“The Real World Order” by George Friedman of Stratfor (update)

This is, IMO, one of his best reports.  Although he expresses it differently, he refers to a process often discussed here:  the very existence of a hegemonic state impells some of the other great powers to ally against it.  Considering the weak economic foundations of American power, like that of the UK after WWI, the outcome could be unpleasant for us.  I strongly recommend reading this.

Summary:  “The post-Cold War world, the New World Order, ended with authority on Aug. 8, 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war.”

Update:  I have inserted comments in red italics.

The Real World Order“, George Friedman, Stratfor, 18 August 2008 — Reposted in full below. 

On Sept. 11, 1990, U.S. President George H. W. Bush addressed Congress. He spoke in the wake of the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, the weakening of the Soviet Union, and the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. He argued that a New World Order was emerging: “A hundred generations have searched for this elusive path to peace, while a thousand wars raged across the span of human endeavor, and today that new world is struggling to be born. A world quite different from the one we’ve known. A world where the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle. A world in which nations recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice. A world where the strong respect the rights of the weak.”

After every major, systemic war, there is the hope that this will be the war to end all wars. The idea driving it is simple. Wars are usually won by grand coalitions. The idea is that the coalition that won the war by working together will continue to work together to make the peace. Indeed, the idea is that the defeated will join the coalition and work with them to ensure the peace. This was the dream behind the Congress of Vienna, the League of Nations, the United Nations and, after the Cold War, NATO. The idea was that there would be no major issues that couldn’t be handled by the victors, now joined with the defeated. That was the idea that drove George H. W. Bush as the Cold War was coming to its end.

Those with the dream are always disappointed. The victorious coalition breaks apart. The defeated refuse to play the role assigned to them. New powers emerge that were not part of the coalition. Anyone may have ideals and visions. The reality of the world order is that there are profound divergences of interest in a world where distrust is a natural and reasonable response to reality. In the end, ideals and visions vanish in a new round of geopolitical conflict.

The post-Cold War world, the New World Order, ended with authority on Aug. 8, 2008, when Russia and Georgia went to war. Certainly, this war was not in itself of major significance, and a very good case can be made that the New World Order actually started coming apart on Sept. 11, 2001. But it was on Aug. 8 that a nation-state, Russia, attacked another nation-state, Georgia, out of fear of the intentions of a third nation-state, the United States. This causes us to begin thinking about the Real World Order.

The global system is suffering from two imbalances. First, one nation-state, the United States, remains overwhelmingly powerful, and no combination of powers are in a position to control its behavior. We are aware of all the economic problems besetting the United States, but the reality is that the American economy is larger than the next three economies combined (Japan, Germany and China). The U.S. military controls all the world’s oceans and effectively dominates space. Because of these factors, the United States remains politically powerful – not liked and perhaps not admired, but enormously powerful.

FM:  The last line is a bit delusional.  We control the world’s oceans since nobody sees any point to doing so.  Nobody dominates space at this time, nor has the ability to do so.

The second imbalance is within the United States itself. Its ground forces and the bulk of its logistical capability are committed to the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States also is threatening on occasion to go to war with Iran, which would tie down most of its air power, and it is facing a destabilizing Pakistan. Therefore, there is this paradox: The United States is so powerful that, in the long run, it has created an imbalance in the global system. In the short run, however, it is so off balance that it has few, if any, military resources to deal with challenges elsewhere. That means that the United States remains the dominant power in the long run but it cannot exercise that power in the short run. This creates a window of opportunity for other countries to act.

FM:  He does not develop the key insight of this.  The concentration of US forces in the Middle East has shown some of the limits to US power.  We can focus our attention in order to dominate one area at a time.  While the largest power, we are no longer a true hegemonic power.  Perhaps unable to deal with this, the next few paragraphs are somewhat delusional.

