WASHINGTON -- Israel vs. Hamas. Ukraine vs. Russia. Unaccompanied minors at the Texas border. Syria in flames, with a militant “caliphate” at the door. Iran stalling for time on nukes. A rising China sowing fear throughout the rest of Asia.
The world seems dangerously unmanageable these days.
President Barack Obama is paying a political price at home, with 55 percent of Americans polled by Pew now disapproving of his handling of foreign affairs -- a dramatic reversal from 2009, when his approval rating was 56 percent. While experts argue about how much Obama and his policies are really to blame, the truth is that he occupies the Oval Office at a time of historic flux and of diminished clout, not only for the U.S. but also for the idea of a dominant global power.
To understand that, you need to revisit an influential article published in Foreign Affairs in 2008 by Richard Haass. It’s called “The Age of Nonpolarity,” and Haass wrote it as he was advising presidential candidates behind the scenes in both parties.
Haass, the longtime president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations (and before that a staffer for President Jimmy Carter and the two Bushes), painted a grim picture of an unsettled, chaotic and dangerously diffuse world Familiar methods of diplomacy, statecraft and war had become feeble, if not useless, in the 21st century, he wrote. The ages of “unipolar” power (i.e., a dominant United States) were over; so were the times of “multi-polar” power, such as the first half of the 20th century.
Now the world faced a free-for-all in which “non-state actors” -- terrorists, global corporations, religious and ethnic tribes, sovereign wealth funds and nonprofit charities, to name a few -- were as crucial as countries in shaping the order of a “nonpolar” world.
To be clear, non-state actors -- which also include alliances such as the United Nations and the European Union, "civil society" foundations and academic institutions -- could be forces for healing as well as mayhem. As Haass noted more recently to The Huffington Post, "If you are talking about education or health care globally, for example, it wouldn't make any sense not to have the Gates Foundation involved." But still these new entities do not follow the familiar playbook of nations.
The Internet and international floods of capital were empowering these non-state players, Haass wrote in 2008. No nation or set of nations was “in charge.” Ethnic, religious and regional rivalries had been set free by the weakness of nation-states, and by an Internet that enables digital forces who couldn't care less about the wisdom of Metternich or Gorbachev-Reagan diplomacy.
The U.S. had to figure out how to operate in this new world, in which my-way-or-the-highway wouldn’t work, and neither would traditional nation-to-nation “talks,” Haass wrote. Military power would be just as important as before, he wrote, but it would have to be shrewdly and surgically applied, and almost always in concert not only with other countries but with other non-state players.
Although Haass had spent many years working for Republicans, his article caught the eye of then-Sen. Obama. Early in his presidency, Obama journeyed to Cairo to give a speech designed to reach out to the Islamic world and, in doing so, to enunciate the core of his own global theory. He declared that the real America did not fit the “crude stereotype of a self-interested empire” -- and certainly would not do so while he was in charge.
The new interdependence of the world, the president said, was in conflict with a “human history [that] has often been a record of nations and tribes subjugating one another to serve their own interests.
“Yet, in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating,” Obama said. “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners of it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; progress must be shared.”
It was an idealistic, uplifting message -- and one that seemed to fit the changing times described by Haass. Four months later, officials in Norway announced that they were giving Obama the Nobel Peace Prize.
Six years after he wrote his original article, Haass is busy writing another, and it's an even more timely call for a new understanding of how to manage world crises. The evidence that we need to do better is in the headlines and the videos.
“Things have gotten much worse,” he told HuffPost. “It’s even more urgent that we figure out a new form of world governance, because the old ones don’t work.”
The disruptive forces he wrote about before have become more potent and unsettling, and President Obama, while he understands the challenge, hasn’t always executed as well as he could have, Haass said. There's a rising factor Haass didn’t predict: the waves of immigrants and refugees “within nations and between them,” who are not easily dealt with by traditional diplomatic or military methods.
“I’m updating the piece,” he said, for a world that is now at nonpolarity plus.
The tangled flare-ups around the world are made more intractable by the fact that one leader can’t phone another and cut a deal that guarantees results. The organizing principals are in flux. Consider these trouble spots:
Israel and Hamas. Once upon a time, the lid was kept on the Levant largely by two great powers, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Those days are over, thanks to Shia sectarianism, Sunni terrorism in the form of al Qaeda and now the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and the Israelis’ growing willingness to ignore U.S. pressure.
Ukraine and Russia. Ever unsure of its identity, Russia is once again on the march, albeit not as in the days of uniformed soldiers driving tanks into Slavic city squares. President Vladimir Putin has empowered Ukrainian separatists whom he can’t quite control, with disastrous results.
Two major petro-theocracies. One is Iran, the other Saudi Arabia. Old-style notions of statecraft don’t rule these two oil-rich players. Instead, they are the modern spear points of a 14-centuries-long sectarian war, in which religion is nationhood.
“The Caliphate.” Nothing demonstrates the deterioration of the very idea of “nation” more than the pop-up caliphate declared by ISIS. Sunni insurgents have seized territory in Syria and Iraq, the modern borders of which were drawn by the so-called Great Powers a century ago.
According to Haass, the Far East is the only region where world affairs are being conducted along old lines. “The China situation is the most traditional,” he said. It's a rising major power dealing with its longtime regional rivals.
But even in and around China, there are non-state players and problems. China is exporting tens of thousands of its own workers throughout Southeast Asia, an international business model that is causing friction in Vietnam and Cambodia. And the People’s Republic is being harassed on its western flank by Islamic separatists, who want nothing more -- or less -- than the freedom to worship as they wish.
China’s rulers have responded with a vicious military crackdown.
But that method won’t work in the rest of the world anymore. It may not even work in China.