In “21 Jump Street,” a former nerd played by Jonah Hill and former bully played by Channing Tatum return to high school as undercover narcotics officers, expecting the world to look exactly as it did in the 1990s. Instead, they find a completely different social hierarchy, in which Tatum’s particular species of villain is virtually extinct. The modern high school still has jerks and ruffians, but none quite so callous and meatheaded as the archetypical alpha male jock.
While a movie called “21(st) Century International Relations” might not pull in the same quantity of box-office receipts, it would probably have a similar premise. Throughout the 20th century, brutal autocrats played a starring role in shaping global conflicts. From the regal kaisers and sultans of World War I to the fascist strongmen of World War II to the communist despots of the Cold War, the U.S. always had a crop of enemies it could easily label as villains.
But in recent years, those types of dictatorships have started to die out. American invasions toppled dictators in Afghanistan and Iraq. Local revolutions brought democracy to Tunisia and ejected two autocrats in a three-year span in Egypt. Governmental reforms have started to slowly liberalize Vietnam and Cuba. With a few exceptions, like North Korea’s enigmatic Kim Jong-un and Zimbabwe’s geriatric Robert Mugabe, there aren’t a lot of unabashed tyrants out there in the world today.
And now that its more ideological enemies are mostly insurgent groups, America’s battles with other states have become increasingly driven by competing self-interests. Figures like Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani often label themselves democratic or capitalistic, but neither is a trustworthy leader, and both stand resolutely opposed to America’s international agendas.
That’s what makes recent U.S. foreign policy so dangerous. The Obama administration is currently negotiating a compromise with Iran that would hopefully lead to a freeze on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, and the American response to Putin’s aggressive warmongering in Eastern Europe has been nothing more than harsh rhetoric and a weak set of sanctions. George W. Bush didn’t do much better. The former president famously said of Putin in 2001, “I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy … I got a sense of his soul.”
These missteps can delude the American public into a false sense of security. Because no rational state would launch a major attack against the U.S. right now, it’s easy to conclude that maybe softening up is a good approach after all. While the U.S. takes its time to forge amenable solutions with its adversaries, its allies in the Middle East live in constant fear of Iran’s violent puppets, which include the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. Similarly, Poland and the Baltic states have good reason to fear Putin’s incursions into Eastern Europe, and neither the U.S. nor the EU is alleviating their concerns. Plus, the amount of respect other countries hold for American power is far from constant, and changes in their political climates can be subtle and gradual. Just as Austin’s unusually chilly November doesn’t disprove climate change, the lack of an imminent war with Russia or Iran doesn’t make them harmless.
Close diplomatic ties with rival states aren’t impossible, and trust among opposing leaders is one of the most powerful forces for change in international politics. But a brash and increasingly power-drunk Putin is no Mikhail Gorbachev, and not even a moderate rhetorician like Rouhani can overcome Ayatollah Khomeini’s grip on Iranian policy. Appeasement and diplomacy can work, but in these particular cases, America needs a stronger approach, either through full trade embargoes or a credible threat of NATO action. Playing nice might maintain a stable status quo, but it won't keep America or its allies safe in the long run.
Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics major from Westport, Conn.