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by Chas W. Freeman, Jr.

Editors Note: American Diplomacy Journal asked several foreign policy commentators to address the significance of growing chaos in many parts of the world, as failed and failing states are increasingly unable to perform the fundamental functions of the sovereign nation-state. This is one of five articles looking at those concerns.


As the final decade of the 20th century began, the Soviet Union gave up its effort to become the global hegemon and dissolved into its constituent republics.[1] This ended the Cold War and the bipolar world order it had created. The USSR and the Soviet bloc were no more. The consequences of this vindication of George Kennan’s grand strategy of “containment” were both immediate and long term. A new and unfamiliar international reality began to emerge.

Those who had grown up in the Cold War had come to consider the international system it created normal, but in historical terms it was sui generis. The Cold War replaced World War II and the decaying colonial era with a world order that:

  • Divided the world between two contending blocs of nation states, each headed by an overlord with a messianic ideology and a history of territorial expansion.
  • Replaced differentiated political, economic, cultural, and military rivalries with across-the-board confrontation between blocs.[2]
  • Relied on fear of a massive nuclear exchange that would extinguish the human species to preserve global peace.
  • Made readiness for such a nuclear exchange the most important yardstick of international security for both superpowers.
  • Limited armed conflict between the contending superpowers to proxy wars and covert actions in third countries, carefully kept below the threshold at which escalation into direct conflict might occur.
  • Locked all but a few states into alignment with one or the other of the contending blocs and its overlord.
  • Prioritized spending on military posturing and preparedness over diplomacy and investment in domestic human and physical infrastructure.

As a result, national security policies in each superpower focused on:

  • Deterring attempted inroads by its opponent in its domain.[3]
  • Preventing nations in its bloc from opting out.[4]
  • Freezing conflicts to prevent their escalation into a hot war.[5]
  • Constraining military actions by client states.[6]
Cold war cartoon, Khrushchev and Kennedy
Cold War cartoon of Khrushchev and Kennedy

At the outset of the Cold War, in 1950, Kim Il-sung was obliged to seek Soviet support for his invasion of South Korea. The 1990 end of the Cold War bipolar order eliminated both the protections the USSR afforded client states and the constraints on military adventurism that dependence on Moscow entailed.

Consequences of the Disappearance of Superpower Rivalry

Iraq saw no need to seek Moscow’s permission to invade Kuwait and, having done so, felt free to ignore Russian efforts to persuade it to retreat so as to avoid an American-led invasion. Iraq understood before others that the disappearance of superpower rivalry had freed both state and non-state actors from the restraints imposed by the concern of their erstwhile superpower patrons to avoid apparent complicity in reckless risk-taking. Once Moscow had no client states, it was freed from the risk that it might be held accountable for attacks on America by other enemies of the United States. It saw no need to try to prevent such attacks, which could no longer ignite a war between it and the United States.

The end of the bipolar order facilitated freelance military actions by non-state actors. Thus, al Qaeda took revenge for U.S. policies in the Middle East by striking the United States (2001) without seeking the backing of another great power.

During the Cold War, diplomacy between the two blocs came to resemble trench warfare, with each superpower focused on holding the line against its opponent. Containing problems does not resolve them. Reliance on military deterrence precluded diplomatic efforts to resolve suspended conflicts. These were set aside or finessed, allowing them to fester. In some cases, antagonisms abated or went away. In others, they just became more dangerous as the underlying balances of power shifted and the prospects for negotiated resolutions on favorable terms deteriorated.[7]

U.S. Global Sphere of Influence

Within their respective blocs, the Cold War superpowers relied less on diplomatic persuasion than on the grant and withdrawal of favor that typifies imperial administration. These habits carried over into American diplomacy in the so-called “unipolar moment[8]” that followed the end of Soviet rivalry with the United States. The absence of any countervailing power enabled the United States to reach for a global sphere of influence that would encompass everything outside the immediate frontiers of China and the Russian Federation (including Taiwan and many former Soviet republics). Washington felt free to adopt increasingly unilateral and coercive foreign policies, many of them anchored in competing domestic special interests.

