MADRID – Today, great-power competition is a fact: The United States now competes with an increasingly active Russia and a rising China. The Middle East, the South China Sea, and Ukraine are just three theaters where this new reality is playing out.
Upon rereading former US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott’s book The Great Experiment, I was left with the impression that the seeds of some of the dynamics at play today were sown some time ago. The book describes a conversation that took place in December 2000 between President Bill Clinton and President-elect George W. Bush. Clinton says that, judging by Bush’s electoral campaign, the security issues that seemed to concern him most were Saddam Hussein and the construction of a large-scale antimissile defense system. “That’s absolutely right,” Bush responds.
These issues were put on hold when tragedy unexpectedly struck, in the form of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, which brought a period of international cooperation during which solidarity against terrorism reigned. It was a time when we were all Americans, and when Bush described Putin as “very straightforward and trustworthy.”
The winds began to change that December, when the US announced that it was withdrawing from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, in order to build an antimissile defense system to protect itself from a potentially nuclearized Iran. This did not go unnoticed in Russia.
The US at the time did not seem to understand that a multipolar world order was emerging – one that would make it very difficult to pursue, without serious consequences, the policies that Bush and Clinton had discussed in 2000. In a 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin made this plain, vehemently rejecting the intervention in Iraq and especially US plans to expand antimissile defense systems to Europe, calling this an act of aggression toward Russia and a breach of common European security.
In the summer of 2008, three events placed the new multipolar order in stark relief. China dazzled the world as host of the Olympic Games, reinforcing its status as a significant international player. Russia’s military actions in Georgia – in the midst of the Games – showed the world that the concept of spheres of influence was still alive and well in the Kremlin. And the collapse the following month of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers, which unleashed a global financial crisis from which the world economy has yet to recover fully, underscored the advanced economies’ vulnerabilities, while largely sparing China.
With a new sense of confidence in its great-power status, China seemed to qualify the concept of a “peaceful rise” that its leaders have invoked since the era of Deng Xiaoping, adopting a more muscular foreign-policy approach within its neighborhood. Drawing on alleged historical rights, China began to expand its territorial claims, along with its military presence, in the South and East China Seas. In 2013, tensions peaked when China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering territories in the East China Sea that it claims, but Japan controls.
Many of the countries affected by China’s actions in the South and East China Seas have security treaties with the US, which has been the major maritime power in the Pacific region since World War II. China’s ADIZ declaration was therefore viewed by the US as a provocation. By expanding its sovereignty claims, China was actually expanding its claims to influence.
It has taken the international institutions some time to catch up to the changing world order. The 2010 G-20 summit in Seoul produced an agreement to increase the emerging countries’ quotas in the International Monetary Fund by 2014. But the US Congress refused to ratify the changes, so nothing came of the agreement.
China then took matters into its own hands, spearheading the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Fragmentation of the international institutions seemed imminent – that is, until European countries decided to join the AIIB. Though the US resisted at first, and has still refused to join, that decision was lent some nuance in a later conversation between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, Russia was exposing its own renewed foreign-policy ambitions in Ukraine. By violating the Helsinki Final Act in the spring of 2014, Putin placed Russian foreign policy in direct opposition to that of the US and Europe. This position was reaffirmed in September, when Putin decided to intervene in the Syrian conflict, securing for Russia a role in any attempt to bring peace to the country.
Today, the world is very different from what some might have imagined at the end of the last century, a decade after the Berlin Wall came down. Historically speaking, 15 years can seem long or short, depending on the intensity of change. During the last 15 years of mounting great-power competition and renewed instability in the Middle East – including the Arab Spring, the rise of the brutal Islamic State, Sunni-Shia proxy wars, and unspeakable human suffering – change has been very intense, to say the least.
But confrontation is not the whole story. Promising steps have been made in two critical areas: nuclear non-proliferation, especially through the nuclear deal with Iran, and the fight against climate change, exemplified in the encouraging preparations for the current climate summit in Paris.
If there is one lesson to be learned from all of this, it is that well-executed, tenacious diplomacy still holds extraordinary power to resolve conflicts. It remains the best instrument to produce those cooperative outcomes that confrontation effectively impedes.
*Javier Solana was EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain. He is currently President of the ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics, Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Europe.