Ever since the rise of nations states 500 years ago, Europe has played balance-of-power politics: form alliances to maintain the balance of power so that no single nation can dominate its neighbours. Centuries after Polybius first mentioned the balance-of-power concept, the Duke of Milan pioneered the practical application of it in the 1400s; Henry VIII began 300 years of British adherence to balance-of-power politics, wherein England almost always allied against the top power on the continent, to prevent any single state from gaining too much power, forming a continent-wide state, or dominating the Channel coasts. In the 1700s a number of alliances were formed, and wars fought, to maintain the balance of power; during the early 1800s the European powers actually agreed to pursue balance of power as an explicit continent-wide policy. Balance-of-power politics led to a bewildering series of alliances that culminated in WWI, and then NATO and the Warsaw Pact played the same balance-of-power game for half a century.
So for 500 years Europe, and ultimately the world, learned to embrace the balance of power as its mainstay foreign policy. Maintaining a balance of power prevents wars in a time when the business of nations is war. But it also prevents problem-solving in an era in which that is international community’s main business. And therein lies the problem: a balance of power stops wars but it also stops peaceful solutions to global problems.
Sixty years ago most of the world was in ruins and needed our help, particularly in light of the Soviet threat, so few outside the Soviet bloc saw the need to impede American power. Now the rest of the world has caught up to us somewhat, and the Russian threat has abated. Only the current recession and some heavy-handedness by Putin have caused a few folks to wonder if the Cold War alliances were all that bad.
Russia, China and France are working to see to it that the single most powerful state, America, doesn’t get too powerful. As a result they are using the UN to prevent the U.S. from taking the lead in solving a wide range of problems, from the Middle East peace process to Iran; it is only because of their footdragging that North Korea has been able to violate its nuclear commitments over and over (how many times can they sell us the same reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for economic concessions?). They do not want us using the international community as our tool of choice for projecting our power. Other nations are quietly cheering them on. This not only undermines some necessary political initiatives, but also undermines the UN itself, and forces the U.S. to considering resorting to military options more often. Bush bungled this aspect so badly during the run-up to the Iraq invasion that the international community wrongly blamed us, rather than our opponents, for damaging the international system.
Russia, in particular, wants a world in which it can ignore the UN and instead use its own international mechanisms, such as alliances with other countries who share their suspicions about U.S. policy, and alliances with natural gas producers.
Although nominally our NATO ally, France has been working energetically to check U.S. power. They want to replace NATO (itself looking for a raison d’etre since it was designed to block the now-dead Soviet Union) with a European defense system which uses U.S. support systems but leaves the U.S. out of policy-making. Likewise they want more effort within the EU and less at the UN (although the French and the other Europeans still want France at the UN so they can block the U.S. there too). Although the French have always feared the Germans, they now hope to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Germany, and form an alliance with the Germans themselves, which would in turn dominate European policy. The Germans have tangled with the U.S. on NATO enlargement and Iran sanctions, and they want to avoid provoking the Russians by confronting them with a unified EU policy (which could actually help the U.S.).
India is showing signs of the same attitude: insisting loudly on a seat at the table of global diplomacy (fair enough) and bragging to its domestic audience that it obstructed a deal on the Doha trade round (not so good).
China has not shown its hand yet. They are letting others take the lead in confronting the U.S. Ultimately the U.S.-Chinese relationship will be the most important.
An added headache is that almost all of the nations whom we’re dealing with have suffered major national humiliations in the course of the last century: France, Germany and China were all conquered, the Russians suffered embarrassments in Afghanistan and Chechnya as their Soviet empire collapsed, and so on. And in every case their path to restoring national grandeur is to get into Uncle Sam’s face, particularly after eight years of hamhanded policy by the Bush gang; Bush has frightened not only our enemies but also our potential allies, so we must sell America as a brand all over again. The global recession is only going to increase obstructive nationalism.
So these are the people Obama must work with, to rebuild the world.