International politics accepts the reality that great powers compete to enhance their influence abroad. In the 20th century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union aspired to dominate Europe and the Middle East. Great Britain lost an empire after World War II, but the U.S. emerged in 1945 as a superpower. Today, two major powers and two minor ones aspire to make their countries "great again" by chipping away at the power and influence of the United States. They are China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. They all have aspirations to expand their influence in their regions, but U.S. military forces stand in their way.
President Xi Jinping, like all Chinese leaders since 1949, is clear that China plans to reverse the humiliations suffered in the 19th century when Western powers effectively dismembered China while it was weak. Today, with massive economic growth and an expanding navy and air force, China asserts its hegemony in the South China Sea, Northeast Asia including Korea, and parts of a vast Indian Ocean area. Beijing expects eventually to persuade the U.S. to withdraw its power from the Western Pacific.
Xi, unlike Russia's Putin, seems in no hurry to expand China's influence at America's expense if that seriously disrupts its economy or risks a military confrontation. Its long history teaches that Chinese leaders plan for the long term, avoiding confrontations where possible, focusing on short-term gains, waiting for a favorable political climate to advance their objectives. President Xi thinks America will eventually tire of its expensive strategic presence in East Asia and acquiesce in China's growing hegemony.
Vladimir Putin boasts to his people that he'll restore Russia's greatness after its humiliation by the West in the 1990s. He plans to extend Moscow's influence in neighboring countries, including Ukraine, the Baltic States, and potentially former Soviet satellites: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Serbia. Unlike Xi Jinping, Putin seems in a hurry to accomplish his objectives through intimidation, subversion, and the use of Russian forces on their borders. While Ukraine is the immediate flashpoint, Putin aspires to bring neighboring Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania under his influence.
American military power on the ground in Europe blocks Putin's ambitions. Like Soviet leaders during the Cold War, he uses all methods available, short of overt military action, to persuade Europeans that America in not a reliable ally, and that it's preferable for them to accommodate to Russian power and avoid another war. During the long Cold War, this propaganda line influenced many European leftists, including in Germany which remains pivotal for Putin's ambitions.
Ayatollah Khamenei and his revolutionary regime aspire to restore Iran's influence in the Middle East by acquiring nuclear power status and undermining Persian Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia. Known in history as Persia, Iran today exhibits nostalgia for a time when it was a major power. Great Britain's withdrawal from the Gulf area after World War II enabled Tehran's leaders, led by the young Shah, to expand its influence in the Gulf area. In 1979, however, a Revolutionary Islamic regime seized power and has used its Shia view of Islam to expand Iran's influence into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Persian Gulf. Only the United States, with its fleet based in Bahrain, prevents the Revolutionary Republic from becoming a major power and dominating the Persian Gulf region.
Koreans have nostalgia for a united country that existed before Japan invaded and occupied the peninsula in 1910. With Japan's defeat in 1945, Korea was divided between a communist north supported by the Soviet Union and a non-communist south backed by the United States. America's intervention in 1950 prevented the North from uniting the entire country under its control. South Korea then developed into a vibrant free-market, democratic economy; the Communist North remains economically poor. Now its leader, Kim Jong-un, bets that his nuclear weapons will intimidate South Koreans into accepting a unified Korea under his control. U.S. military power stands in his way.
For twenty-five years Washington tried to persuade North Korea's leaders to abandon their quest for nuclear weapons. Those efforts failed. Now the Trump administration confronts the North's leaders and their Chinese backers with the prospect of war unless they agree to a denuclearized Korean peninsula.
Will Trump's hard-line diplomacy be more successful than the efforts of Clinton, Bush, and Obama were? We should know in the next few months.
File last modified on Monday, 9-APR-2018 08:30 AM EST