You’d think they could wait until America has decided if we really intend to be post-American. I mean, what’s President Obama going to do about Iran and Syria – get Qatar to bomb them? Does that really require a regional-war-scale response from Russia? And what about the South China Sea? It’s not like our new Marine contingent in Australia can do anything about China’s strong-arming of the other nations there. Nor does there seem to be much likelihood that we will react to Russia’s chest-thumping in the disputed Kuril Islands north of Japan. And when I say “react,” I mean “react at all.” For all the president’s new focus on the Pacific, we don’t seem to have any positions we intend to actually enunciate there, much less defend.
The Tumultus Post-Americanus is now well underway. The US and NATO, and our Pacific allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and the Philippines, have tremendous latent power, but the American leadership to focus this power for strategic purposes has gone missing. There is no initiative on our collective part – we have done nothing but react in the last three years – and possibly even less appreciation of how the world is changing. The forms of international discourse – the processes of the UN, the G-8 and G-20, the IMF – are being adhered to now because they are a convenience, not because they produce anything useful. They are brittle relics of a peace that no longer has a core and is waiting to be breached by regional initiative.
Hiatus, for now
My sense today is that nothing is about to “break.” I believe those who sense otherwise misread the dynamics of the current situation. There is no unified actor – either a nation or a movement; e.g., Islamism – in a position today to prosecute an abruptly transformative, offensive campaign on the model of predatory Marxist-Leninism or the outright-conquest methods of Adolf Hitler. The nations of today all know this – even Iran’s mullahs.
Russia and China are both acting under the compulsions of their traditional geopolitical motives; as important as American power is in their calculations, they are at least as concerned about each other. They cannot escape their neighborhood. Right now, Russia’s actions are, to the Russian mind, wholly defensive. China hopes to enlarge her base of invulnerable power by controlling the sea- and tradeways around her perimeter, and staking out power outposts in Central and South Asia and Africa. China sees a watershed opportunity; Russia sees a loss of stasis and a rise of Islamism, and seeks to prepare for whatever that’s going to do to her, in part by reclaiming territory she feels vulnerable and disrespected without (e.g., Georgia).
The decisive factor for political Islam – Islam focused through the lens of ideology on politics and the nation-state – is still its internal competition. Saudi Arabia and Iran have led separate factions for decades. But now an economically and militarily resurgent Turkey is seeking to put her own stamp on Islamist geopolitical leadership. And Egypt – a very large, populous, and educated nation, long held in a neutral stance by Mubarak’s effectively secular regime – appears to have entered the sweepstakes with the election of Mohammed Morsi. Some Western pundits are waiting for the Egyptian military to drop the hammer on Morsi, but I am not sanguine about that possibility. Erdogan’s Turkey, where the traditionally moderating political power of the military has been broken in the last 3-4 years, looms as an example to the region. It will take some time, as it has in Turkey, but Egypt will probably emerge as a nation-state competitor to Turkey, and she is likely to do it by emulating Erdogan’s methods.
The Muslim Brotherhood itself is boresighted on Jerusalem, but the path to that “victory” remains uncertain. Egypt, for all her geographic advantages, may not be the most obvious launching pad. Syria, which has been in Iran’s orbit for a long time, is a great strategic prize in the race to Jerusalem, both geographically and politically. Most political happenings in the Middle East right now are centered on the jockeying process for leadership of the Islamist geopolitical movement.
No one in this mix is ready right now for the fading global stasis to entirely fall apart. It serves their interests for the stasis to continue and hold their competitors in check. But within the constraints of the old stasis, they – especially Russia and China, but also India, Iran, and other affected nations – are making military preparations.