The outcome of the Iraq war can be seen emerging. The United States has succeeded in creating the foundations for a political settlement among the main Iraqi factions that will create a relatively stable government. In that sense, U.S. policy has succeeded. But the problem the United States has is the length of time it took to achieve this success. Had it occurred in 2003, the United States would not suffer its current imbalance. But this is 2008, more than five years after the invasion. The United States never expected a war of this duration, nor did it plan for it. In order to fight the war, it had to inject a major portion of its ground fighting capability into it. The length of the war was the problem. U.S. ground forces are either in Iraq, recovering from a tour or preparing for a deployment. What strategic reserves are available are tasked into Afghanistan. Little is left over.

FM:  Stratfor has long forecast a political settlement of Iraq, which they usually discuss as negotiated by the US and Iran.  So far there are NO signs of this.  My guess is that “Iraq” is fragmenting (the Kurds have de facto established their own state).  We cannot say at this time where they are in this process.  The current peace looks tentative, considering the national government’s inability to settle the status of Kirkuk, hold provincial elections, or strike a deal with the Sunni Arabs.

As Iraq pulled in the bulk of available forces, the United States did not shift its foreign policy elsewhere. For example, it remained committed to the expansion of democracy in the former Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO, to include Ukraine and Georgia. From the fall of the former Soviet Union, the United States saw itself as having a dominant role in reshaping post-Soviet social and political orders, including influencing the emergence of democratic institutions and free markets. The United States saw this almost in the same light as it saw the democratization of Germany and Japan after World War II. Having defeated the Soviet Union, it now fell to the United States to reshape the societies of the successor states.

FM:  “Having defeated the Soviet Union” is deeply delusional; comparing this to the defeat of the WWII Axis powers is more so.  “It now fell to the US to reshape the societies of the successor states” is a logical consequence of the previous two delusions.  The problem with founding national strategy on false (in this case, bizarrely so) assumptions is that other nations might forcibly explain one’s flawed reasoning.

Through the 1990s, the successor states, particularly Russia, were inert. Undergoing painful internal upheaval – which foreigners saw as reform but which many Russians viewed as a foreign-inspired national catastrophe – Russia could not resist American and European involvement in regional and internal affairs. From the American point of view, the reshaping of the region – from the Kosovowar to the expansion of NATO to the deployment of U.S. Air Force bases to Central Asia – was simply a logical expansion of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a benign attempt to stabilize the region, enhance its prosperity and security and integrate it into the global system.

FM:  How nice of us.  How odd that everyone does not recognize our disinterested wonderfulness.  From here, however, Friedman switches mode– going to realistic descriptions of geopolitical dynamics.  At which he — and Stratfor — are among the best.

As Russia regained its balance from the chaos of the 1990s, it began to see the American and European presence in a less benign light. It was not clear to the Russians that the United States was trying to stabilize the region. Rather, it appeared to the Russians that the United States was trying to take advantage of Russian weakness to impose a new politico-military reality in which Russia was to be surrounded with nations controlled by the United States and its military system, NATO. In spite of the promise made by Bill Clinton that NATO would not expand into the former Soviet Union, the three Baltic states were admitted. The promise was not addressed. NATO was expanded because it could and Russia could do nothing about it.

From the Russian point of view, the strategic break point was Ukraine. When the Orange Revolution came to Ukraine, the American and European impression was that this was a spontaneous democratic rising. The Russian perception was that it was a well-financed CIA operation to foment an anti-Russian and pro-American uprising in Ukraine. When the United States quickly began discussing the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO, the Russians came to the conclusion that the United States intended to surround and crush the Russian Federation. In their view, if NATO expanded into Ukraine, the Western military alliance would place Russia in a strategically untenable position. Russia would be indefensible. The American response was that it had no intention of threatening Russia. The Russian question was returned: Then why are you trying to take control of Ukraine? What other purpose would you have? The United States dismissed these Russian concerns as absurd. The Russians, not regarding them as absurd at all, began planning on the assumption of a hostile United States.

