David Ignatius cites a recent Mead article to make a point about perceived American decline, but it’s worth considering how misleading Mead’s original argument is. Mead’s thesis is that Russia, China, and Iran are acting as “revisionist” states, which he unfortunately dubs “the Central Powers”:
Think of the Central Powers as an ‘axis of weevils’. At this stage they are looking to hollow out the imposing edifice of American and maritime power rather than knock it over. This is not the most formidable alliance the United States has ever faced. Not everything the Central Powers want is bad; like all revisionist powers, they have legitimate grievances against the status quo. They don’t always agree, and in the long run their differences with one another are profound. But for now, they have not only agreed that they have a common interest in weakening the United States in Eurasia and disrupting its alliances; increasingly, with the United States government still largely blind to the challenge, they are pushing ahead.
Needless to say, the “alliance” Mead identifies isn’t even a real alliance, so he’s off to a bad start. It’s not formidable at all, because it doesn’t exist. The examples that Mead musters to support this thesis that these governments are “gnawing” away at the “post-Cold War order” are not very persuasive, either. Except for China’s new air defense zone, it is difficult to see how any of the events he describes even qualify as attempted revisionism on the part of the three non-allies. For instance, Mead mentions Russia’s success in cajoling Ukraine to reject the association agreement with the EU as evidence for his argument, but this is proof that Russia is preoccupied with preventing a change in the orientation of its neighbor rather than seeking to “gnaw” away at international order. The interim deal with Iran hardly qualifies as revisionism on Iran’s part, since it involves Iranian concessions to the world’s major powers. Successful revisionist powers extract concessions. They do not give them. China is arguably the only one of the three challenging any international norms with its recent action, and even this can be blown out of proportion. Russia usually acts as a status quo power, not a revisionist one, so making policy on the assumption that it is a revisionist is going to lead the U.S. astray on a regular basis. It is important to distinguish between things that one doesn’t like and those that pose a threat to international order, and for the most part Mead doesn’t do this.
Later on, Mead writes, “If the Central Powers continue to work together and to make joint progress across Eurasia, however, either this administration or its successor is going to have to take another look at world politics.” This takes for granted that these states are normally working together to “make joint progress across Eurasia,” which isn’t happening. To the extent that any one of these states is succeeding in the pursuit of certain goals, there is no “joint progress” being made. It is a mistake to lump all three together and view them as part of a combined opposition that requires a common Eurasian strategy, and the surest way to help push these states into a genuine opposing coalition is to pursue policies that antagonize all of them at the same time. A smart strategist would try to exploit divisions among these three and find a way to find common interests with one or more of them so that the U.S. wasn’t stuck trying to balance all of them at once.