“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” If Lenin actually uttered these words, says Richard Haass in Foreign Affairs, he should have added: there are decades when centuries happen. We’re living through one now. With Vladimir Putin willing to do anything to extend Russia’s sphere of influence and China bent on “regional and potentially global supremacy”, there’s been a “sharp decline” in the world order. This has made it impossible for the great powers to work together despite a host of new challenges (climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation), especially as the US – more bitterly divided that at any time since the 19th century – is less willing and able to lead “on the international stage”.
Compare the situation now with what happened just after the Cold War. In August 1990, when Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, Washington organised “wide-ranging” international co-operation (including Russia and China) to drive them out and uphold the principle that “force cannot be used to change borders”. Now, Beijing has aligned itself with Moscow over Ukraine and much of the world won’t take sides. Of course American power was going to fade over time, but the bitter truth is that Washington has utterly failed to build a successful relationship with Russia, and the “wager” that integrating China into the world economy would make it more liberal has not only failed but “backfired”. It’s more repressive now than at any time since Mao. With Iran flexing its muscles and the Middle East “on the cusp of an even more dangerous era”, it’s going to require immense skill from US policymakers to avert disaster.