The history of Western diplomacy alternates between periods of “realism” and ideology. In the first, regimes maneuver for marginal advantage, their conflicts tempered by shared beliefs and interests. In the second, they seek to destroy or transform one another, with much less concern for means. Warfare occurs in both, but it is more limited, easily settled, and fluid with respect to coalitions in the former. In the latter, intervals of “neither war nor peace” and relatively rigid alliance systems punctuate few-holds-barred combat. One setting is a theater for worldly and cynical statesmen; the other for zealots, adventurers, and tyrants. Far better to live during the first’s orderly quadrille than the second’s totentanz.

These are simplifications, no doubt, but they help describe actual patterns relevant to foreign policy today. Diplomatic lessons of the past are useful only to the extent one understands the similarities and differences between previous and current international environments. After a transition from one era to another, policymaking may struggle to catch up, committing unforced errors through failure to recognize how the world has changed.

We recently completed such a transition, and the recognition lag is proving a real problem, particularly for the diplomacy of the United States.

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The Western state system emerged gradually and piecemeal during the early modern era, a time of bitter religious warfare. The severity of its conflicts fostered the centralization of civil and military authority, as well as conceptual innovations like “sovereignty” and “international law.” Indeed, it helped crystallize the very ideas of “state” and “nation,” with England, France, and the Netherlands as the principal pioneers. The era’s climax, the Thirty Years’ War, drowned sectarian passions in a sea of blood.

The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, consolidated state sovereignty. This created a new diplomatic landscape and led to the ebbing of theological rivalry, which in turn cleared the field for machinations aimed at enhancing state power and mercantile advantage. The spiritual unity of the pre-Reformation world was also restored, but with the rationalism of the philosophe replacing the Catholicism of the pope. Nor were the chief actors any longer semi-feudal suzerains, but monarchs and their ministers wrapped in the full institutional panoply of coherent states. Fighting was frequent but restricted in objective, with alliances—shuffled by professional diplomats—tending toward equilibrium. Massacre and terror came off the table, at least in fighting purely among Europeans.

All this ended with the French Revolution, triggering 23 years of virtually unbroken warfare, mass levies, and radical realignments in borders. Yet this proved but an interlude, not the new normal. To be sure, the hundred years that followed were very different from the previous century and a half. States became constitutionalized, mass participation was routinized, the European continent and the world were compressed by new technologies, and prosperity expanded beyond what anyone had imagined in the past. Revolutionary eruptions occasionally occurred, but each time governing elites remained in—or climbed back into—their saddles. If crowns rested uneasily, their wearers, or those governing in their names, succeeded in preserving a general peace, often helping each other to suppress unrest and settle disagreements, sometimes bilaterally, at other times through conference. Rising nationalism and a revolutionary underground remained troubling facts of life, but facts pragmatic statesmen succeeded in keeping under control.

Until they didn’t …

In 1914, a great war, ignited by nationalism, finally unloosed the demons of revolution. The Versailles settlement that followed it failed to reimprison them. Slow to comprehend the dangers of the new environment fully, diplomats floundered, quickly leading to another, even greater, conflagration. Although this one destroyed what was perhaps the fiercest ideological demon, another, almost as bad, was elevated to nearly half the world’s command. A third great war would almost surely have ensued, had not the appalling power of nuclear weaponry deterred the demoniacal and non-demoniacal alike. Then, one fine day, the second demon also vanished, leaving diplomacy once more befuddled.            

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The crucial fact about our new epoch is its low ideological temperature, the world’s major states all being of comparatively moderate ambition.

One set of powers, post-communist Russia and China, has abandoned global crusades for limited, if regionally expansive, national goals. Moreover, tenuous legitimacy makes satisfying domestic consumers more of an imperative for the stability of these states than it would be for better-secured regimes. To be sure, border bullying also fires up internal support, but neither state wishes to bring down any temples.

The other great powers have also been shorn of motive force. The United States—having, with its allies, defeated communism—finds itself at loose ends, deprived of foreign-policy consensus. Japan, although anxious about China, is still largely unwilling to abandon its post-1945 crouch. India, while capable of a global role, has yet to develop many aspirations beyond its region. (Brexit, and the European Union’s other turmoils, make it hard to predict where, or in how many places, future responsibility for European diplomacy will be lodged.)       

