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Dividing the World

In March 1991, Richard Nixon went to Georgia, a trip that, because of his status as a former president, indicated US support for the former satellite's independence from the Soviet Union.

According to Dmitri K. Simes, an aide to Nixon who attended the meeting, the 37th president was alarmed when Zviad Gamsakhurdia, then president of Georgia, told him that not only was the Soviet Union dissolving, but also Russia itself was weak. The time might be right, he advised, to deliver a final blow. "Mr. President," Nixon replied, "there are two kinds of people in Washington you are going to encounter—those who will tell you what you want to hear and those who will tell you what you need to hear. And what you need to hear is that no matter what your friends and admirers in the United States may tell you, America is not going to go to war with Russia because of Georgia."20

Nixon's words were prophetic. During the Russia-Georgia conflict 17 years later, Russia stopped short of taking over Tbilisi of its own accord, not because of the presence of the US army, which was not there. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in an interview a month later, "The last time I talked with President Bush on the phone it was during the active phase of military operations, and I told him that 'in this situation you would have done the same thing, only perhaps more severely.' He did not argue with me."21

The biggest contributions powerful states have made to global social progress have come during periods of cooperation that followed profound disruptions to established order. The need to restore stability has driven successful settlements such as those that followed the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and World War II in 1945. Other arrangements, however, were doomed from the outset. The settlement of World War I, for example, led directly to a sequel only 20 years later. Although no shots were fired during the most recent disruption to established order, recent events have shaken public confidence in the prevailing global economic and financial architecture. What transpired during 2007 to 2009 will have long-term consequences similar to those that sprang from wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. Among them, the world will once again be informally divided into spheres of influence, determined primarily by geography.

The US, weakened in absolute terms by the financial and economic crises, is also in economic decline relative to China, Russia, and India. This is not to suggest the US won't be an important actor in the world's stage; this is not a zero-sum game. But an overstretched America is silently trimming its financial and military commitments abroad. As economic conditions in China, Russia, and India improve, their people will grow more eager to see their countries taken more seriously on the global stage. The first step toward making these aspirations reality is to enhance military strength; all three will beef up their armed forces to keep neighbors at bay and minimize potential interference in economic development and the well-being of their respective populations. This page is taken directly from the script followed by the US and other powers before it. This plot line has endured the test of time, and its logic is easily understood.

China will become the undisputed power in Asia. The US will maintain a presence, but only as a symbolic suggestion of balance. The Middle East will remain under the influence of the US, though Iran won't be materially destabilized because China has significant investments there, and it's also of interest to Russia and India. Central Asia will be the domain of Russia and China. South America will remain under US domination. Africa will stay open to all—the logic of economic cooperation will eventually supersede short-term political differences among the biggest players. Jihadism, a potential security threat in North Africa, is something all parties will have to deal with. The US will continue to try and influence Eastern European states, but the EU seems strong enough to remain the main relevant economic and political force in the Continent.

Finding this new equilibrium requires all interested parties to make concessions. The US, for example, must cease NATO expansion, and China, Russia, and India have to support US policy in the Middle East. But these are relatively minor points in the big picture. The exercise of restraint is already emerging as the defining characteristic of responsible global actors in the 21st century.

Emotional responses to this nascent order threaten what would be a mutually beneficial division of global influence. Suspicion aroused for domestic political purposes, direct confrontation, and unilateralism will undermine—perhaps undo—the profound economic progress the world has experienced over the last three decades.

"For the future, like the past," historian William H. McNeill observed in the early 1980s, "depends upon humanity's demonstrated ability to make and remake natural and social environments within limits set mainly by our capacity to agree on goals of collective action."22

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