Power conflict in the 21st century.
Contrary to the worldview of idealists, ideology and values do not determine how states interact with each other in the international system. The fact that the United States professes allegiance to liberal values, or that China continues to be communist in name, does not alter the basic realities that provoke their behavior with respect to each other–realities which include the constant struggle for security in an anarchical global framework, chronic fear of the intentions and power of other states, and the pursuit of interests through the projection of raw power. This intellectual perspective is a reflection the great tradition of “realism” in international relations, a tradition that finds its origins in the writings of ancients such as Thucydides and was developed by the contributions of consequential thinkers ranging from Machiavelli to George Kennan. Future columns will elaborate on this tradition, and the world will be considered in this small space through its venerable lenses.
This article was written by Adam Twardowski, a contributing writer for The Concordian.