The world does, of course, continue to be menaced by a brutal ideology, Islamism. But no great state embraces it, each being high on its target list. Moreover, Islamism’s menace is less a matter of its own energies and resources than the faltering confidence and divided diplomacy of the great powers. A concert of realists would crush it. The world as it recently was—organized into competing camps—would probably have kept it much better caged. But the current scene, partly ideologically deflated and partly ideologically confused, allows Islamist radicalism surprising scope for mayhem.

Because the democratic states are the strongest economically—and, in America’s case, militarily—their befogged diplomacy represents the chief impediment to realizing the beckoning promise of an international concert. Fundamentally unaggressive, they suffer, if anything, from a surfeit of niceness. But democracies can’t bring their benignity to bear because, unlike the world’s rougher customers, their thinking is mired in a mixture of Cold War constructs and postmodern fantasy—the first, favored by many on the right, belonging to another age, the second, endorsed by most on the left, to no age at all. Democracy promotion, noble but self-defeating beyond some modest point, strains America’s own republican fabric. The equally quixotic goal of globalized egalitarianism does the same by fostering the dissolution of the historic identities upon which American and Western freedom rest. Ideology’s last playground thus lies, oddly, within the democratic camp, deluding and dividing it. The former totalitarians are comparatively clear-sighted.

For American diplomacy, the result has been a succession of flip-flops, adding unreliability to unrealism. Under the second Bush the U.S. sought to exercise missionary muscle, assuming that successes in spreading democratic—hence peaceful—governments in Europe and East Asia could be replicated in the wastes of the Middle East. Under Obama it has sought moral redemption through apologetic multilateralism, convinced that past American and Western arrogance lies at the heart of current world conflict. More interested in the forceful exercise of domestic power, Obama’s administration has sounded retreat on almost every foreign front, while hoping against hope that diminished American influence would bend the arc of history further toward justice.

Each of these approaches has a high-minded goal. Together they dominate American discourse. But neither can bear fruit in any world remotely like our own.

Politics, even in well-established regimes, tends to be unruly and unpredictable. The international realm magnifies that disorder substantially, rendering grand long-term objectives exceedingly difficult to realize. Unfeasible objectives jeopardize attainable ones in a variety of ways. When America invests blood and treasure building democracy in regions that have never known it and that lack its requisites; when America tries to act the hegemon on the borders of important and potentially cooperative powers while obsessing about the sins of their political cultures; and when America needlessly meddles in disputes that are currently intractable, the opportunity costs are immense—including the erosion of its own ideals and institutions.     

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World ideological recession, together with the softening effects of global consumerism, puts within reach solutions to serious international problems formerly beyond grasp—including nuclear proliferation, militant Islam, terrorism more generally, rogue and failed states, uncontrolled population movements, environmental disruption, and threats to the orderly flow of world commerce. Not long ago these challenges would have been approached, if at all, largely in a spirit of ideological gamesmanship. There is now a chance to reframe them on the basis of common interest.

Following the Second World War, America and non-communist Europe recreated among themselves the civilized comity that had disappeared along the Marne. Within this realm, war became unthinkable; free trade the reigning ideal. In this spirit, a host of permanent international organizations also came forth to smooth conflicts and promote the larger good.

On the other hand, an ideological chasm, wider than that which separated Pope and Protestant or Bonaparte and Bourbon, had opened between the capitalist democracies and the communist camp. Among the democracies, politicians were strongly consumer-orientated since recessions led to electoral drubbings. But while their Soviet counterparts took credit for whatever improvements in living standards they could deliver, for them, until the communist regime’s very final years, considerations of state control regularly trumped those of economic efficiency. Because real-world economic connections were few, when the West was in recession Soviet propagandists could afford to smirk, feeling little of the downdraft. The Chinese communist economy was even more autarchic.

By contrast, both Russia and China are today thoroughly intermeshed in world trade networks, the Russians principally as energy suppliers, the Chinese across the board. World economic breakdown would be disastrous for them.

