Shaking the Tree to See What Comes Loose.

            For a while now the world has been experiencing a return to Great Power Politics.  This isn’t the same as the “rules-based system” sponsored by the United States for many decades.[1]   It’s far from the “Olympianism” imagined by many Europeans.[2]  It’s more like the hard-headed international relations of the Nineteenth Century.[3] 

            China and Russia have challenged the established order and the established codes of conduct.  Military force is being used in Ukraine and might be used in Taiwan.  So far, Russia has been easy to punish, but hard to stop by non-military means.  America’s economic campaign to get China to negotiate—tariffs and other measures—hasn’t brought compliance.  In the United States and elsewhere, people are starting to think about more traditional means of eliciting better behavior.  One of these is military power.  Another is alliances. 

            Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) out of its post-Communist funk.  That is reassuring.  However, the crisis also has suggested that the foundation of other alliances have been undermined. 

            After the Second World War, the global prosperity of the non-Communist world rested upon on several pillars.  One of them was cheap and abundant energy.  American recognition of the need for energy security led to American security guarantees.  The role of energy in global prosperity empowered the oil-producing countries who belong to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).  American engagement helped manage the constructive behavior of the Middle East oil-producers by getting them to balance their own profits against global needs.  Ever since the “oil shocks” of the 1970s, the United States has been off-setting many of its own costs by selling advanced arms to the oil states.  China’s dependence on imported oil restrains adventurism. 

            Walter Russell Mead[4] has excoriated the Middle Eastern policy of the Obama administration.[5]  The velvet-glove-without-iron-fist treatment of Iran, the ridiculous hopes placed in the “Arab Spring,” the mishandling of anti-government movements in both Egypt and Syria, and the desire to end the American involvement in Iraq made clear the administration’s willingness to pay a high price to “pivot to Asia.”  Middle Eastern leaders began looking to Russia and China.  That shift continued under the Trump Administration. 

            Now Saudi Arabia opposes increasing pumping more oil in the midst of gas price spikes.  It has a production agreement with Russia.  Time for a reset says Mead. 


[1] See, for example: https://www.salon.com/2021/05/26/tony-blinken-talks-about-a-rules-based-order–does-he-mean-the-us-gets-to-make-the-rules/ 

[2] According to the late John Keegan, “Olympianism” “seeks to influence and eventually control the behavior of states not by the traditional means of resorting to force as a last resort but by supplanting force by rational procedures, exercised through a supranational bureaucracy and supranational legal systems and institutions.”  Keegan regards this as delusional, but widespread.  He describes the “Olympian ethic” as “opposition to any form of international action lying outside the now commonly approved limits of legal disapproval and treaty condemnation.” (John Keegan, The Iraq War (2005), pp. 109, 115.   

[3] That diplomacy has often been derided by intelligent, well-educated, and well-intentioned fools such as President Woodrow Wilson.  Nevertheless, it managed to prevent any general European war between 1815 and 1914, while also facilitating the imposition of Western rule over non-Western places that would not adapt to the modern world. 

[4] On Read, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Russell_Mead 

[5] Walter Russell Mead, “The Cost of Neglecting the Middle East,” WSJ, 4 March 2022. 

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