After emerging from the Dark Ages, the World moved along as a dynamic balancing act between British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese and German powers until the period between World Wars, during which the Oxidant saw the rise of The Third Reich to quasi Super Power status, and the Orient absorbed the rise of the Japanese Empire.
The end of hostilities in 1945 saw the dawn of a New World Order – Europe lay in ruins from the Urals to the Atlantic, the Japans were a de facto American colony and the United States stood astride the World. The post-World War II era revealed itself however, as a bipolar world, the seat of despotism having merely moved east to Moscow, and the New World Order turned out to be a Cold War between national self-determination and Communism. This would define the next 46 years.
Any group will have a leader – appointed, elected or percolated – and the world of nations (often laughably mischaracterized as “the community of nations”) can be thought of as a metagroup of group [state] leaders, co-existing on a Hobbesian sea of anarchy, having no overarching governing body imbued with an enforcement mechanism. This arrangement yields a struggle to achieve a power-balance against any existential threats perceived by any given nation. The natural tendency of nations is very Darwinian – the weak are dominated (or eliminated) by the strong. That’s just how it works as long as there is a strong state willing to exploit weaker ones.
With the Western defeat of Imperialism, Fascism and Nazism, the world found itself in an ideological struggle between democracy and Communism – a true, worldwide bipolar arrangement. There was a disengaged collection of nations that were reluctant to bandwagon with either – the Third World – which formed the battlespace for much of the competition between the Super Powers. This post-World War II period was fascinating: history’s longest period of prolonged confrontation between the dominant powers in which neither engaged the other in general warfare – largely because both were in possession of fission and fusion weapons. As Richard Pearle noted discussing Mutually Assured Destruction, “It’s wasn’t pretty, but it worked.”
The dissolution of the Soviet Empire left the world in a Pax Americana. The United States maintains a military that is an order of magnitude more powerful than any other; defense spending close to half of global military expenditures; a blue-water navy superior to all others combined; a chance at a splendid nuclear first strike over its erstwhile foe, Russia; a defense R&D budget that is 80% of the total defense expenditures of its most obvious future competitor, China; and unmatched global power-projection capabilities. The post-Cold War international system is unquestionably unipolar.
It is a mantle inherited, but a mantle nonetheless – and as they say, with great power comes great responsibility. Chief among those responsibilities is the Command of the Commons: keeping the world’s shipping- and air-lanes open for the free transit of trade. That requires the very power-projection assets that preclude other great power challenges – an incomparable blue-water Navy and virtual worldwide air superiority. No other nation on Earth can accomplish this task. Without American husbanding of these trade lanes, they are left to whims of local powers such as Iran and its tacit control of the Strait of Hormuz.
While the evaporation of the Soviet Union didn’t produce Sailors kissing nurses in the streets of New York, the relief was palpable in the capitals of the world. George HW Bush announced “a New World Order,” about which he was inevitably right – the disappearance of a global pole can’t leave the order of things unchanged – producing two seminal commentaries, Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, and Samuel P Huntington’s 1993 essay in Foreign Affairs, The Clash of Civilizations.
Professor Fukuyama argues that in the end, Aristotle was right – of all the government types likely to be realized by actual human beings, a republic is the superior model – and that Adam Smith was right – that without economic freedom, there can be no political freedom. Market republicanism, then, is the highest and best method of governance yet envisioned by man. With the defeat of Soviet Communism and the Chinese economy liberalizing, “History,” in the struggle for balancing governance and humanism has ended and the “last man standing” is market republicanism.
Professor Huntington argues that the next order of things will be a generalized post-national arrangement of cultures seeking common governance. Very few nation-states are culturally homogenous, building-in fissures of potential strife. He sees eight natural groupings of persons – civilizations – that form natural amalgams for internally consistent governance. These are the Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African civilizations. The long-wave future, he contends, will be strife between these groups, only exacerbated if they are randomly distributed among various sovereign states practicing foreign (to them) cultures.
Both of these treatises enjoyed wide readership and resulted in wide commentary, both pro and con.