If the United States had intended to break the Russian Federation once and for all, the time for that was in the 1990s, before Yeltsin was replaced by Putin and before 9/11. There was, however, no clear policy on this, because the United States felt it had all the time in the world. Superficially this was true, but only superficially. First, the United States did not understand that the Yeltsin years were a temporary aberration and that a new government intending to stabilize Russia was inevitable. If not Putin, it would have been someone else. Second, the United States did not appreciate that it did not control the international agenda. Sept. 11, 2001, took away American options in the former Soviet Union. No only did it need Russian help in Afghanistan, but it was going to spend the next decade tied up in the Middle East. The United States had lost its room for maneuver and therefore had run out of time.

And now we come to the key point. In spite of diminishing military options outside of the Middle East, the United States did not modify its policy in the former Soviet Union. It continued to aggressively attempt to influence countries in the region, and it became particularly committed to integrating Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, in spite of the fact that both were of overwhelming strategic interest to the Russians. Ukraine dominated Russia’s southwestern flank, without any natural boundaries protecting them. Georgia was seen as a constant irritant in Chechnya as well as a barrier to Russian interests in the Caucasus.

Moving rapidly to consolidate U.S. control over these and other countries in the former Soviet Union made strategic sense. Russia was weak, divided and poorly governed. It could make no response. Continuing this policy in the 2000s, when the Russians were getting stronger, more united and better governed and while U.S. forces were no longer available, made much less sense. The United States continued to irritate the Russians without having, in the short run, the forces needed to act decisively.

FM:  The above is a nice way of describing an incompetent US foreign policy. 

The American calculation was that the Russian government would not confront American interests in the region. The Russian calculation was that it could not wait to confront these interests because the United States was concluding the Iraq war and would return to its pre-eminent position in a few short years. Therefore, it made no sense for Russia to wait and it made every sense for Russia to act as quickly as possible.

The Russians were partly influenced in their timing by the success of the American surge in Iraq. If the United States continued its policy and had force to back it up, the Russians would lose their window of opportunity. Moreover, the Russians had an additional lever for use on the Americans: Iran.

The United States had been playing a complex game with Iran for years, threatening to attack while trying to negotiate. The Americans needed the Russians. Sanctions against Iran would have no meaning if the Russians did not participate, and the United States did not want Russia selling advance air defense systems to Iran. (Such systems, which American analysts had warned were quite capable, were not present in Syria on Sept. 6, 2007, when the Israelis struck a nuclear facility there.) As the United States re-evaluates the Russian military, it does not want to be surprised by Russian technology. Therefore, the more aggressive the United States becomes toward Russia, the greater the difficulties it will have in Iran. This further encouraged the Russians to act sooner rather than later.

The Russians have now proven two things. First, contrary to the reality of the 1990s, they can execute a competent military operation. Second, contrary to regional perception, the United States cannot intervene. The Russian message was directed against Ukraine most of all, but the Baltics, Central Asia and Belarus are all listening. The Russians will not act precipitously. They expect all of these countries to adjust their foreign policies away from the United States and toward Russia. They are looking to see if the lesson is absorbed. At first, there will be mighty speeches and resistance. But the reality on the ground is the reality on the ground.

We would expect the Russians to get traction. But if they don’t, the Russians are aware that they are, in the long run, much weaker than the Americans, and that they will retain their regional position of strength only while the United States is off balance in Iraq. If the lesson isn’t absorbed, the Russians are capable of more direct action, and they will not let this chance slip away. This is their chance to redefine their sphere of influence. They will not get another.

FM:  “they will retain their regional position of strength only while the United States is off balance in Iraq”  Back to delusional-land.  If we removed our forces from the Middle East, does Friedman think we could confront Russia in Eastern Europe?  If so, that is nuts.  Not only are our conventional forces insufficient, Russia has nukes.

