Bret Stephens — October 2012
Woody Island is a speck of land in the middle of the South China Sea, not quite a square mile in size. Over the past 80 years it has been occupied by French Indochina, Imperial Japan, the Republic of China, the People’s Republic of China, South Vietnam, and, after a brief war in 1974, the People’s Republic again. Now known as Yongxing to the Chinese (or Phu Lam to the Vietnamese, who still lay claim to it), the island has an airstrip, a harbor, and a few hundred Chinese residents, none native-born, many of whom make their living as fishermen.
An obscure tropical island may seem an odd starting point for an essay on the coming global disorder. Yet great conflicts have been known to flare over little things in faraway places. “On the morning of July 1, [1911,] without more ado, it was announced that His Imperial Majesty the German Emperor had sent his gunboat the Panther to Agadir to maintain and protect German interests,” wrote Winston Churchill in his history of the First World War. The proximate causes of the German foray to this deserted Moroccan bay “were complicated and intrinsically extremely unimportant.” But the real purpose of the kaiser’s move was to test—and, he hoped, to break—Britain’s alliance with France and, perhaps, scope out the possibility of establishing a German naval base in the north Atlantic. “All the alarm bells throughout Europe,” Churchill recalled, “began immediately to quiver.”
Could another Agadir crisis be lurking in the South China Sea? On July 24, 2012, Beijing decreed that henceforth the little village of Sansha on Woody Island would be considered a “prefecture-level city,” complete with a mayor, a people’s congress, a military garrison—and claims to administer the 770,000 square miles of surrounding waters, an area larger than the Gulf of Mexico. Beijing’s coup was protested loudly by Vietnam and more quietly by the U.S. State Department, which fretted that the move ran “counter to collaborative diplomatic efforts to resolve differences” in the South China Sea. In response, Beijing called a U.S. embassy official to the carpet and demanded that the United States “shut up.”
China’s leaders are fond of advertising their country’s “peaceful rise,” and the pro-China chorus in the West has sought to engage Beijing as a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. Yet in the last three years alone, Beijing has provoked quasi-military confrontations over disputed waters with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, and even the United States, all the while insisting that it has “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the whole of the sea. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries,” explained Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi at a regional summit in 2010. “And that is just a fact.”
What is also a fact is that the South China Sea sits on estimated oil reserves of 213 billion barrels and equally massive reserves of natural gas. Fully one-third of the world’s overall volume of trade passes across the sea every year. Each of the sea’s other claimants has reasons to accommodate Beijing even as they resent its bullying habits. China, it is sometimes noted, sees the sea not just as an economic resource and an extension of its sovereign domain, but as the natural basin for a 21st-century version of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, this time under Beijing’s sway.
The United States also has core national interests at stake in the South China Sea. America has long stood for freedom of navigation and flatly rejects China’s territorial claims to the waters. A 1951 mutual defense treaty binds the United States to Manila, the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act binds the United States to Taipei, and a 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement formalizes a defense relationship with Singapore. U.S. military ties to Hanoi have strengthened dramatically in recent years. Thousands of U.S. service members are permanently based in nearby Okinawa, Guam, and, as of this April, northern Australia. As part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, the United States plans to deploy more than 60 percent of its naval power to the Pacific by the end of the decade.
This would suggest that there is a limit to what the People’s Republic can hope to achieve in the South China Sea. In what seems like a textbook illustration of the balance of power, Beijing’s aggressiveness has alerted its neighbors to the common threat and drawn them closer to Washington. Perhaps all that would be required to head off future Chinese encroachments is an unequivocal message from Washington that the United States will not tolerate them. During the Agadir crisis, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George famously warned the Germans: “If Britain is treated badly where her interests are vitally affected…then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.”
That declaration did not, of course, prevent the ultimate outbreak of war. But it did help end the immediate crisis, reassure France that Britain would be at her side, and move statesmen like Churchill, soon to be at the Admiralty, to prepare for what was coming. Today it is hard to imagine the Obama administration speaking in a similar vein, which all but guarantees fresh provocations by Beijing in the months and years ahead.
Alarm bells should be quivering after what happened on Woody Island on July 24.
The frightening thing is that they are not.
How does global order come undone? How do the arrangements and understandings through which war is generally avoided, commerce generally protected, and the cause of civilization generally advanced, cease to function?
Historically, there is no single template. Appeasement was much to blame for 1939, but in 1914 Britain and France were nearly as ready for war as Germany. The two decades preceding the Second World War were economically bleak, particularly in Europe: Depression bred disorder, and vice versa. Yet the two decades before the First World War were exceptionally prosperous, with per capita GDP rising by about 20 percent in the UK, 30 percent in Germany, and 50 percent in France. The crises that led up to the assassination of the archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 represented a failure not only in, but of, the balance of power. What failed in the 1920s and ’30s was collective security, in concept and in practice. The kaiser and his generals anticipated a short, decisive, brilliant campaign in 1914; it is hard to imagine that even the most hardened Prussian militarists would have wished for the cataclysm they wound up provoking. By contrast, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Tojo summoned the whirlwind with their eyes wide open. Germany’s ambition in 1914 was to redraw the borders of Europe and its colonial possessions. Germany’s ambition in 1939 was to remake the face of man.
Still, a few common threads emerge. Revisionist regimes—states that want to overturn the established global order—will spy an opening through which they believe they can improve their international position, and jump. Those openings can be made possible by the inattention of the would-be keepers of global order, or by their wishful thinking, or by their lack of means to protect what they are supposed to protect and suppress what they are supposed to suppress. Global order can collapse when its keepers cease to believe they have the political obligation or the moral right to enforce that order against its challengers. Global order also collapses as a result of simple miscalculation: A regime assumes its opponents are fools who can easily be had; a government realizes too late that it cannot negotiate its way to peace.
