Conflict between Major Powers
Conflict between Major Powers
In recent years, we have seen the renewal of a phenomenon that seemed to have passed into history with the end of the Cold War: fierce and potentially violent competition between the most powerful countries on the globe. Yet as dangerous as that competition is in its own right, it is also worsening prospects for solving many of the world’s other problems, from migration to economic crises to climate change.
Relations between the great powers — the US and its allies on the one hand, and countries such as China and Russia on the other — represent the new, volatile center of gravity in world politics. When there is instability at the center, it spreads outward and affects everything it touches.
Until relatively recently, many observers believed just the opposite: that all good things would go together in global affairs. One of the most widespread and optimistic notions of the 1990s and 2000s was the idea that the decline of traditional state-versus-state geopolitical conflict was making it easier to deal with the array of international and transnational challenges that threatened all of us. With American dominance unquestioned, and the major powers mostly getting along, the international community could focus greater attention on terrorism, climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation and other shared dangers. That cooperation, in turn, could reinforce the good feelings between the major powers.
This belief had bipartisan support. In 2002, the George W. Bush administration’s National Security Strategy held that the international community had an unprecedented opportunity to banish the geopolitical rivalries of the past by working to suppress the transnational dangers of the present. “Today, the world’s great powers find ourselves on the same side," that document noted, “united by common dangers of terrorist violence and chaos.”
During Barack Obama’s presidency, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made the same argument. "Most nations worry about the same global threats," she explained. By inducing greater cooperation and reducing competition, Washington could make an emerging “multipolar world” into a “multi-partner world.”
This argument was always just true enough to be alluring. In the two decades after the Cold War, the US-led international community did achieve real cooperative success in grappling with a range of issues, from Saddam Hussein’s aggression in the Persian Gulf, to the brutal war in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, to piracy off the Horn of Africa, to the worldwide economic and financial crisis of 2008-09. In all of these areas, the historically low level of conflict between the major powers was critical to getting things done.
Yet the imperative of working together on these challenges was not strong enough to overcome the impetus toward renewed competition as China and Russia gradually gained the ability to reassert themselves. And as geopolitical tensions have flared over the last decade, the prospects for positive-sum collaboration have dimmed.
Consider the ongoing civil war in Syria. For nearly eight years, frictions between the US and Russia (as well as Russia’s ally in that conflict, Iran) have consistently stymied greater international pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime to hand over power or simply stop the killing. At every step, Moscow protected Assad and helped him keep waging war against his own population rather than seeing a Russian partner in the Middle East toppled by a US-backed revolt. If successful international intervention, blessed by the United Nations Security Council, in Bosnia in 1995-96 was a symbol of the mutually reinforcing relationship between great-power comity and global cooperation, the nightmare in Syria stands as a marker of the perverse symbiosis between great-power conflict and global disorder.