For 45 years following World War II, we lived in a bi-polar world defined by the Cold War competition of the two superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — both of which had the capacity to destroy each other and all of civilization. Fortunately, deterrence worked. To the extent we fought each other, those conflicts took the form of proxy wars that did not threaten to become Armageddon.
That world presumably ended around 1990-91 with the Soviet collapse, leading to much feverish speculation by tunnel-visioned pundits and academics about “the end of history,” “the peace dividend,” and enduring American primacy.
None of that lasted very long.
Today we live in a much more complicated world, one that makes many people yearn for the good old days of such nuclear insanity as Mutual Assured Destruction (the aptly abbreviated “MAD”), “Star Wars,” and a spate of arms limitations treaties with catchy names like SALT I and START II.
The vacuum created by the end of the Cold War gave rise to non-state actors like al Qaeda and ISIS, ragtag bands of asymmetric warriors who, shockingly, are able to threaten us with terror if not invasion. The resurgence of Russia and emergence of a muscular China add to the complexity of this era. Where there were initially two superpowers armed to the teeth with terrifying weapons, now there are three along with a host of smaller nations that have their own nukes, including some that lack anything remotely resembling tight nuclear security regimes. Atomic weapons belonging to North Korea, India and Pakistan run the risk of falling into the hands of the numerous non-state actors who bear ill-will toward the U.S. Moreover, we can expect that other unstable countries — e.g., Iran, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Brazil — will ultimately join the nuclear club.
The U.S. has been more or less flailing now for almost 30 years trying to devise a grand strategy to deal with the vexing problems this new, multi-polar world presents. Bush 41 probably came closest to a rational approach combining realpolitik with restraint, not letting hubris get in the way of measured responses to international crises. Bill Clinton tried to pursue something similar and was successful playing the role of “honest broker” in the Middle East, the Balkans and Ireland. He also attempted to reinject Jimmy Carter’s admirable addition of human rights considerations to international diplomacy. The careful nurturing of a throw-it-up-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attempt at a coherent policy was completely upended by Bush 43 (see Iraq), not improved by Obama’s indecisiveness (viz, Syria) and rendered a total shambles by Donald Trump (see North Korea, Iran, and disrespecting allies while cozying up to dictators).
I understand that foreign policy is always on the back burner except when we are at all-out war or suffering a terrorist attack of the magnitude of 9/11. However, the U.S. cannot afford to wallow in isolationism. We have no choice but to engage with a world become small. The two vast oceans that distanced us for much of our history from the turmoil and tragedy that so often victimized Europe and Asia have morphed into ponds. A multi-polar world beset by transnational problems can only be managed through multinational cooperation, not go-it-alone petulance. If we don’t find a way to work with other nations to solve our mutual problems, we run the risk of becoming pond scum.
Canandaigua Academy graduate Richard Hermann is a law professor, legal blogger, author of seven books and part-time resident of the Finger Lakes.