Zbigniew Brzezinski also penned a scholarly examination of the post-Cold War world in his 2005 essay, The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign, for The American Interest, in which he writes:
America today is the world’s most sovereign state. To be sure, in our time the concept of sovereignty has been largely drained of content by the reality of increasing interdependence among states. For most states, sovereignty now verges on being a legal fiction. Even in the case of the more powerful few, practical rationality lessens the temptation to arbitrarily assert sovereignty. Ultimately, of course, any state (or rather, its leadership) can commit even a suicidal act of folly, but the scope for such self-assertion is increasingly constrained by the overlapping interests of some 200 states in a more politically congested and interwoven world.
He lays out the conundrum faced by George W Bush, having the deep conviction that to protect America’s national interest the United States must have a free hand: the sovereign Gulliver must not be tied down by feckless Lilliputians. A robust Realist view as opposed to the squishiness of Liberal Internationalism. Dr Brzeainski called it “neoconservatism,” but what he describes is Realist theory. Neoconservatism, like neoliberalism, lies in the intent – Realism, Liberal Internationalism, Isolationism, Democratic Globalism are defined by policy.
Justin Logan argues that with the sudden disappearance of a bipolar environment, our alliances are now obsolete, or at very least, run the risk of being obsolete. Our strategic alliances need to be completely rethought in light of “the New World Order.”
The point is, much, much academic thought has been given to just how the world works under these new conditions. While all of these (and many, many others) hold a modicum of truth, none comes close to describing the reality that actually has emerged. Unipolarity isn’t being led by Brzezinski’s Gulliver, nor has the nation-state dissolved into Huntington’s borderless “civilizations” nor are we presiding over the end of man’s search for governance models. Rather the world’s peoples are, as they always have been, searching for ways to get along in a world they do not define.
The acceleration of China’s rise, Putin’s reasserting Russian influence in the old Soviet sphere, the euro’s near-death experience, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, none of this was foreseen by the thinkers pondering the affects of the Soviet demise. And most of all, no one saw the specter of the PLO’s Soviet-taught political terrorism morphing into a worldwide jihad by apocalyptic zealots.
We find ourselves flailing around in the unfamiliar, modifying strategies and doctrines carefully crafted for a world that no longer exists, fighting an enemy that reveres death and sees mayhem as legitimate tool to fulfill their Lord of the Flies version of the Qur’an’s message – convert or die. As backdrop to all of this is the exponential increase in connectivity that gave rise to the ease with which Arab Springers spread their message and coordinated their demonstrations; the hopelessly intertwined nature of the world’s economies; and a rudderless America that unwittingly insults its allies and abets its adversaries. The world, in other words, is far more complex, and far more unknowable, than the early commentators anticipated.
In some ways, the next president’s foreign affairs task is somewhat simplified in that he will be starting from a clean slate – the Obama administration having no discernable overall foreign policy. What is needed is for a team of people whose task is to establish a coherent worldview and how America currently fits into that picture. Then the president should articulate, in detail, how he envisions America’s role in the world. Foreign policy then becomes how we get from here to there.
 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2010: Armaments, Disarmament, and International Security, Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 196-198.
 Ibid., p. 202.
 Robert O Work, Winning the Race: A Naval Fleet Platform Architecture for Enduring Maritime Supremacy, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2005, p. 16.
 Keir A Lieber and Daryl G Press, The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of US Primacy, in International Security, Spring 2006, pp. 7-44.
 Barry Posen, Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of US Hegemony, in International Security, Summer 2003, pp. 5-46; and Robert J Lieber, The American Era:Power and Strategy for the 21st Century, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 16.
 Posen, ibid.
 See Nuno P Monteiro, Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity Is Not Peaceful, in International Security, Winter 2011/2012, p. 9.
 Senior Fellow, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, Stanford; served as a professor and director, International Development, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.
 Eaton Professor of the Science of Government, Director, John M Olin Institute for Strategic Studies, Harvard University; author, Political Order in Changing Societies.
 Samuel P Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations, in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, pp. 22-34.
 Founding board member, The American Interest; trustee and counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies; fmr national security advisor [President Jimmy Carter].
 Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Dilemma of the Last Sovereign, in The American Interest, Autumn 2005, p. 37.
 Associate Director, foreign policy studies, Cato Institute [Washington DC].
 Justin Logan, America’s Alliances Are Costly Relics, in Defense News, November 9 2009.
 See KGB General Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Russian Footprints, in National Review, August 25 2006.