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Monday, February 12, 2007

Is great power conflict back?

Since the end of the cold war, the world has not featured much great power competition. Moreover, the 9/11 attacks and fall 2001 anthrax scare focused tremendous attention on threats from transnational terrorism and small states with "weapons of mass destruction." Virtually all the world's major powers aligned together in a "war on terrorism."

Indeed, scholars of international relations have starting debating whether or not balancing behavior is a relic of the past. The United States is so powerful relative to other states, some argue, that balancing behavior is NOT to be expected.

Recently, however, there have been some signs that great power competition may be returning.

China recently tested an ASAT, for example, which may one day pose a threat to US space dominance.

This past week, Russia made some noise too.

Consider this statement from President Vladimir Putin in his address to the annual Munich security summit. As the BBC reported February 10:
Mr Putin told senior security officials from around the world that nations were "witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations".

"One state, the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way," he said, speaking through a translator.

"This is very dangerous. Nobody feels secure anymore because nobody can hide behind international law.

"This is nourishing an arms race with the desire of countries to get nuclear weapons."
As Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Ray Takeyh points out, the US and Russia have serious differences concerning Iran.

February 9, the New York Times reported that Russian defense minister Sergei B. Ivanov warned a NATO group meeting in Spain that Russia might initiate a new arms competition if the US deploys radars and defensive missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Those states are a long way from North Korea, though the US claims Iran is the potential threat.

In Munich, some Americans also had great power competition in mind. The BBC quoted Senator John McCain:
"Moscow must understand that it cannot enjoy a genuine partnership with the West so long as its actions at home and abroad conflict fundamentally with the core values of the Euro-Atlantic democracies. In today's multi-polar world there is no place for needless confrontation."
McCain's Senate colleague Joseph Lieberman declared that Putin's "provocative" address "sounded more like the Cold War."

News reports suggested that Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried to deflate this rhetoric in his Munich speech, but he had his own concerns as well:
Looking eastward, China is a country at a strategic crossroads. All of us seek a constructive relationship with China, but we also wonder about the strategic choices China may make. We note with concern their recent test of an anti-satellite weapon.

Russia is a partner in endeavors. But we wonder, too, about some Russian policies that seem to work against international stability, such as its arms transfers and its temptation to use energy resources for political coercion.
I don't think a new cold war is on the immediate horizon, but the Bush administration hasn't worked very hard to build a sense of shared interests in international community.

Whether one is worried about global warming, the Geneva conventions, or a potential "preemptive" war on Iran, other great powers continue to wonder about the prospects of American unilateralism.

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