Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

The Revenge of Great Power Politics

Russia and China are rewriting the rules of international politics.

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens during a meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Welcome to the "post-post-Cold War era."

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What a difference a week makes. A week ago Tom Ricks of the New American Foundation wrote about the non-military nature of today’s news, and then Russia conducts an invasion of the Crimea. This isn’t to be critical of Tom at all (full disclosure: I’ve known Tom for nearly two decades and respect him immensely). Rather, it is more evidence of the reemergence of great power politics in the “post-post-Cold War era.”

Russia’s Crimea campaign and Chinese sabre-rattling over the Senkaku Islands provide, perhaps, additional data points about the long creeping emergence of this new era. As Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis once wrote — he was talking in the context of containing the Soviet Union — such actions might be seen as the “probes and counterprobes by which great states demarcate spheres of influence, organize blocs, establish tacit ‘rules of the game,’ and in general settle down to the condition of wary co-existence.” If what we are seeing this today, and it looks that way, then it is troubling because China and Russia seem inclined to revise the terms and conditions of the international system in their neck of the woods by a very different set of rules than by which the U.S. is playing in regards to trying to maintain the status quo of the system. But this is shouldn’t be unexpected.

The key question today for the U.S. should be how to react to such revisionism. This will not be easy to cope with given current American political and economic realities. As the Brookings Institution’s William Galston commented at a panel on “Future of U.S. Ground Forces” last week the “human domain” of the U.S. home front may be the decisive factor. Unfortunately, he noted, the domestic political status quo is one where the Democrats won’t accept cuts to entitlements and Republicans won’t accept an increase in taxes and this means that discretionary budgetary items such as defense will be the bill payers. He illustrated this by highlighting that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, defense spending is on a glide path from being nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product to a level of 2.6 percent by 2023.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Now, none of this is to argue that defense spending is the end-all-be-all demonstration of American power. As I’ve argued in this space before (see here, here, here), other capabilities are important and necessary to react to the reemergence of great power politics and for dealing with the threats posed by non-state actors such as the various violent extremist networks rolled up under the rubric of “al-Qaida” amongst other state and non-state threats and challengers. (Those that argue that the last decade plus has left us in the current circumstances because it took our eyes off the ball of great power intrigue need to ask themselves what would have happened had more large-scale attacks occurred in the U.S. post-9/11.) But if defense spending is taking a big hit, what will be the impact on diplomatic, informational, intelligence and law enforcement tools? Probably not good.

What is to be done, then, about Ukraine? First of all, it remains unclear whether taking the Crimea is the end-state or whether this is meant as a measure to galvanize the pro-Russian elements of the east part of the country to break off. Regardless, the situation has now reached a point where actions will speak louder than words. This does not mean that military action should be considered at all at this time aside from having forces continue to conduct routine presence and exercises in eastern Europe, but the diplomatic, economic, informational and intelligence tools at our disposal should start to be applied in various combinations to begin to show that there will be costs for revising, by force, the map. Allowing such revisions to continue apace likely will continue a perception that there are no costs to be paid for playing by the new rules of the system and others will start to mimic such actions when they feel that they can.