Whatever the precise cause, global order has come undone in the past and may soon come apart again. The undoing will be preceded by a number of seemingly unconnected events and trends whose significance and direction become clear only in the wake of some spectacular event. What might some of those events and trends be today? And what might some of the spectacular events look like in the not-so-distant future?
FIVE HARD LANDINGS
It is March 2014. A surprise diplomatic overture by the Islamic Republic of Iran in the late fall of 2012 forestalled what many believed was an inevitable Israeli military strike by opening all Iran’s nuclear sites to international inspection and suspending the production of uranium enriched to a 20 percent level, which is near-bomb grade. The move was sufficient to convince the weight of international opinion that diplomacy could be given more time to work. Suspicions remained, however, that Iran had merely off-shored its uranium-enrichment program to North Korea, whose state-of-the-art facility at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was disclosed at the end of 2010.
In the late spring of 2013, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian ally, was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard. His death brought about the collapse of the regime, and then a period of reprisals against his political supporters and Alawite kinsmen. Assad’s death also further isolated Iran’s leaders, internationally as well as domestically. For the Iranian presidential election in June 2013, the regime—fearing a reprise of the aborted revolution of 2009—was careful to permit only those candidates whose anti-reformist credentials were unimpeachable.
It didn’t work. The combination of a transparently rigged election with the example of Assad’s fall sparked a series of massive anti-regime protests throughout the country that were met, but not suppressed, by bullets. Within weeks, the regime found itself facing the same slow-burning fuse that had ultimately toppled Assad. It feared its days were numbered.
Yet the regime had (or so it thought) an ace card: a small, secret arsenal of relatively compact nuclear warheads, fitted to ballistic missiles. What should be done with them? Merely declaring the possession of the weapons might not be believed, or it might invite military action by the United States or Israel, thereby accelerating the regime’s downfall. Keeping them a secret, on the other hand, would risk squandering an asset and potentially gifting them to their domestic enemies in the event the regime toppled.
As mass demonstrations turned into civil war, with army units defecting to the side of the opposition and waging increasingly successful battles with the loyal Revolutionary Guards Corps, the question of what, if anything, to do with the weapons became urgent. What about using them against Israel?
The temptation had always been present, but it was curbed by the fear of retaliation. But now the logic of such a strike—a jihadist Hail Mary—started to become persuasive. Assume Israel struck back with its own nuclear weapons: Whom would it be killing, except millions of Iranians also struggling to topple the regime? And assume the regime, at its dying breath, managed at least to fulfill its core ambition to destroy the Jewish state: Would it not be a worthy capstone for the Islamic Republic? Suicide is a sin, but this would be an act of martyrdom on a world-historical scale.
Such were the thoughts dominating the minds of Iran’s embattled leaders in March 2014.
I write this on September 1, 2012—one low, dishonest decade since the world first learned of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programs from an Iranian opposition group. The dishonesty cuts both ways. The International Atomic Energy Association has just issued another report that leaves little room for doubt that Iran continues to enrich uranium to ever higher levels of purity while seeking to cover its nuclear tracks. The report also notes that Iran’s efforts to master the technologies of nuclear weaponization persisted well after 2003, putting paid to the 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that had claimed the contrary.
There has been abundant deceit—self-deceit—on the other side as well. Among those self-deceptions: that the intelligence on Iran had been “hyped” by a warmongering Bush administration. That Iran’s nuclear intentions were unknowable. That Iran was using its nuclear card not to build weapons but to seek a grand bargain through which it could normalize relations with the West. That punishing sanctions would swiftly bring the Iranians to heel. That the targeted assassinations of Iranian scientists could, in tandem with a cyberwarfare campaign, achieve decisive results without the risks of air strikes.
But perhaps the greatest of self-deceptions has been the view that Iran is a rational actor that would inevitably turn out to be a “responsible” nuclear power. This argument always suffered from many defects, among them the defect of assuming that rationality is understood the same way in Tehran as it is in Washington. But no less a problem with the argument is that it takes the stability of the Iranian regime as its premise. Iran’s leaders may not be “suicidal,” but that depends on the length of their time horizons. A regime that is planning for the long haul will probably want to husband its resources. But what if Iran’s leaders believe their regime doesn’t have long to go?
What makes matters worse—not in an imagined scenario but in the world as we find it today—is the confusion of signals between Iran and its adversaries. The West has repeatedly set red lines and Tehran has repeatedly transgressed them without consequence. Israel at this writing continues to threaten action even as its ability to act with decisive effect is increasingly in doubt. The United States, both during the Bush and Obama administrations, has repeatedly signaled its profound ambivalence about Iran’s nuclear bids, insisting they are “unacceptable” while indicating that we are unwilling to pay much of a price to prevent them by any means necessary.
The result is a case study for how global disorder emerges. None of the key players—Iran, the United States, or Israel—is quite sure of how the other will act (or react). The United States and Israel aren’t even sure of how they will act. U.S. policymakers seem to believe that a nuclear Iran would be terrible, but no more terrible than a pre-emptive attack. Israeli military and intelligence planners oppose a unilateral strike and are in near public revolt against their more hawkish civilian masters. Iran understands it has an opportunity to tiptoe across the nuclear threshold. On the other side of that threshold it sees a brighter horizon for itself: greater regime security, the unique prestige that comes from defying the West and winning, enhanced regional influence, and, above all, the opportunity to further revise an “arrogant” global order it believes it was created to replace.
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