In Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention beginning September 30th on behalf of the beleaguered Assad regime has thrown the American-led coalition’s ineffectiveness in stark relief. Putin has brokered an intelligence-sharing agreement with Syria, Iran, and Iraq, aligning himself with a growing Shiite axis. Confident of both his and Assad’s strengthened bargaining position, he now prods the West for cooperation against the Islamic State, adding that East-West relations are at their most pivotal moment since the end of the Cold War. Just as he had in Ukraine, Putin asserted Russia’s right to coalesce a sphere of influence.
In the South China Sea, China is building entire islands for military and commercial purposes in contested waters and claiming sovereignty in violation of international law. This has led to a rapid increase in tensions with its neighbors, most notably Japan, which, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has recently moved to loosen the pacifist strictures of its constitution. The United States is only now sending regular patrols through the waters the U.S. Navy fears China may make a “no-go zone.”
At home, Donald Trump and now Ben Carson have routed the establishment, galvanized the base, and embarrassed the Republican Party to a global audience. The two command over 50% of Republican support in national polls. Staid, sober, and bumbling Jeb Bush is in fifth place, and Megyn Kelley this week felt the need to ask if he anticipates dropping out, despite his unrivaled $100 million Super Pac war chest. Trump – whose greatest assets are his steel-clad, inflated ego, his seasoned showman’s instincts, and his attuned, simplistic pandering to the populist mood – has changed the name of the game.
Russia, China, and Trump are agents of the same implacable force of disruption lapping away at the solid foundations of American institutions at home and abroad. Voters don’t just like Trump for his megalomaniacal tendencies, though that is certainly a crucial part of his appeal. They see him as an outsider with an insider’s lay of the land who is in a uniquely qualified position to identify the rot in our defaced, decaying institutions. The entire system, Washington, the establishment, the parties, the special interest and lobbies need to be firmly shaken up by someone who has ostensibly rejected them and their power of the purse in favor of the people. Specifics and policy only matter so much next to the visceral desire to take a sledgehammer to something the Republican base projects. It is exactly this same anti-governing philosophy that has turned the House of Representatives into a decapitated chicken running circles trying to find the next moderate Republican to cut down with the Speakership.
Russia and China are mobilizing their military, economic, and diplomatic clout to challenge the United States’ dominance of great power politics. They are doing so by flouting American-led international institutions and violating core principles of the American-led international order. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine transgress a principle at the core of the United Nations: the illegality of territorial conquest. Russia violated numerous treaties it signed with the U.N. and NATO. Russia’s moves in Syria were a tactical coup for Putin. He has supplanted the American-led coalition there as the primary external factor in the fractured country’s brutal civil war, assuring Moscow of a permanently expanded role in the Middle East.
China’s informal occupation of these new islands it has created and its territorial claims directly contradict the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. In a press conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, President Obama felt he needed to make clear that “the United States will continue to sail, fly and operate anywhere that international law allows.” The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese initiative, is bitterly opposed by the United States, and the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership stands to reassert America’s role as the dominant power in the Pacific.
There are two inevitable historical trends at play here. The first is that American superpower status is on the decline, and although many forecasts and present analyses of American weakness are overblown, we are unmistakably entering a more frictional world order of greater multipolarity. The challenge for America is to leverage its current clout to ease into and expand its global partnership and interconnected web of alliances so as to discourage the zero-sum, balance of power modus operandi of international relations of a century ago. America must integrate more of the world into the peaceful framework of interdependent economic development it has fostered since the end of World War II. China, which is still seen as the greatest success story of international integration, and Russia, a perennial pariah, threaten this mission, and more steps must be taken to counterbalance the disorder they encourage.
The second is wherever this unpredictable, cresting wave of anger, disappointment, and cynicism towards American democratic institutions is leading us to, and this is the larger challenge. As politicians of both stripes have repeatedly claimed, gridlock and dysfunction have crippled the country’s capacity to face longstanding social grievances that have only gotten worse as our system has neglected them: racial injustice, income inequality, the dwindling middle class, climate change, under and unemployment, stagnant wages, predatory health care costs, a vicious cycle of intergenerational poverty – we could go on.
How to walk the fine line required to tackle these conflicting, intractable, expensive problems that must receive their due is the defining question of our time. Amidst unmitigated uncertainty, one thing is clear: the disorder that Russia, China, and Trump offer must be rejected, and rejected firmly.
For all of their faults, and there are many, American institutions have been a force for progress and good in the United States and around the world. The international order of economic liberalization, rules and norms, and partnerships and alliances has enabled and encouraged the burgeoning globalization of the last few decades. The resulting growth has lifted billions out of poverty and into a new global middle class. China’s phenomenal growth story is the brightest example of what globalization has provided at its best. Domestically, institutions establish the confines in which the numerous political traditions of our federal constitutional republic operate. Our age-old guarantee of an individual right to the pursuit of happiness and our collective dedication to a more perfect union are at the heart of a democratic political tradition punctuated by new, more expansive births of freedom. And although it is slow, churning, and bitterly disappointing at times, our system, like the arc of the moral universe, bends towards justice.
America can’t indulge in the opportunism, smallness, and indefinable, nothing nihilism of a Trump candidacy. America has to continue to uphold international law and discipline those who stray from its loose confines. America must continue to lead, and to lead constructively, in unison with our partners, no matter how much we may wish to isolate ourselves anew from a world as enigmatic as we are.