Harmony or Realism? The Prospects of War and Peace in a Post-Cold War World

The core point of contention within the famous “Huntington-Fukuyama Debate” of the post-Cold War era in the United States was both simple and profound. With the Cold War finally over, a debate emerged within foreign policy circles in the United States regarding the picture of a world without the Soviet Union. One intellectual – Samuel Huntington – argued that in a post-Cold War world, conflict and social strife would continue along cultural and religious lines whereas previously the conflict and social strife around the globe was predicated along ideological lines. What Huntington sought to argue was that social harmony is an illusion and it would not materialize just because the Cold War was over.

            Another intellectual named Francis Fukuyama disagreed with Huntington and believed that conflict, war, and social strife were finished for the most part, with the exception of a few pockets of instability in the Third World. But to a certain extent, both Huntington and Fukuyama were correct. For Huntington, the recurrence of genocides in places like the Balkans and Afghanistan after the Cold War as well as the adoption of cultural and national identities by previously ideological power brokers prompted the possibility of conflict or war along cultural and national lines. In Fukuyama’s view, one could not infer from a handful of conflicts in the Third World that conflict and war would be perpetual on a global scale given all the economic and social changes that were spreading around the world due to a liberal international order that had prevailed over the communist bloc. As a result, there is widespread interest in expanding and preserving the material gains of the last several decades that were achieved through the advent of the liberal international order in many parts of the world.

For instance, Germany achieved through peace what Hitler could not achieve through war, which was to make Germany a dominant regional power in Europe through regional liberal and social policies. It is incredibly unlikely that Germany would resort to war to achieve its aims after everything it has achieved over the last few decades through constructivism and liberal socialism. Moreover, the internal characteristics of a government or society does not have much of an impact on a government’s behavior beyond its borders. Thus, the “Democratic Peace Theory” is not parsimonious. Any state, without any regard to its internal or societal characteristics, seeks to extend influence and power through various methods, whether through military or economic means. But the extension of influence or power does not always equate to interstate conflict or war due to the evolved economic and social circumstances arising from increased global economic interconnection and interdependence.

            But many thinkers have been dumbfounded by the fact that America – which is a democratic country and is supposed to act based on liberal-democratic norms overseas – has more military bases overseas and has engaged in more conflicts and interventions than any other country since World War II. Moreover, America’s social engineering projects in the Middle East and Afghanistan have also been abject failures after the neoconservatives of the early 21st century ignored John Quincy Adams’s admonition about going overseas to spread “democracy.” Adams once said: “Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of democracy.”

Yet China, which has an authoritarian government, has no external military endeavors or operations outside of its borders ever since its economic rise beginning in 1979. Thus, it begs the question: what explains the discrepancy between Western assertiveness and Asian passivity on the international scene? From a realist standpoint, the only piece of information necessary to predict the chance for either war or peace is the distribution of power within the international system. If the international system is unipolar – as it was in the 1990’s and early 2000’s in the case of the United States – other countries will band together to prevent the unipolar power from achieving global hegemony. In a situation consisting of bipolarity within the international system as in the case of the 20th century Cold War, peace and stability is almost guaranteed in the international system due to a balance of power. But with the trajectory towards “multipolar regionalism” and the distribution of power between three distinct power centers, namely, America, Europe, and Asia, the chance of war increases due to the rise of a “potential hegemon” in the form of China which may upset the status quo of American preeminence in the international system.

            However, one can argue that the distribution of power is an element of European power politics that belonged to a bygone era. The rising power that the United States is now dealing with (China) is an Asian power that does not fit the traditional mold of European power politics and is largely interdependent with the rest of the world in an economic sense. Perhaps Fukuyama is correct in asserting that the era of realism and power politics is now over. Perhaps multipolar regionalism is the reality we must all live with and thus we must accommodate this new reality for the sake of global order, peace, and stability. As Samuel Huntington wrote: “In the post-Cold War world, for the first time in history, global politics has become multipolar and multicivilizational.”

At the moment, what is most concerning is the potential for local and regional conflicts in Europe and Asia if the United States were to completely disengage and withdraw from the rest of the world. In the event of an American withdrawal from Eurasia, what if the two Koreas clash with one another and China decides to settle its accounts with Japan after what happened in the 20th century? Also, what if Russia were to aggressively confront the Germans over historic vendettas? Potential conflict in Afghanistan also looms large over American plans to withdraw from there. The reality is that Europeans and Asians are more likely to fight one another than to fight Americans. But these aforementioned scenarios are merely hypotheticals. Given that all of these developed countries in Europe and Asia have nuclear breakout capabilities, the likelihood of total war is slim to none.

