Maybe this is how the “war on terror” ends.
Since entering his second term, President Obama has signaled his desire to close out a foreign-policy era that he believes has drained America’s economic resources and undermined its democratic ideals. But it hasn’t been easy. Partly, Obama remains wedded to some of the war on terror’s legally dubious tools—especially drone strikes and mass surveillance. And just as importantly, Obama hasn’t had anything to replace the war on terror with. It’s hard to end one foreign-policy era without defining a new one. The post-Cold War age, for instance, dragged on and on until 9/11 suddenly rearranged Americans’ mental map of the world.
Now Russia may have solved Obama’s problem. Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Ukraine doesn’t represent as sharp a historical break as 9/11 did, but it does offer the clearest glimpse yet of what the post-war on terror era may look like. To quote Secretary of State John Kerry, what comes after the war on terror is the “19th century.”
Explaining what that means requires some history. For a century after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, five great powers—Britain, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia (later Germany)—jockeyed for influence in Europe. Then World War I smashed three of them: Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. And then World War II smashed Germany again, while bankrupting Britain and France. Suddenly, the world found itself dominated by two superpowers, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Each was more ideologically driven and more capable of projecting power across the entire globe than the great powers that had preceded the world wars.