This past week, I had the opportunity to host Lowell Schwartz at the Naval War College, and his comments about the shifts he is observing in the global order made a real impression. He posits that we are in the midst of a major shift–that the prevailing assumptions of the last 25 years about the convergence of interests among the major players is giving way to the return of great power competition. While that might not be in and of itself newsworthy–since the just-released National Security Strategy of the United States makes a similar claim, what was critical about Lowell’s observation was the corollary that the accepted wisdom that there are a series of pressing transnational and international challenges which no one power can cope with but which menace all countries, is no longer operative. Other rising and resurgent powers do not necessarily feel threatened by the same challenges as the United States, or are willing to accept higher levels of risk–especially if those challenges have the possibility of imposing limits on the exercise of U.S. power and influence.
This strikes at one of the core assumptions of "communitarian realism"–that a shared set of global challenges lays the impetus for forging closer cooperative institutions among states. If terrorism, extremism, climate change, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and related technologies no longer form the defining agenda for international relations, then the assessment that these challenges would come to outweigh and then diminish the impact of geostrategic differences between the United States and other key powers must be revised.
Russia and China certainly are making the pitch that they ought to be able to revise the regional orders in their own neighborhoods, and to push for changes in the overall global liberally-defined U.S.-led order. Managing this competition increasingly will become the focus of U.S. foreign policy, and therefore the challenge for American policymakers is to determine where to resist revision and where to accommodate it.
The question of transactionalism making a comeback in U.S. foreign policy has been the subject of some of the recent posts at this venue–and one of the questions as we move forward is trading U.S. acceptance for some revision of the regional orders around China and Russia in return for support on America’s global priorities. At present, that is a bargain that has not found much enthusiastic support from within the U.S. national security community–but could that change in the coming years?