The Battle Between International Law and National Interests, Part I

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With Russia-Ukraine and Israel’s military assault on Gaza, 2014 seems to be the year of international crises.  Beginning in late 2013 with chemical weapons used in Syria, global crises seem to arise routinely lately.  This is nothing new, international crises have existed since even before the establishment of the nation-state.  However what is different about this current series of crises is the lack of an international response.

This is comparable to western Europe’s appeasement of Hitler before World War II. The world was recovering from the Great Depression and the United States was apathetic to Europe’s troubles, having embraced isolationism.  The burden fell to the western democracies of Britain and France who were weary of reliving another world war, and thus did nothing.

80 years later, the world is recovering from the Great Recession in a highly globalized and interconnected world.  The world is in a phase where countries largely keep to their own borders and are reluctant to act outside them.  This is why despite Europe’s outrage with Russia going back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the continent’s response has been lukewarm at best.  As with Syria, the US is trying to muster international engagement in a community of nations that currently pursues national interests above international norms.

But what distinguishes this situation from previous crises is the shifting balance of power.  This trend of globalization and ‘geopolitical isolationism’ is happening against a backdrop of changing polarity.  Which leads me to conclude the world is in a unique situation–a composite akin to pre-WWI and pre-WWII.

Part of the US’ difficulty in mobilizing an international response to global crises is the rise of other powers challenging American hegemony.  Russia, India, China are rising powers who not only want a ‘piece of the power-pie’ but whose national interests lead them away from the West.  The US does not agree with their actions, but cannot intimidate them either.  Despite Britain controlling 25% of the world’s population, in 1914 Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire shared power.  The fear of losing power and the desire to gain power caused the tensions that resulted in World War I.  A century later the US is trying to maintain its influence as other countries such as the BRICS demand shared power.

 The world before WWII was one where countries largely kept to themselves, so fearful of another global conflict and out of economic self-interest.  Likewise the world today is jaded by the international interventions that dominated the 1990s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is also still recovering from the Great Recession.

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American Foreign Policy in 1914 and 100 years later

An eternal historian, my mind instinctually looks to the past to analyze global affairs in the present.  As President Obama walks a fine line between pursuing American interests abroad and tending to domestic issues, it is becoming clear that Americans have little interest in foreign affairs.  For one between the economy, voting rights and other issues, many Americans feel there is enough going on at home that needs attention.  But also, after more than a decade of two fruitless wars abroad that did nothing except damage the United States’ image, many Americans have simply lost the desire to use American power to solve the world’s problems.  In December 2013 the Pew Research Center reported that 52% of Americans believed the country should remain out of global affairs.

Yet international crises keep manifesting themselves.  Tensions between Russia and Ukraine still has Europe on edge over what Vladimir Putin will do next and China’s continued rise has its neighbors apprehensive, particularly over the disputed islands in the South China Sea, and the list goes on. But that does not change American apathy toward events outside our borders.  In March of this year, at the height of the Crimea-Ukraine-Russia crisis, Pew reported that while 29% of Americans thought the government should take a hard stance on Russia, 56% did not want the United States to get too involved in the situation.

This is eerily similar to American foreign policy a century ago in 1914.  After a brief attempt early in the 20th century to create an overseas American empire similar to the empires of Europe, the United States retreated inward and remained so when the Hapsburg heir was assassinated.  In fact, most Americans had no idea of the tensions in Europe at the time.  In both world wars, the United States refused to involve itself until American lives were at stake.

A century later, talks of a third world war slowly grow with every new crisis.  But Americans remain focused internally while other countries fear the future of international relations if America removes itself from the global stage.  In its May 3rd issue, the Economist highlighted that American hesitance to intervene militarily has our allies on edge amid fear that American enemies are emboldened.  The United States is no longer the world’s policemen as it was in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.  But Americans not caring about the world’s affairs unless it directly threatens us is nothing new.  Even in the beginning years of American nationhood, there was no foreign appetite.

More than that, America can no longer get away with what it did before.  Not only are other countries rising for their share of the geopolitical pie but America simply does not have the money to fund a long-term military campaign.  American military might is still at the top but even that is slipping albeit slowly and other countries are catching up.

American leaders will deny the country is in decline but as a historian, I will not ignore the parallels.  In the early 20th century, Britain, which controlled 25% of the world’s population and the world’s most powerful navy, was insecure of its status as a global power after Queen Victoria’s death and an unsuccessful South African war which left it politically isolated in Europe.  Similarly, in late 2013 Pew reported that 53% of Americans see the country less powerful and less important than it was 10 years ago.  In truth, the world is becoming more multipolar, also similar to 1914.

Indeed this is the cycle of history.  World powers never remain world powers forever.