The United States not only ceased longstanding efforts to establish the rule of law in international affairs,[9] it began progressively to set aside major elements of international law it had helped establish. The casualties included but were not limited to:

  • The “Westphalian” principles of sovereignty that form the basis of the United Nations Charter were set aside as the U.S. launched a series of wars and so-called “humanitarian interventions” aimed at overthrowing sovereign foreign regimes.
  • Domestic American constitutional procedures and corresponding processes for the authorization of wars by the UN were annulled by the self-proclaimed war powers of U.S. presidents.
  • Previously forceful U.S. objections to secondary trade and financial sanctions against third countries were dropped in favor their profligate use in unilateral efforts to impose U.S. policies on allies, partners, and friends as well as adversaries.
  • The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and related protocols were eviscerated by innovative U.S. legal evasions, like those in Guantánamo, and expedient suspensions of international law, as in U.S. backing for Israeli occupation practices and territorial acquisitions, set the post-World War II rules aside.
  • The civil and human rights of individuals were violated by their bureaucratic designation as “enemies of the state” and their subjection to practices like “extraordinary rendition (official kidnapping) and “enhanced interrogation” (torture).

Thus, America’s “unipolar moment” unexpectedly facilitated a radical departure from the post-World War II order and replaced it with a level of global anomie and sociopathy not seen since the 18th century. The traditional aspirations of Americans for a higher standard of morality yielded to smirkingly cynical approval of lawless brutality to achieve desirable outcomes. Americans came to believe that, in foreign policy, might makes right and the ends justify the means. U.S. claims to exceptionalism rang increasingly hollow.

The American republic was inspired by Enlightenment norms. The unilateral abandonment of these values has precluded a common defense with Europe of the normative standards its five century-long dominance once imposed on the world. The Islamic world and civilizational states with quite different traditions – like China, India, and Russia – are rising to positions of global influence. The U.S. “unipolar moment” has expired, and humanity is entering yet another “world order” – one in which the norms espoused by the West do not enjoy majority or automatic support.

Ironically, the principal defenders of UN-based international law are now its previous opponents, China, and Russia. They support it for the reasons the militarily vulnerable always seek legal protection from predators. The law is a restraint on the strong doing what they can and the weak having to accept what they must.

Washington Advocacy for “Rules-Based International Order”

Instead of the UN Charter and related international laws, Washington now advocates what it calls the “rules-based international order.” This formulation has limited appeal internationally. To many it sounds like a desire by the United States to restore the basic elements of the fading “unipolar moment” by proclaiming rules, unilaterally imposing and enforcing them, and then deciding which of them, if any, it will apply to itself or its client states. References to the “rules-based order” are seen as part of a pretentious U.S. effort to isolate and cripple China, Russia, and their economies, while forcing a choice between them and the United States that all but a few nations seek desperately to avoid.

Emerging from this mess is a return to the differentiated international alignments of past eras, in which political, economic, technological, cultural, and military relationships between societies are often inconsistent and contradictory. Economic interdependence does not imply political affinity, nor do ideological commonalities foretell solidarity. Technological standards both unite and divide. Militaries, whether or not embedded in pre-existing alliance structures, seek to ensure the ability of their states to act autonomously in pursuit of unique in addition to shared national interests. Inconsistencies and self-interested jockeying for advantage definitively refute the notion that “you are either with [another country] or against it.” Nations are with each other on some issues and against each other on others. Coalitions come and go. There are once again many world orders, not one.

Unlike Cold War bipolarism, this is a dynamic rather than static situation. It requires a nimble diplomacy alert to geopolitical maneuver rather than steadfast defense of stable dividing lines. The United States is far from ready for this. America is in the grip of domestic political hallucinations. But the pathology is not just domestic. Inaccurate situational awareness degrades foreign policymaking as well. Meanwhile, U.S. leverage over other states is declining. Fantasy foreign policy is not an answer to these challenges.

