After a century of chaos and mass death driven by conflicting ideologies, the world is entering a new era of stability. This new period of history is defined by the balance-of-power geopolitics embraced by Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. The White House National Security Strategy published Monday appears to reflect this reality.
The previous era was inaugurated by two momentous events: President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to intervene in World War I and Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution. Both occurred in 1917 and left overlapping legacies. In Lenin’s case, Russia’s communist revolution would spawn countless ideological imitators, leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people.
Wilson’s legacy was to transform the U.S. into a superpower that could save the world from fascism in World War II and from Soviet communism in the Cold War. But Wilson’s belief that America had a divine mission to make the world “safe for democracy” would occasionally bring a terrible cost for Americans and others. Consider the violent, seemingly endless wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts started as idealistic ventures and eventually tore the country apart.
In the past century the world has been subjected to a series of isms—communism, progressivism, socialism, Nazism and now Islamism. All swept the globe with an ideological fervor to transform humanity and create a more perfect world order. But this century of ideological conflict has finally spent itself.
The world found new forms of disorder: revolutions, insurgencies and counterinsurgencies. Genocidal civil wars continue unabated. Massive cultural, social and economic disruptions have swept every corner of the globe. And they have done so in record time, thanks to information technology.
The emergence of Messrs. Putin, Xi and Trump as the world’s three most important leaders signals a profound shift back to the world before 1917: an anarchic international arena in which every sovereign state, large or small, has to rely on armed strength, diplomacy and alliances for its security. Ideology no longer matters, but power does—and the big powers inevitably dominate the small. In this new era, might inevitably makes right.
This shift is already present at the regional level. The defeat of Islamic State as a geopolitical presence in the Middle East is one indication. While Iran has not given up its efforts to trigger a Shiite uprising against the region’s leading Sunni powers, the realpolitik response from Saudi Arabia has been to join forces with the once-despised “Zionist entity,” Israel, to counter Tehran’s bid for hegemony.
The same shift governs North Korea. In 1950 the U.S. and Chinese forces fought a bitter war of attrition on the Korean Peninsula. Today the issue comes down to constraining a Chinese client state led by Kim Il Sung’s grandson, whose sole goal is remaining in power. Messrs. Trump and Kim like to rattle their nuclear sabers in public, but each side carefully balances its strategic interests, making a catastrophic war less likely.
The trend is even more clear among the Big Three. While Mr. Xi clearly aspires to the autocratic power of Mao, the goal of his “Chinese Dream” is not to breed revolutionary wars across Asia as Mao did. Rather, he aims to preside over its rise as a hegemonic power.
The same is true of Mr. Putin. Despite his KGB background and ruthless use of the police state built by Lenin and Stalin, he is not interested in reviving communism or world revolution. The Russian president simply wants to preserve his own power and restore his country’s ascendancy in Eastern Europe. When he spoke in 2005 of the fall of the Soviet Union as a great tragedy, it was not because it marked the end of Lenin’s dream of world communism. He was lamenting the eclipse of Russia as a superpower—which he is determined to reverse.
This same reversal of ideological fortunes applies to Mr. Trump, although the revolution he is ending is Wilson’s. As the new National Security Strategy states: “We understand that the American way of life cannot be imposed on others, nor is it the inevitable culmination of progress.” This is as un-Wilsonian a pronouncement as any president has made in decades. He instinctively understands that American idealism didn’t save the world from Hitler and communism. American military and economic power did. In Mr. Trump’s view, we live in a world governed by the material correlation of forces, which he believes the U.S. needs to adjust in its direction by exerting military and economic power.
Some will say that this three-way rivalry is causing tension, risking another world war. I doubt it. In this new era, friction and competing interests will be seen as natural. The National Security Strategy continues: “Competition does not always mean hostility, nor does it inevitably lead to conflict.” But conflict can be stopped short of war, thanks to the balance of opposing forces and the power of economic and military deterrence.
This is the world of Otto von Bismarck, who said in 1862: “The great questions of the time are not decided by speeches and majority decisions . . . but by iron and blood.” As in Bismarck’s day, Mr. Trump’s goal will be stability, not perfection; competition, not consensus. Indeed, “an America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict.” It isn’t an era that will make idealists or humanitarians happy. But for all its imperfections, after a century in which ideologues and fanatics have killed and maimed tens of millions trying to make the world a perfect place, are we likely to do worse?