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New Year, old problems

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We keep hearing that the world has changed fundamentally and that the old issues which used to occupy us no longer matter. The new era is about globalization, the Internet, non-state actors, the diffusion of power, the rise of Asia and the decline of the West, the end of ideology and the rise of pragmatism. It is true, of course, that the world and the international system are always in flux. Yet some of the most pressing issues this year are remarkably familiar.

Regime type matters: Foreign policy realists say it is irrelevant whether a nation is a democracy or an autocracy. But among the biggest issues for 2012 will be those nations whose political systems are in turmoil and transition. In Russia, after a poor showing in last month’s parliamentary elections, Vladimir Putin will face presidential elections that could weaken him further, especially if a protest vote denies him a majority in a first round and he is forced to compete in a runoff.

No matter how Putin handles this crisis, whether he opens up or breaks down, his reaction will significantly shape Russian foreign policy and affect the international system. A more liberal Russia would be more eager to embrace closer ties with Europe and the United States and the open economic and political order they stand for. A more authoritarian Russia, ruled with an iron fist, is likely to turn nationalist and insular.

Political developments in Syria will also reshape the international order. If Bashar al-Assad falls, Iran will become even more isolated and vulnerable. The forces it supports on the borders of Israel — Hezbollah and Hamas — will be cut off, with possible ramifications for Middle East peace. And reform in the Arab world will get a new shot of adrenaline. In Iraq, the Obama administration’s premature withdrawal of all U.S. forces may have precipitated a renewed power struggle, which could spiral into sectarian conflict. It’s hard to imagine confining such a crisis to Iraq, since Saudi Arabia, Iran and other regional powers may meddle heavily to protect their interests. In Egypt, the political path of the post-Mubarak era remains undecided, but the stakes are huge.

Meanwhile, in Asia the future of regimes in North Korea and Burma are in question, with important strategic consequences for China, the United States, Japan and other regional powers.

More is at stake in all these places than American “values.” The political ferment is greatest precisely where our ideological and strategic interests meet. The United States doesn’t face a choice between “pragmatism” and “idealism.” Rather, the political transitions of 2012 stand to shape the nature of the world order that Americans will have to live in, and cope with, in the coming years.

Military force matters: At a time when all we hear about is “soft” and “smart” power, it is ironic that some of the toughest challenges in the coming year will be about old-fashioned hard, dumb military power. Will Israel use force against Iran? Will the United States? Will Washington and its allies end up playing a role in Syria to protect civilians as they did in Libya? Similar questions exist for Asia. And will the Obama administration’s loudly advertised “pivot” to Asia include the promised visible military component, or has that promise already been cast in doubt by President Obama’s new defense plan?

Pentagon officials talk about “demilitarizing” U.S. foreign policy, which one can understand after the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the conventional wisdom now puts too much weight on “soft” power. We should not overestimate how much the world loves us because of our virtues, nor underestimate how much our influence still depends on hard power and our ability to provide protection in a pinch.

Europe matters: It’s the Asian century, right? It’s all about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) plus Turkey. Well, not so fast. One of the year’s biggest issues will be whether Europe can work through its economic crisis and remain intact. This affects more than the U.S. and world economies: The fact is, Europe remains a large and vital player. The European Union still has the world’s largest economy. The fact that many if not all of its neighbors would like to join the E.U., even now, is significant. Its military capability is, unfortunately, diminishing, but even so Europe remains America’s go-to ally in major crises.

Meanwhile, the much-discussed “rise of the rest” has been overhyped. U.S. business leaders, and their pals in the punditocracy, have been mesmerized by these emerging markets. But emerging markets do not equate to emerging great powers. Russia is no longer “rising.” Brazil’s role in the world is underwhelming. Turkey’s impact has yet to be demonstrated. India has not decided what it wants to be. Even China, though unquestionably a major player, has not yet taken on a great power’s role. For the United States, Europe remains the key ally in shoring up the norms and principles of a liberal world order. Should Europe fall, the blow to U.S. interests would be staggering.

America matters: Reports of U.S. decline are extraordinarily premature. The country remains the central player in all regions of the world. Washington may not be able to have its way on all issues or provide solutions for all the world’s problems. But, then, it never could. Many today have nostalgia for an era of U.S. predominance that never existed.

But in the coming months, whether the issue is Iran, Syria or Asian security, regional players will continue to look to the United States. No other nation or group of nations comes close to enjoying America’s global web of alliances. None wields more political influence in international forums. And unless and until the United States renders itself weak by unnecessary defense budget cuts, there will be no substitute for it as a provider of security and defender of an open political and economic order. Perhaps 2012 will be the year Americans gain a renewed understanding of that enduring reality.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post. His latest book, “The World America Made,” will be published next month.

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