The crises that unfolded in Ukraine, Syria, and the Pacific appear to have blindsided Western nations. In a new piece in Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead argues that America was caught flat-footed largely due to a misreading of the post-Cold War geopolitical landscape. To many in the West, the end of the Cold War brought the dawn of an era in which promoting liberal internationalism was more important than engaging in old-fashioned geopolitics. But countries like Russia, China, and Iran have never been particularly satisfied with this order, and they have been working to upset it wherever they can. These crises are symptoms of their success, and they serve as a reminder that America can ignore geopolitics at its own peril:
In East Asia, China’s increasingly assertive stance has yet to yield much concrete geopolitical progress, but it has fundamentally altered the political dynamic in the region with the fastest-growing economies on earth. Asian politics today revolve around national rivalries, conflicting territorial claims, naval buildups, and similar historical issues. The nationalist revival in Japan, a direct response to China’s agenda, has set up a process in which rising nationalism in one country feeds off the same in the other. China and Japan are escalating their rhetoric, increasing their military budgets, starting bilateral crises with greater frequency, and fixating more and more on zero-sum competition. […]In the Middle East, the situation is even more acute. Dreams that the Arab world was approaching a democratic tipping point — dreams that informed U.S. policy under both the Bush and the Obama administrations — have faded. Rather than building a liberal order in the region, U.S. policymakers are grappling with the unraveling of the state system that dates back to the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided up the Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, as governance erodes in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Obama has done his best to separate the geopolitical issue of Iran’s surging power across the region from the question of its compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but Israeli and Saudi fears about Iran’s regional ambitions are making that harder to do. Another obstacle to striking agreements with Iran is Russia, which has used its seat on the UN Security Council and support for Assad to set back U.S. goals in Syria.