In one of his essays, Joseph Epstein, the American cultural critic and essayist, writes: “Just when you begin to think you understand a thing or two about the drama of life, they change the scenery and send in a whole new cast of characters.” Epstein’s wonderfully constructed words are most applicable to the global affairs of our decade. Since the tragic events of September 11, the world has been faced with one major enemy: al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups throughout the world. On spending billions of dollars and deploying vast resources of all sorts, we came to get a sense of what this group’s way of thinking and its modus operandi was. Though as this group comes to expire, ISIS, a new destructive force whose logic, in the words of Albert Camus, is as criminal as their hearts, has come to wreak havoc on Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East.
ISIS — though extremely dangerous and destructive — is not the only threat looming large in our decade. There is the reemergence of Russia as a behemoth force, trying to reestablish its sphere of influence in Europe. There is the economic rise of China and its military build-up. There is the disintegration of the European Union, which will present significant threats to the United States and to Europe itself. There is a renewed sense of nationalism throughout the world. There is the spread of various diseases, facilitated by the constant crossing of borders. The list of threats of all nature, pervasive in our time, goes on. Add to this list Kenneth Waltz’s four “p’s” — poverty, population, pollution, and proliferation — and we will have “the full catastrophe” as Zorba the Greek liked to say.
Every period is unique in its existence. However, the politics of our decade is particularly sui generis. Rarely before has a local or regional force such as ISIS threatened not only the stability of a local government but also the harmony of advanced, highly developed countries. However, ISIS and the likes of it will eventually fade away as al-Qaeda is doing already. While we must remain vigilant and avoid hesitating to resort to any foreign policy tool to annihilate ISIS, it’s the great, big countries with large economies and sophisticated militaries (countries that do not share our democratic values and harbor hegemonic aspirations) that should become our number one priority. The defining, vastly consequential struggle of our time will be the economic rise of China and its forthcoming attempts to rearrange the centuries-old international system.
China’s growing economy and military ambitions will compel the United States to respond and become engaged in indirect, if not direct, rivalries. The quest for energy supplies and other natural resources will move China to behave in ways that will not be in line with the United States’ national interests around the world. Furthermore, what makes things more complicated is the fact that China’s values and methods of conducting foreign policy stand in stark contrast to that of the United States’. It’s not only the demand for energy resources that will prompt China to act more aggressively, but also the pride and hubris that accompany the accumulation of national wealth; St. Augustine was right to have said: “It was pride that changed angels into devils.” A strong economy usually leads to the formation of a strong defensive system. Great powers build formidable militaries for the purpose of ensuring their survival; one important way that great powers ensure their survival is through expansion and further accumulation of power.
As a great power, China will go to great lengths to revise the international system as we know it so that it is more conducive to its political sensibilities. China will change the status quo to aggrandize its economic and political leverage on the world stage. Such an effort will of course drive the United States and its Western allies to counter China. How this scenario plays out will represent one of the biggest geopolitical dilemmas of our time.
Almost every century has begun with a great many acts of violence. This is because some powers lose their prominence on the world stage while new players, armed with superior economic and military prowess, come onto the scene. The new, strong countries want more control over their region and the international system. It was this desire for more power and prestige on the world stage that drove Germany to start World War I and World War II. There was of course the fear of a joint invasion of France and Russia, and German strategists thought the only way to avoid such a catastrophe was to preempt. The point I’m trying to make here is that the rise of China, as of any other rising country, will go hand in hand with its desire for more power.
It’s this desire for more power that will undoubtedly deal the western world a messy situation in the ensuing years. And because existing powers, however feeble they have become economically and militarily, are not ready to accommodate the newly arrived powers, that conflict ensues. Such a scenario is likely to take place in our time. On the conclusion of such a conflict for the configuration of power, current arrangements of the international system will have to be reworked. Disagreements over the distribution of power on the world stage must be resolved. Great power statuses must be rearranged and reassigned so that the winners’ demands for more hegemony on the world stage is accommodated.
The politics of our decade is such that we cannot help but be ambushed by surprises. Think of ISIS — none of the think tanks or intelligence agencies foresaw its emergence. And because of the developments in the technological world and the facilities it provides terrorist groups with, we will continue to wake up to unsettling surprises. Cyber attacks by rogue states and non-state actors will be another surprise we should gear up for. In an attempt to advance their economic interests and ideological agendas, regional players will use smaller, mobile proxy groups to create chaos and incoherence. For example, Iran will not hesitate to employ and deploy any terrorist group, including ISIS, to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan for its own ends.
Given the growing uncertain complexities of world affairs, now is the time for the United States to remain deeply engaged throughout the world; formulate new strategies to deal with a rising China; form new alliances in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia; and create various, new configurations of power. Our period is pregnant with splendid uncertainties and complexities. For the sake of global stability, the maintenance and advancement of its values and interests, the United States must stay strong and engaged in the messy affairs of the world. For our disengagement will make global affairs only messier, and that will be an outcome of tragic consequences for everyone in this decade and beyond.