For The Atlantic: It’s A Safer, Way More Complicated World Out There

… at least com­pared with the peri­ods defined by the Cold War and the War on Ter­ror. But with no guid­ing par­a­digm, where does for­eign pol­i­cy and nation­al secu­ri­ty go from here?

Dur­ing the Cold War, Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy experts divid­ed the world into two broad camps: com­mu­nist and non-com­mu­nist. It was a neat par­a­digm that allowed for quick deci­sions: alliances, treaties, and even wars piv­ot­ed on this par­a­digm: Amer­i­can stood for cap­i­tal­ism, the Sovi­ets stood for com­mu­nism.

Since the end of the Cold War, how­ev­er, every­one involved in nation­al secu­ri­ty and for­eign pol­i­cy have strug­gled to cre­ate a new par­a­digm. No easy ene­mies also means there are few easy friends. With­out a sim­ple par­a­digm to define the world as good or bad, strat­e­gy has become incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to cre­ate and pur­sue.

As a result, what has defined the recent eras of for­eign pol­i­cy in Amer­i­ca have been defined large­ly by what they’re not: the post-Cold War 90s, the anti-ter­ror 2000s, and now we are mov­ing in the post-War-on-Ter­ror 2010s.

Defin­ing the world neg­a­tive­ly is real­ly just a process of elim­i­na­tion — it does lit­tle to help under­stand what the world is like right now, or how we can plan for it. But what is the world? What do we, as Amer­i­cans stand for?

It is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to define the world in pos­i­tive terms. At a recent inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence in Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia, a broad swath of the for­eign pol­i­cy elite from the U.S., Cana­da, and Europe all strug­gled with the ques­tion.

Because there is no sim­ple par­a­digm guid­ing world pol­i­tics, few can define, with any clar­i­ty, what our place in it should be. With­out that grander vision, strate­gic con­sen­sus and for­eign poli­cies are becom­ing increas­ing­ly mud­dled. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers plan for imme­di­ate ben­e­fit, and lose sight of long-term strate­gic objec­tives.

In a unipoloar or bipo­lar world, it was eas­i­er to toe the line and stand togeth­er as Amer­i­cans,” Sen­a­tor Mark Udall said to the pan­el on Amer­i­can glob­al lead­er­ship. “But now there’s not one strat­e­gy we can agree on for a vari­ety of threats.”

What does this mean for the future of for­eign pol­i­cy and inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty? It’s unclear. One still hears among the elder states­men of the world a nos­tal­gia for the Cold War: a sim­pler, more pre­dictable time when the west­ern world knew what it was and what it want­ed.

In many ways, the Cold War was sim­pler than the mod­ern world. But the world is also unques­tion­ably bet­ter off than it was. Odd Arne Wes­t­ad wrote in The Glob­al Cold War that the com­pe­ti­tion between pow­ers “put a num­ber of Third World coun­tries in a state of semi­per­ma­nent civ­il war” and made those wars hard­er to set­tle. This con­stant state of war­fare cre­at­ed in oth­er­wise small con­flicts the poten­tial for glob­al cat­a­stro­phe, dra­mat­i­cal­ly rais­ing the stakes of almost every inter­ac­tion between the two com­pet­ing blocs.

The last two decades of post-Cold War pol­i­cy has seen the world agree to a sin­gle eco­nom­ic sys­tem. Wars are small­er, less inter­na­tion­al, and less dead­ly than ever before, and the threat of glob­al nuclear anni­hi­la­tion is great­ly dimin­ished. Thus, the stakes of the inter­na­tion­al sys­tem are much small­er.

But just because the stakes of glob­al pol­i­tics are far low­er, how­ev­er, does not mean the com­plex­i­ty of glob­al pol­i­tics is low­er. And it is that com­plex­i­ty that vex­es so many.

The appeal of the “War on Ter­ror” pol­i­cy frame­work that so defined the 2000s is its sim­i­lar­i­ty to the Cold War: a state of semi-per­ma­nent war for the coun­try, which also raised the stakes of some con­flicts and gave Amer­i­ca the glob­al mis­sion of stamp­ing out ter­ror move­ments. Mali, for exam­ple, is not just a civ­il con­flict in a back­wa­ter in West­ern Africa — it has the poten­tial for glob­al jihad, and thus becomes an inter­est for the Unit­ed States.

So why is the cur­rent par­a­digm of the world so hard to con­ceive? Is it not enough to sim­ply accept that the world is a bit messy, that most dilem­mas are not easy because there’s no big ene­my to unite views, and that the erod­ing dom­i­nance of the old inter­state sys­tem might mean we need to think more flex­i­bly?

Indeed, there is a fun­da­men­tal attri­bu­tion error in assum­ing the world was not com­pli­cat­ed before; even though the sim­ple par­a­digm of the US-Sovi­et rival­ry is long gone, local pol­i­tics and local wars are hard­ly more com­pli­cat­ed than they were in the 1970s. But because these local pol­i­tics and local wars do not fit into a glob­al par­a­digm of con­flict, their nat­ur­al com­plex­i­ty can’t be sub­sumed to a sim­ple nar­ra­tive.

That old, Cold War nar­ra­tive was­n’t so sim­ple any­way. In fact, for Amer­i­ca and the West it was defined inter­na­tion­al pol­i­tics as much by what they were not as much as by what they were. While Amer­i­ca believed in free­dom, the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment also sup­port­ed hor­rif­ic dic­ta­tor­ships whose sole virtue was being non-com­mu­nist.

Defin­ing one’s role in the world in pos­i­tive terms — by what it is, rather than by what it is not — is not an easy task. But if we approach the world know­ing who we are (instead of who we are not), then we can make pol­i­cy deci­sions with an eye toward the future: not just a tem­po­rary fix on a press­ing prob­lem, but devel­op­ing long-term solu­tions for a big­ger pay­off down the line.

This sort of think­ing does not come nat­u­ral­ly. The dif­fi­cult work of mak­ing and ana­lyz­ing pol­i­cy incen­tivizes imme­di­ate think­ing: angling for a short-term pay­off rather than a long-term ben­e­fit. It also flows from the neg­a­tive def­i­n­i­tions of the world: If you don’t know what the world is, then all you can do is react to events as they appear.

Chang­ing that entrenched mode of think­ing is more impor­tant than ever.

This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared at The Atlantic.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.

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