It's a Safer, Way More Complicated World Out There

... at least compared with the periods defined by the Cold War and the War on Terror. But with no guiding paradigm, where does foreign policy and national security go from here?

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on September 28, 2012. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

During the Cold War, American foreign policy experts divided the world into two broad camps: communist and non-communist. It was a neat paradigm that allowed for quick decisions: alliances, treaties, and even wars pivoted on this paradigm: American stood for capitalism, the Soviets stood for communism.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, everyone involved in national security and foreign policy have struggled to create a new paradigm. No easy enemies also means there are few easy friends. Without a simple paradigm to define the world as good or bad, strategy has become incredibly difficult to create and pursue.

As a result, what has defined the recent eras of foreign policy in America have been defined largely by what they're not: the post-Cold War 90s, the anti-terror 2000s, and now we are moving in the post-War-on-Terror 2010s.

Defining the world negatively is really just a process of elimination -- it does little to help understand what the world is like right now, or how we can plan for it. But what is the world? What do we, as Americans stand for?

It is extremely difficult to define the world in positive terms. At a recent international conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a broad swath of the foreign policy elite from the U.S., Canada, and Europe all struggled with the question.

Because there is no simple paradigm guiding world politics, few can define, with any clarity, what our place in it should be. Without that grander vision, strategic consensus and foreign policies are becoming increasingly muddled. Policymakers plan for immediate benefit, and lose sight of long-term strategic objectives.

"In a unipoloar or bipolar world, it was easier to toe the line and stand together as Americans," Senator Mark Udall said to the panel on American global leadership. "But now there's not one strategy we can agree on for a variety of threats."

What does this mean for the future of foreign policy and international security? It's unclear. One still hears among the elder statesmen of the world a nostalgia for the Cold War: a simpler, more predictable time when the western world knew what it was and what it wanted.

In many ways, the Cold War was simpler than the modern world. But the world is also unquestionably better off than it was. Odd Arne Westad wrote in The Global Cold War that the competition between powers "put a number of Third World countries in a state of semipermanent civil war" and made those wars harder to settle. This constant state of warfare created in otherwise small conflicts the potential for global catastrophe, dramatically raising the stakes of almost every interaction between the two competing blocs.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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