The Age of Great-Power Distraction

October 13, 2023
Hannah Notte

The Age of Great-Power Distraction: What Crises in the Middle East and Elsewhere Reveal About the Global Order

The following is an excerpt from Foreign Affairs.

Today’s great powers—China, Europe, Russia, and the United States—will undoubtedly have a role to play in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Whether any of these powers will be able to resolve or contain that conflict is far less certain. The notion that great-power competition defines geopolitics has come back into vogue after it fell into obscurity at the close of the Cold War. Unspoken Cold-War-era assumptions, however, still shadow many contemporary claims about the nature of this competition. Great powers, analysts assume, will marshal immense resources to shape the international order. What they do will shape global affairs. Using their financial and military might for proxy wars, they will remain intensely focused on each other. Wherever one acts, the others will respond in kind.

For all four current great powers, the sense that this competition orients them has become foundational, integrating lines of military, economic, technological, and diplomatic effort. Russia’s war against Ukraine, for instance, can easily be interpreted as a traditional example of great-power competition. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, his invasion was an act of resistance to American primacy in Europe. Both Russia and Western states are drumming up global support for what they regard as an existential struggle between values and regime type. The Ukraine war has, indeed, deepened tensions between Russia, the United States, and Europe. And as with the Berlin crises in the early years of the Cold War, the war in Ukraine has radiated outward, generating waves of new migrants and sparking inflation.

But silhouetted behind the framework of great-power competition are subtler new developments. The great powers are no longer a binary. The United States and Europe are tied by formal alliances, whereas China and Russia have a loose partnership; mostly, they do what they can not to get in each other’s way. New forms of military, economic, and technological competition, such as U.S. subsidies for green technology, pit Europe and the United States against each other, and the United States’ and China’s profound economic interdependence make them irresolute adversaries. Toxic domestic politics gets in the way of the great powers’ international ambitions.

Distraction on the part of great powers might seem a blessing. The sprawling competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War generated serial proxy wars, each one devastating in its own way. But great-power distraction is starting to look more like a collective curse. Vacuums of power are proliferating. In Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, and the South Caucasus, old conflicts, some of which had been dormant, are rekindling into new crises. Middle powers and local actors are exerting themselves more and more boldly. Very often, the great powers end up looking on helplessly.

Continue reading at Foreign Affairs.

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