In Cold War times Soviet security was linked to Western insecurity. The Soviet Union’s address as the headquarters of world revolution was a vital source of its legitimacy, even after the private ardor of its cadres had cooled. “Mutual Assured Destruction” made European war unlikely, but, this aside, the Soviets had a vested interest in keeping the world’s pot aboil, which they did through backing revolutionary and terrorist movements, directly or via proxies. Mao’s China, more internally distracted and less militarily capable, was generally content with making noise, though her intervention against America in Korea, and the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu, briefly threatened Far Eastern war.

The post-communist giants are still far from having fully succumbed to the gentling effects of commerce or parliamentary practice. But both have traveled a long way toward making business a primary concern, toward pursuing profit rather than proletarian or peasant upheaval. And this means that they can be dealt with in a manner they couldn’t have been before.

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In the new world system American interests would best be served by a foreign policy that aimed to preserve, not enlarge; that focused on things core rather than peripheral; that concentrated on the well understood instead of the dreamily aspirational; that sought common ground where that could be found; that was risk-averse and economical—in sum, that respected practical limits.

None of these precepts are absolutes, nor do they exclude ideals and considerations of honor. Nor, as guides, do they offer obvious answers to the subtle complexities of implementation—to questions of timing, deterrence, bargaining, and public justification. But if they don’t dictate they should certainly steer, and in the present improved state of the world, they should steer toward something like the following.

First, the altered international environment should be acknowledged for what it is and the rhetoric inspired by ideological contest scaled back. A struggle for hearts and minds required a message to mirror the adversary’s. Yet even during the Cold War, when the banner of liberty was held high, it only partially explained policy. We now need to reappraise how far further it can be wisely carried. Liberty should undoubtedly remain something we recommend to those open to our counsels, and where wanted, be the object of our good offices. Most other things equal, there should be a strong preference for well-rooted democracies and a repugnance for the truly barbarous. Beyond this, how the world’s states conduct their domestic affairs is best left more to hope than exertion.

Second, we should see the interest of the post-communist states in their “near abroad” as natural, opportunities for bargaining instead of fruitless confrontation. Russia and China, though hardly the states we would like them to be, have the same interests in their security perimeters as we do in ours. That of Russia includes Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic coast, and the Caucasus. (Most of these were historically part of Russia for longer than the U.S. has had a history.) That of China includes much of the South China Sea, Taiwan, and the Korean peninsula. These are regions where Western recognition of Russian and Chinese security primacy should be gradually traded for cooperation on other major issues, including, in the cases of the Baltic republics, South Korea, and Taiwan, respect for indigenous democracy.

Third, we should treat the other great powers as full partners in quashing the dangers that exist outside their (and our) security perimeters. If core disputes can be accommodated and bonds of operational trust strengthened, remaining conflicts shouldn’t prove insuperable obstacles to controlling common threats. At the very least the temptations for the self-interested exploitation of these problems will be substantially reduced. And to strike the constructive bargains upon which such settlements depend, a rebuilding of America’s dwindling military capacities will be in order.

thisarticleappearsIn the Middle East and elsewhere jihadism could be suppressed—think a replay of the Boxer Rebellion; Sykes-Picot could be revised to reflect communal realities and temper persistent discords; nuclear proliferation could be cooperatively addressed; and the flow of oil could be collectively guaranteed. In a more cooperative environment, mass out-migrations might also be staunched. China’s part of the bargain would involve, in the short term, reducing North Korea’s malignancy and, in the longer run, facilitating Korean reunification. We would expect from Russia forbearance along the Baltic coast and the Caucasus.

Finally, the West should use a new era of global concert to remedy its own deepening pathologies—a task greater diplomatic harmony would facilitate, though not, of course, guarantee. The toils of the security state could be relaxed, fiscal overhangs pared back, a flourishing worldwide commerce allowed to raise all boats, and creative energies redirected to repairing our stressed institutions of freedom. Most important, perhaps, it could allow us again to view the strength of the American nation in a prideful light—as an acknowledged steward of a stabilized international order, instead of a pursuer of fanciful and divisive quests. Indeed, by realizing that the rest of the world won’t anytime soon resemble us, we might learn once more to appreciate our uniqueness as an extraordinary gift, something whose special traditions can be cherished, bolstered, and passed along to its distinctive heirs.

Stephen H. Balch is director of the Institute for the Study of Western Civilization at Texas Tech University.