The other country that is watching and thinking is Iran. Iran had accepted the idea that it had lost the chance to dominate Iraq. It had also accepted the idea that it would have to bargain away its nuclear capability or lose it. The Iranians are now wondering if this is still true and are undoubtedly pinging the Russians about the situation. Meanwhile, the Russians are waiting for the Americans to calm down and get serious. If the Americans plan to take meaningful action against them, they will respond in Iran. But the Americans have no meaningful actions they can take; they need to get out of Iraq and they need help against Iran. The quid pro quo here is obvious. The United States acquiesces to Russian actions (which it can’t do anything about), while the Russians cooperate with the United States against Iran getting nuclear weapons (something Russia does not want to see).

FM:  One valuable data point is the repeated failure of Stratfor’s predictions of diplomatic agreements among the major powers.  Their long-forecast master settlement of the Middle East by the US and Iran has not yet appeared (nor are there any signs of such, so far).  Now they double-down with a forecast of a major agreement with Russia.  These are logical forecasts, and their failure might indicate something about the global geopolitical order is changing — changed invisible to Stratfor.  Perhaps invisible to America, but seen by others.

One of the interesting concepts of the New World Order was that all serious countries would want to participate in it and that the only threat would come from rogue states and nonstate actors such as North Korea and al Qaeda. Serious analysts argued that conflict between nation-states would not be important in the 21st century. There will certainly be rogue states and nonstate actors, but the 21st century will be no different than any other century. On Aug. 8, the Russians invited us all to the Real World Order.

FM:  Great conclusion.

{end}  Reprinted with permission. 

Please share your comments by posting below (brief and relevant, please), or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more information about the end of the post-WWII economic regime

  1. A brief note on the US Dollar. Is this like August 1914?  (8 November 2007) — How the current situation is as unstable financially as was Europe geopolitically in early 1914.
  2. The post-WWII geopolitical regime is dying. Chapter One   (21 November 2007) — Why the current geopolitical order is unstable, describing the policy choices that brought us here.
  3. We have been warned. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, Chapter II  (28 November 2007) — A long list of the warnings we have ignored, from individual experts and major financial institutions (links included).
  4. Death of the post-WWII geopolitical regime, III – death by debt  (8 January 2008) – Origins of the long economic expansion from 1982 to 2006; why the down cycle will be so severe.
  5. Geopolitical implications of the current economic downturn  (24 January 2008) – How will this recession end?  With re-balancing of the global economy, so that the US goods and services are again competitive.  No more trade deficit, and we can pay out debts.
  6. A happy ending to the current economic recession (12 February 2008) – The political actions which might end this downturn, and their long-term implications.
  7. What will America look like after this recession?  (18 March 208)  — More forecasts.  The recession might change so many things, from the distribution of wealth within the US to the ranking of global powers.
  8. The most important story in this week’s newspapers   (22 May 2008) — How solvent is the US government? They report the facts to us every year.

To see the all posts on this subject, go to the archive for The End of the Post-WWII Geopolitical Regime.

14 thoughts on ““The Real World Order” by George Friedman of Stratfor (update)

  1. You’re right — this is an excellent overview of the current balance of power. I question two conclusions: 1) that the US is in sight of achieving its goals in Iraq, and that this Iraq will not fall under the influence of Iran. 2) Russia’s window of opportunity for asserting its power vis a vis Europe and the US is limited. I think Russia’s power, based on its energy resources, is substantial, and gives it strong leverage over Europe makes it an attractive partner for countries like Iran, China or India.

  2. I’m not impressed. Iraq is already influenced by Iran. It’s leaders and the Badr Brigades were trained there, and they have a very close relationship. Georgia will splinter NATO — the recent NATO statement was weak (Europe needs Russia) and left Bush and Rice hanging out there with their bluster. Russia will move closer to Syria and Iran, outflanking the US in Iraq. Russia still has options in Afghanistan to give the US (more) real problems, and they are moving closer to China. What is the Real World Order? He doesn’t say, or did I miss it (there’s so much verbage)?

