Talking to myself about foreign policy, US politics, technology, &c.

The End of the Innocence

One of my favorite parts of my grad program was being a teaching assistant for Intro to International Relations. 

The question that demonstrated the fundamental differences in the class – and was always good for an argument where I could chill out, sit back, and watch the fireworks – was simply “Will there be a World War in our lifetime?”

No way, I though to myself, drifting off as the students started calling each other impolite names. The world is so economically integrated; it would be financial armageddon. All countries pay at least lip service to liberal democracy; apart from the fringe Salafist Islamic elements, there’s no existential enemy left out there. Peace will prevail. You silly Realist students gunning for another epic conflict were simply not getting enough multi-player Counter Strike in the dorms.  It was The End of History. It’s a Small World After All. Let’s all sing Kumbaya.

And then Russia stomped all over Georgia.

A lot of people have run the analysis of the situation in the Caucasus better than I will; if you read this, I’m sure you’ve read them already.

The main takeaways for me: Territory matters. Nationalism matters. As long as there are authoritarian regimes, the whim of the president prime minster matters.

The whole international system is built of beautiful stained glass – an intricate piece of delicate art, constructed over generations, that seems substantial – but the first time a thug throws a brick through it, as ephemeral as the air. 

As the power of the United States has been sapped in Iraq and a resurgent Russia and expanding China have caught up, we’re back to the era of the Great Powers. Not two superpowers, facing each other with the prospect of worldwide destruction, but something closer to the bad old days. The unipolar moment is past – if either of those countries committed to war in their sphere of influence, America would be faced with the choice of acquiescence - or another World War.

Maybe the teacher – despite my time overseas and expensive education – was the naive one in Intro to IR.

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