By Bruce Jones – America’s politics are mired in dysfunction and division. Much of the focus is on economic questions, and much of the heat is generated by the culture wars; but real wars—and America’s role in them—are part of the debate too.
While this debate preoccupies America, the world is changing, and rapidly. We have entered a new phase in international affairs, leaving behind us the brief moment characterized by untrammeled American dominance. Many of the changes underway are beyond America’s control. However, some dynamics could still be shaped by concerted and disciplined American policy—and might. Whether we are capable of that in the current moment remains to be seen, as does the price Americans are willing to pay to do so.
To paraphrase Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, America is entitled to decide what role we want to play in the world, but we are not entitled to pretend the world is not changing around us.
We are operating in a changing system that has an asymmetric bipolarity at its core, and a fluid, economic multipolarity orbiting around it. It has the following additional features.
First, we are in an undeclared arms race between the United States and China.
Several major countries are debating whether they can rely on the United States to maintain inter-state security in their region (to balance China’s rise in Asia; to contain Iran in the Middle East; to curtail Russian aggression in Europe), at which point those powers seek continued or deeper alignment with Washington.
The tools of renewed geopolitical competition differ depending on the type of state in play. Advanced economies are playing an insidious game of “confront and conceal,” with cyber intrusions, discreet or disguised financial influence, and disinformation to influence or disrupt an opponent’s internal politics.
In less advanced economies, large-scale infrastructure spending combined with political pressure and corruption has emerged as the technique of choice by the great powers, while counter-corruption campaigns are the vehicle for domestic purges. more>