The “world order” we are entering is one of compartmented contentions. Strength in one arena does not translate into significant power in another, and the balances between the contending parties in each arena constantly shift. Such a multidimensional and dynamic system allows the possibility of dominant power in specific competitive arenas but rules out comprehensive hegemony. This is an international complexity not seen since the age of Castlereagh, Metternich, and Talleyrand. It demands a statecraft at least as realistic and agile as theirs.[10]End.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense, ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Chargé d’affaires at both Bangkok and Beijing. He began his diplomatic career in India but specialized in Chinese affairs. He was the principal American interpreter during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972. He is the author of six books and was the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on “diplomacy.” A compendium of his speeches is available at



[1] The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. On December 8, 1991, an agreement between Moscow, Minsk, and Kyiv proclaimed that “the Soviet Union as a subject of international and geopolitical reality no longer exists.” The last day the Soviet flag flew over the Kremlin was December 25, 1991.

[2] If you knew which bloc a state identified with, you could almost certainly predict its stand on the major issues of the day, whether these were political, economic, cultural, or military in nature.

[3] This was the objective of the Warsaw Pact and NATO as well as the U.S. commitment to defend Japan. It was also the basis for U.S. efforts to strangle pro-Soviet revolutions in Cuba (1959) and elsewhere.

[4] Examples include the Soviet interventions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and U.S. influence operations in post-World War II France and Italy, sponsorship of a coup d’état in Chile (1973), support for the Contras in Nicaragua (1879-1990), and the invasion of Grenada (1983).

[5] Such conflicts include those between the Republic of (South) Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea or the Republic of China (i.e., Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (the China mainland).

[6] Examples include the U.S. “leash” on Chiang Kai-shek (1950), intermittent actions by both the USSR and U.S. to moderate wars between Arab states and Israel, and Soviet constraint of Libya that allowed the U.S. bombing of it (1986) without fear of reprisal.

[7] The Korean and Chinese civil wars are cases in point. The failure to seek a peace to replace the 1953 armistice in Korea perpetuated a mutually hostile US-DPRK relationship that eventually led the DPRK to build nuclear weapons and delivery systems capable of striking and thereby deterring regime-change operations against it by the United States. The U.S. accepted détente and cross-Strait cooperation between the China mainland and Taiwan but made no effort to foster either. The unresolved status of Taiwan in relation to the rest of China eventually emerged as the sole conceivable casus belli between the United States and a steadily more powerful China.

[8] In 1990, Charles Krauthammer declared a “unipolar moment,” arguing that “the center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States.” The moment lasted long enough to encourage American hubris.

[9] At last count, there were 37 treaties pending assent to ratification in the U.S. Senate, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and many others originally proposed by the United States.

[10] Addendum:

  • U.S. statecraft must rediscover the diplomatic arts of persuasion and coalition-building and rely less on coercion.
  • Leadership can no longer be solitary. It requires the cultivation of other countries’ support. That means putting forward persuasive, positive agendas around which to organize coalitions. The United States should not follow China into the counterproductive negativism of “wolf warrior diplomacy.”
  • Existing international institutions need recapitalization, more inclusive governance, and participation that is as universal as possible. If they cannot be reformed and expanded, analogous institutions must supplement them. The United States must be part of any such new institutions, whoever sponsored them.
  • National prestige can no longer compensate for ambassadorial inexperience and competence. The margin for error in U.S. foreign relations is now too great to entrust diplomacy to moneyed amateurs.
  • The U.S. diplomatic service needs to develop professionals with the relevant training, expertise, experience, and proven competence to compete for top diplomatic assignments against others with purely symbolic qualifications.
  • In a world order in which interests trump values, if America’s wounded democracy does not exemplify the values it advocates, the effort to promote a values-based foreign policy will undermine rather than bolster U.S. credibility.
  • The world is watching. Selective outrage feeds a reputation for hypocrisy not probity. To espouse principles effectively, they must be applied consistently.

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