- - Tuesday, May 3, 2016



By Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell

Princeton University Press, $29.95, 227 pages

What a difference 27 years makes. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama published his now-famous article in The National Interest — a thoughtful publication to which I am proud to be a contributing editor — proclaiming “The end of history”: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of humanity’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

Read my lips, no new history.

Like Mark Twain’s before it, history’s obituary proved to be just a tad premature. While a noble aspiration, the “universalization” of Western liberal democracy remains as remote as it was during the Cold War. Although history never ends, it can repeat itself. Much of what we are witnessing today is a reversion to a much older, more fractured historical pattern than the clearly drawn bipolar alignment of the Cold War. While the United States survives as the sole but self-diminishing global superpower, rising regional powers like China and — militarily if not economically — a revanchist Russia under Vladimir Putin combine with rival economic blocs like the European Union to make for a world with many conflicting leitmotifs and no central theme. Add to this transnational, transregional contagions like Islamic extremism and you have a multipolar — and highly volatile — world where building that “New World Order” we used to hear so much about seems more and more like a pipe dream.

So where do we go from here? Jakub J. Grygiel and A. Wess Mitchell, joint authors of “The Unquiet Frontier,” have a number of useful suggestions that deserve serious consideration. Central to their case is the importance of maintaining a strong, credible network of American alliances with countries — mostly small and relatively weak — on the peripheries of what the authors consider to be three rising, “revisionist” regional powers: Russia, China and Iran. Such a network of alliances currently exists but is becoming increasingly frayed since “[r]ivals and allies of the United States alike perceive that changes are afoot in America’s capabilities and comportment as a great power.” The authors’ prescription of a robust recommitment to these regional alliances as a kind of preventive medicine makes overall sense; rising or resurgent powers like China and Russia are always looking for “low-cost revision — marginal gains that offer the highest possible geopolitical payoff at the lowest possible strategic price … . Would-be powers need to understand the likely [response] before they act.”

Good general advice, this, and the authors are usually sound in backing it up with specifics. But in a murky and fluid world, they sometimes seem to be trying to play a game of chess in quicksand. If there is one criticism I would make, it is that they take a “one-size-fits-all” approach in characterizing our potential rivals. Thus China, Iran and Russia are lumped together as “historically predatory powers” when each of these countries is drastically different. Only one, Russia, has a consistent pattern of aggressive imperialism dating back at least as far as the reign of Czar Peter the Great in the late-17th and early-18th centuries. China, while potentially an economic and military goliath, has historically been more concerned with securing its already-vast territory from the encroachments of others than in imperial expansion. While its military and naval strength should be a cause for concern and vigilance, the economic sphere is where China presents its greatest challenge.

As for Iran, its “historically” predatory behavior has never been the same since Alexander the Great crushed the ancient Persian Empire thousands of years ago. In more recent centuries it has been overrun, divided and exploited by everything from Arab invaders who brought Islamic conversion at sword point, to bullying neighbors like Imperial Russia and Ottoman Turkey, to a self-serving Anglo-American oil consortium. While all three countries present serious challenges to Western values and American interests, they have little more in common with each other than the three wobbly legs of the “Axis of Evil,” two of which — Iran and Iraq — were mortal enemies, while the third, North Korea, was a crazed hermit kingdom ruled by three generations of megalomaniacs.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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