At Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt suggests that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks the return to realism. He writes in conclusion:
The emerging future will be neither a U.S.-centered “liberal order” nor a Chinese-centered autocratic one. Instead, each of these two major powers will lead partial orders that incorporate states that either share similar values or have little choice but to align with one side or the other. And make no mistake: Both Washington and Beijing are going to expect a lot of loyalty from some of their allies. Expect to see greater division and contention in the digital space as the two countries compete to determine which technical standards will predominate and as the digital world gradually segments behind firewalls, safeguards, incompatible privacy standards, and other restrictions.
But as the global response to Ukraine suggests, many countries—especially those in the global south—will resist pressures to pick a side and will try to remain aloof from quarrels that do not involve them directly. Some of them will try to extract greater benefits by playing the United States and China off against each other. Among other things, this situation is a reminder that trying to base U.S. foreign policy on a rigid dichotomy of “democracy vs. autocracy” is a recipe for failure. As in the past, success will require cooperating with like-minded partners where possible and with states that do not share U.S. values when necessary.
Unfortunately, cooperation among the major powers is going to be a lot harder to achieve and sustain, even when their interests are partly aligned. This could be the most significant fallout from this nasty but thus far localized war: It gives major powers the excuse to ignore the less imminent but far more ominous danger of accelerating climate change. Dealing with climate change is going to require sacrifices by all the major powers, but they will be less willing to make them when they are worried about the global balance of power and are reluctant to give up more than their rivals.
We are back in a world that realism explains best, one where great powers compete for power and influence and others adapt as best they can. The jungle isn’t “growing back,” as Robert Kagan would have us believe; it never really went away, even when the United States was the biggest beast and deluded itself into thinking it could make all the other animals behave. That’s not a particularly happy thought, but the world that realism depicts is not a particularly happy world.
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