Editor’s Note: The recent events in Ukraine have dredged up memories of an era of great-power competition and territorial conquest driven by imperialistic ambitions that many observers believed had been relegated to the dustbin of history. My colleague at Brookings, Raphael Cohen, and Gabriel Scheinmann, an analyst at the geostrategic analysis firm Wikistrat, argue that contrary to what many, including President Obama, may want to believe, the world of international relations is still very much defined by great-power competition and realpolitik considerations, and those who choose to ignore this stark reality do so at their own peril.
Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula came as a shock to many who had assumed that territorial conquest was a thing of the past. An indignant Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text,” as if conquest were a fashion faux pas and simply “not what one does” in civilized society. By the time he testified before Congress several weeks later, Kerry seemed to have accepted the new-old reality: “Today, we’re living with a far more almost 19th-century, 18th-century diplomatic playing field where interests, and some cases mercantilist interests, in other cases security interests, territorial interests, other kinds of things, are raising their head in ways they didn’t during the Cold War because other things were suppressed.” This claim—that the post-Cold War environment heralds a return to 19th-century dynamics—prompts two questions: Is it accurate? And if so, what should it mean for American foreign policy?
While power politics indeed defined the 19th century, territorial conquest for mercantilist or security reasons did not die, as Kerry suggested, with the end of World War II. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Czechoslovakia, China overran Tibet, Indonesia occupied East Timor, Turkey invaded Cyprus, and Morocco invaded Western Sahara, to name a few. Even after the Cold War, Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait in 1990. More recently, Russia’s occupations of Georgian and Ukrainian territory and China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over Japanese-controlled waters demonstrate that territorial ambitions never were, are, or will be passé.
To be fair, as Fareed Zakaria noted, the frequency of outright territorial annexation has declined. He chalks this up to the triumph of global norms, but if one closely examines the research he cites, one sees that it actually shows that the second half of the 20th century had the most territorial conflicts of any half-century since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648. In other words, successful territorial conquest has become more difficult and the manner in which the “Great Game” is played has evolved, but the game still exists. The world remains a nasty place.
To illustrate this point, one need only compare the current Crimean crisis with the first Crimean War (1853-1856). Superficially, the two conflicts look very different. The Crimean War was actually a war; it involved ten states, inflicted half a million casualties (although many were due to disease), and reverberated well beyond the confines of the actual conflict. It catapulted writers on both sides, Leo Tolstoy and Lord Alfred Tennyson, to fame and eventually brought down the British government of Lord Aberdeen. Although it is still evolving and its full effects are as yet unknown, today’s Crimea crisis is unlikely to have such dramatic and scarring effects.
On a deeper level, the two conflicts have a lot in common. Control of the strategic peninsula with its warm-water port remains, in Moscow’s mind, as important today as it was in the 1850s. Both wars were justified by the combatants as necessary to protect the rights of minority groups living outside their borders: Catholic and Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land in the first Crimean War and Russian speakers in Ukraine today. Both were considered “limited wars” (although the term meant something very different then than it does today), pitting the interests of Russia against its Western rivals. In sum, the game remains the game, no matter the century.
Ironically, it is the Obama administration’s reaction, not Vladimir Putin’s behavior, that seems out of step with historical precedent. To be sure, the administration shares the combined feelings of horror, revulsion, and pity of European power politics with early American leaders. In his Farewell Address, George Washington characterized European disputes with the same disgust that Kerry expressed for Russia’s recent actions, describing them as “the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice.” Thomas Jefferson similarly remarked on the “calamitous scenes of Europe,” noting that “it is our duty to look on the bloody arena spread before us with commiseration indeed, but with no other wish than to see it closed.”
The founding fathers, however, were not naïve. Washington, Jefferson, and others were fully cognizant of American weakness and the limited interests the country had in such far-flung corners of Europe. They understood the way the game was played and decided it was best for the United States to sit it out until it could compete. As Washington imparted, “it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her [Europe’s] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.” This approach, whose echoes can be seen in contemporary libertarianism, is at least internally consistent, if not always prudent.
The Obama administration’s reaction also marks a break from the giants of 20th-century American internationalism. Awoken from their slumber by the wars in Europe, Americans realized that while they may not like the zero-sum nature of European politics, they had to live with it, and thus they sought to shape it. In his 1941 State of the Union address, Franklin Roosevelt argued that “from 1815 to 1914— ninety-nine years— no single war in Europe or in Asia constituted a real threat against our future or against the future of any other American nation.” But, he asserted, this was no longer true: “No realistic American can expect from a dictator's peace international generosity, or return of true independence, or world disarmament, or freedom of expression, or freedom of religion—or even good business.” And with this, Roosevelt cemented the conversion of American foreign policy that began with Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, lasted through the Cold War, and persists today among the more hawkish elements of both parties—transforming the United States from a neutral, if sometimes naïve, power to the indispensable nation. The game was simply too important for the United States to sit on the bench any longer.
Instead, the Obama administration insists upon a third route: claiming the game no longer exists. “In the 21st century,” Obama thundered, “the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force; that international law matters; and that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.” Instead of acknowledging, even reluctantly, that power politics is a pillar of international relations, the administration contends that “Russia is on the wrong side of history” and declares that international politics is no longer “a zero-sum game.” Perhaps above all, it clings to the idea that international laws and norms with token economic sanctions will triumph over Putin’s ambitions and Russian hard power.
Ultimately, “pivots,” “resets,” and “smart power” cannot replace the realities of great power politics: territorial control still matters; international relations is typically zero-sum; and power regularly trumps norms. While Kerry averred that the administration “will not hesitate to use 21st-century tools to hold Russia accountable for 19th-century behavior,” the United States cannot wish the game away—if only because others will keep playing. Referring to Winston Churchill, Charles Krauthammer once quipped, “It took a 19th century man—traditional in habit, rational in thought, conservative in temper—to save the 20th century from itself.” Perhaps it will take a 20th-century man or woman—another Roosevelt, Thatcher, or Reagan—to save the 21st century from itself.
Raphael Cohen is a pre-doctoral fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. Gabriel Scheinmann is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat. Both are Ph.D. candidates in international relations at Georgetown University.