  3. Don,
    I think the writer doesn’t disagree with you as much as you think. Despite his underestimation of Russia’s power, his general drift is that the uni-polar American era is over. It’s going to be regional blocks from here on, with some scrapping over the last oil and mineral states.

  4. Bad news, pc. Another Great Game? One of those Concert of Powers BS that gradually evolved into WWI? Do we need another Metternich or Bismarck again?

  5. Another Bismarck? Many russians would say that they already have one. There are some interesting parallels there that I wish someone would explore in detail.

    And another Great Game over energy is inevitable now that peak oil is here. An economic reccession that reduces demand can postpone it (and seems to be doing so now) but so long as economic growth through population and consumption growth is pursued it is only a mater of time. Thank gods for nuclear weapons as they should keep this conflict from escalating into a “hot” war.

  6. As long as there are dictators running some nations, there will be some nations willing to go to war.

    The world needs a World Cop, but there is none, nor will there be one. I’d support a Human Rights Enforcement Group (HREG?) of international democracies, willing to evaluate human rights abuses, and occassionally going to war to stop gross violations — like those now in Darfur.

    I can imagine a post-commie pro-democracy China & India allying themselves with the US push for democracy, and thereby enforcing a Pax-Democracy, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime.

    I’m more worried about Iran getting and using a nuke — the Real World article was excellent in its discussions of the US, Russia, and Iran.

    I think it underestimates US military ability, a little — because it is unwilling to point to domestic political constraints on that military more than mere force size. Friedman is correct:
    They expect all of these countries to adjust their foreign policies away from the United States and toward Russia. They are looking to see if the lesson is absorbed.
    The lesson IS being absorbed, by Georgia & Ukraine & NATO & America.
    But then he seems wrong:
    At first, there will be mighty speeches and resistance. But the reality on the ground is the reality on the ground.
    Georgia will try to surrender to the US. Ukraine will try to get more NATO support, whatever the ‘national pride’ cost. Russia’s ex-empire will know that Russia is their active enemy. The price the US needs to pay to get friends on Russia’s borders, just went down.

    No mention of Azerbaijan — and their own Armenia minority problem of Nagorno-Karabakh. This is important because nationalist minorities can often be counted on to oppose the majority, and the minority is often willing to ally with the enemy of the majority’s super power. Whether US or Russia (or China, or maybe even Iran).

  7. Great comments, esd29a & Mr. Tom Grey. ( Oops, sorry, FM. This is YOUR site after all).

    To esd29a : but what if things come close to nuclear war, who’s to say that the future leaders of Russia or the U.S. aren’t crazy enough to pull that one? ( Let us all PRAY that doesn’t happen, I wouldn’t want to see a Cuban Missile Crisis Redux, or maybe it’s happenin’ as we speak, with condi signing that missile thingy with the poles).

    To Mr.Tom Grey, basically I’m more worried ’bout WMDs in Pakistan & Israel falling into the wrong hands (read : religious fanatics) than about Iran becoming a nuclear power (read van Creveld’s writing on that issue). Who knows, after so many years under totalitarian religious rule, perhaps there are people in Iran sympathetic to American ideals? That is prior to Israeli & American bombs fallin’ on top on ’em…

    It would be great if the world could share the same modes of thought ( last time that happened was detailed in a popular religious compilation ’bout a place in Mesopotamia where they built some tower to challenge a superior being). But, as FM has commented, the world is a House of Horrors where we can’t be goin’ ’round defeatin’ all ’em EVIL BEINGS. The U.S. would EXHAUST Herself & Her allies FATALLY if they tried.

  8. “When weapons are blunted, and ardor dampened, strength exhausted, and resources depleted, the neighboring rulers will take advantage of these complications.

    “Then, even the wisest of councils would not be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.”