            Due to systemic pressure from increasing government debt and the coronavirus, along with immense public pressure, the United States government is hard-pressed from two fronts to withdraw from foreign affairs. The American public has always questioned the rationale for such heavy-handed involvement in other countries. As Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted: “When it comes to the world around us, most Americans have long wanted to just mind our own business and be left alone.” Perhaps in due time, the wishes of the American public may come true. As Michael Lind predicted, there are five stages of political evolution in the United States. These stages consist of green environmentalism in the early republic period, isolationism in the early 20th century, globalism in the latter-half of the 20th century and early 21st century, populism which emerged during the Trump era, and finally, social democracy along European lines. With the end of the Trump era and the election of Joe Biden, we are perhaps in a transition period between populism and social democracy, and by virtue of Biden’s election, Americans are shaping the circumstances for inward development and abandoning their preoccupation with what goes on in other parts of the world.

            Before Trump, it was Barack Obama who set into motion America’s gradual disengagement from world affairs as the rationale for heavy-handed involvement in foreign affairs had long dissipated with the collapse of the former Soviet Union. Along with conflict and war, politics and international relations may also become a relic of the past once people’s basic needs are met, as Hannah Arendt once argued. Despite the often false hope that our society gives us about the “American Dream” and being who we want to be, not everyone can become a Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, or LeBron James. Eventually, these celebrities and tycoons will have to assume responsibility for people at the bottom rungs of society who have no hope, no access to the means for social mobility such as education and money, and are vexed by systemic racism in this country.

            If America wants to avoid crumbling from within, it must move money and resources away from “defense,” foreign affairs, and war-mongering and allocate these monies and resources towards education, internal economic development, and public services. Based on certain estimates, approximately 70 to 80 percent of America’s government spending is on “defense” and foreign-related matters. It is about time that the tide shifts in favor of small business owners and working-class people.

But the main obstacle to a truly pluralistic social democracy in the United States where everyone is empowered and respected exists in the form of what Michael Lind called a “managerial class” which is technocratic, atheistic, meritocratic, and university-credentialed. This “managerial class,” according to Lind, is neither capitalist nor socialist and they are by-and-large an unethical group of people by virtue of siphoning off hard-earned taxpayer money for their adventurism, gambling, and shenanigans. Lind argues that there are essentially three classes of people within American society. For one, there is the “managerial class” which dominates academia, big banks, corporations, government, media, and think-tanks. Second, there is the populist masses who are not only angry, frustrated, and racist, but are also out to topple the “managerial class” with a vengeance. And third, there is the industrial and working class who are the majority of people in this country and belong to all races and religions. The industrial and working class consists largely of small business owners who support their communities and the common worker, and they seek a fair share of representation within government, the economy, and society-at-large. Arguably, the bourgeoisie class and landowners of classic capitalism and liberalism such as the Bush and Kennedy families are either extinct or are on the verge of extinction within the political and social scene, despite the fact that at one point in America’s history, only white landowning males were allowed to participate in politics and vote.

Thus, the most important political and social issue of our day and age is that the “managerial class” seeks to monopolize power not only in the United States but also in Europe and Asia by virtue of creating barriers to entry into academia, big banks, the corporate world, government, media, and think-tanks. If this “managerial class” wants to avoid being dismantled by the populist masses, it must make a compromise with the industrial and working class consisting of small business owners and workers, which in turn represent all races and religions across America and comprise of the overwhelming majority of the American population. As we approach a situation in the international system that is defined by multipolar regionalism between America, Europe, and Asia, global cooperation and a common interest in preserving global order will be crucial on the part of the major powers. As a species, we are almost done with conflict, war, and politics, and the goal is perhaps a liberal social democracy along Northern and Western European lines whereby the “managerial class” assumes social responsibility in American society and as a result the prosperity and well-being of small business owners and working-class people becomes guaranteed.

            From a foreign policy standpoint, addressing the core problem in politics and international relations – which is the Middle East and Afghanistan – may perhaps preempt the exacerbation of peripheral problems stemming from major power competition. As a surgeon would address a patient on an operating table, the problem that stands in the way of establishing a truly global order must be addressed in a surgical manner first by getting to the core issue, which is the turmoil in the Middle East and Afghanistan, in order to prevent peripheral complications and problems from occurring between the major powers in America, Europe, and Asia. In terms of whether war or peace is likely to prevail in the coming years and decades, nothing is written or set in stone. The future is in the palm of our hands.

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