    The Art of War, by Sun Tzu ( http://www.sonshi.com )

  9. To FM : methinks this recent debacle betwixt Russia & georgia may have substantial impact upon the dynamics in central asia & the middle east, particularly with regards to israel. Perhaps time will tell…

  10. “Therefore, there is this paradox: The United States is so powerful that, in the long run, it has created an imbalance in the global system. In the short run, however, it is so off balance that it has few, if any, military resources to deal with challenges elsewhere. That means that the United States remains the dominant power in the long run but it cannot exercise that power in the short run.”

    I would accept the above quote if the “long run” were changed to “intermediate run”. In the long run, the USA will be a has-been power unless we can turn around the erosion of our outsourced economy, the widening wealth gap, the fiscal carnage engendered by the Bush-Cheney administration borrow and spend policies, and the threat of the growing anarchy across oor southern border. This last is a special challenge, since doing so will require a radical change in our existing anti-drug policies, which aren’t working but have powerful political support.

  11. To Yours Truly:

    The expectation that no political reader would be crazy enought to start a nuke war is based on the concept that anyone who is that crazy would not get enough support from the voting people (democratic) or military/governmental professionals (authoritarian) or major corporations and media (modern democratic) to become the president/leader/big brother/etc. We should get a decent stress test of this concept in Pakistan soon – if the new ruler (whoever that may be) doesn’t start anything really stupid with India/Kashmir or Afghanistan then there is hope at least.

    To Tom Grey:

    While the Georgia, Ukraine and others may be even more interested in NATO membership now, there is also additional ammunition to those NATO members who want to keep them out. Fictional example: “If Georgia was in NATO their bombardment of russian peacekeepers could have started WW3. What could they contribute to our security to outweigh such large risks?”
    Nato exists to provide collective security to its members in North Atlantic area not to provide world peace.

    Also, you are correct that USA could have a much larger military in both people and hardware if they poured in all the resources that are currently spent on consumer trinkets and such – but a very big event would have to happen for the voters to agree. It takes either a war or totalitarianism to support a wartime economy.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Great observations! Thanks for posting!

  12. ” Nato exists to provide collective security to its members in North Atlantic area not to provide world peace “. Great points, esd29a. I think I missed out Liberty Dad’s point about the “lesson IS being absorbed “.

    But WHO ( read : NOT World Health Organization ) in the World can even provide this “world peace ” thang? The united nations? I’ve always been curious about whom it was that created this mythical creature. If it even exists.
    .
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    Fabius Maximus replies: We have not had a major war — large-scale state to state fighting between developed nations — in 63 years. For which you can thank “Mr. Atomic Bomb.” As nukes spread, so will this level of peace. Of course, the stakes go up for violations of this relative peace (there is always a side-effect).

  13. The situation in Georgia today is one more lesson in the vunerability of our country to the Russian chess game, with the pieces made out of petroleum. Much of the world runs on it, the demand for it is increasing on a daily basis, and those who stupidly run around like Chicken Little, shouting and ranting against Big Oil, like Athiests against God, are loose cannon. Oil demand cannot peak, momentarily perhaps, but then it will resume a relentless surge upward again.

    We need an energy policy that is sighted five, ten and twenty years in advance, but we do not have it. We need nuclear energy, but we let nuts control us instead of men with foresight and vision and intelligence. They forget the last gas shortage, just a few percentage points, and tourism folded up, gas stations were plugged up with lines of cars.

    Now we have more cars and about 90% less stations pumping gas. Idiotic? Yes. Cut three or four highways to Phoenix and in 30 days they’d be starving to death. Stop or simply delay three of today’s huge tankers and the whole country would be paralyzed.

    Are we nuts? We need a comprehensive laid-out energy plan or Russia or Iran will be able to blackmail us no matter how strong our military is. (Of course it was much stronger before 1992, wasn’t it?)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all points. The closest thing we have to the basis for a national energy policy is Hirsch’s “Mitigations” report. We have ignored its insights and recommendations, and the clock is ticking.

    For more on this see my posts on Peak Oil.

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