It is professionally vexing and personally alarming for a world-affairs analyst in today’s America that neither rationality nor consistency can be taken for granted among the foreign-policy community in Washington, D.C.  That much has become obvious from the crisis in relations between the United States and Russia over Georgia.

This crisis heralds a particularly dangerous period in world affairs: the return of asymmetrical multipolarity.  For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Washington is facing active resistance from one or more major powers.  More important than the anatomy of the South Ossetian crisis today, or the Taiwanese crisis tomorrow, is the reactive power’s refusal to accept the validity of Washington’s ideological assumptions or the legitimacy of its resulting geopolitical claims.  At the same time, far from critically reconsidering its hegemonic assumptions and claims, the White House seems ready to uphold them at any cost, a major war included.

A new global balance of power is being created as we speak.  It is asymmetrical because one player in the system is significantly more powerful than the others, and unstable because the would-be hegemon does not accept the legitimacy of the other players’ interests that could act as a limiting restraint on its own actions and aspirations.  A war between two or more major powers is more likely in the configuration of asymmetrical multipolarity than in any other model of global balance known to history.

The most stable global system is bipolarity.  Based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, it was prevalent from the 1950’s until the end of the Cold War.  The awareness of both superpowers that each would inflict severe and unavoidable damage on the other or on their allies in a nuclear war was combined with the acceptance that each had a sphere of dominance or vital interest that should not be infringed upon and with the assumption that both sides were rational players.  The result was a tendency to de-escalate conflicts (Cuba 1963) or to exercise restraint even before de-escalation becomes necessary (Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968).  Stalin “intended to turn the countries conquered by Soviet armies into buffer zones to protect Russia,” said Henry Kissinger.  The Western equivalent, also essentially defensive, was defined by the Truman Doctrine (1947) and NATO (1949).  Proxy wars were fought in the gray zone all over the Third World, most notably in the Middle East, but they were kept localized even when a superpower was directly involved (Vietnam, Afghanistan).

The bipolar model was the product of post-World War II circumstances that were unprecedented.  Those circumstances are unlikely to be repeated in the foreseeable future.

The most stable model of international relations that is both historically recurrent and structurally repeatable is the balance-of-power system in which no single great power is either physically able or politically willing to seek hegemony.  This model was prevalent from the Peace of Westphalia (1648) until Napoleon’s consulship; from Waterloo until around 1900; and from Versailles until 1933.  It demands a relative equilibrium among the key powers (usually five to seven) who hold one another in check and function within a recognized set of rules that has come to be known as “international law.”  Wars between great powers do occur, but they are limited in scope and intensity because the warring parties tacitly accept the fundamental legitimacy and continued existence of their opponent (or opponents).  Bismarck was aware of the temptation of hegemony, able to pursue it, but determined to resist it.

If one of the powers becomes markedly stronger than the others, and if its decisionmaking elite internalizes an ideology that demands or at least justifies hegemony, the inherently unstable system of asymmetrical multipolarity will develop.  In all three such instances known to history—Napoleonic France after 1799, the Kaiser­reich from around 1900, and the Third Reich after 1933—the challenge could not be resolved without a major war.

The government of the United States is now acting in a manner structurally reminiscent of those three powers.  Having proclaimed itself the leader of an imaginary “international community,” it goes further than any previous would-be hegemon in treating the entire world as the American sphere of interest.  Forty years after the Red Army marched into Prague in the name of Brezhnev’s doctrine of the limited sovereignty of socialist countries, we have the Bush Doctrine, which may be seen as a mature elaboration of the Soviet legacy.

The formal codification came in the National Security Strategy, unveiled in September 2002, which presented the specter of open-ended political, military, and economic domination of the world by the United States acting unilaterally.  The strategy defined two main categories of enemies: “rogue states” and “potentially hostile powers.”  Both warranted preemptive strikes “by direct and continuous action using all the elements of national and international power. . . . We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.”  The United States would not only confront “evil and lawless regimes” but put an end to “destructive national rivalries.”  To that end, the administration pledged “to keep military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilizing arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace.”  The normal constraints of world politics would no longer inhibit the exercise of American might.

This doctrine still stands as the ideological basis for the policy of permanent global interventionism.  President Bush has added divine sanction to it: “History has called America and our allies to action, and it is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight,” he announced in his 2002 State of the Union Address.  “We’ve come to know truths that we will never question: Evil is real, and it must be opposed.”

Any attempt by a single power to keep its military strength beyond challenge is inherently destabilizing, and results—sooner or later—in the emergence of an effective countercoalition.  Napoleon finally faced one at the Völkerschlacht at Leipzig in 1813.  “There is no balance of power in Europe but me and my twenty-four army corps,” the kaiser famously boasted in 1901.  Within years he was also building a high-seas fleet, setting off alarm bells in London.  By 1907, Wilhelmine Germany engendered a countercoalition that prompted even traditional rivals such as Britain and Russia to join forces (the latter to be replaced by the United States in 1917).  And as for the most recent Griff nach der Weltmacht, by the second week of December 1941 Germany was doomed to another defeat.

An early symptom of destabilizing asymmetry in action is the would-be hegemon’s tendency to claim an ever-widening sphere of influence or interference at the expense of his rivals.  In the run-up to 1914, this was heralded by the Kruger Telegram (1896) and exemplified by the German bid to build the railway from Berlin to Baghdad (1903) and by the First Moroccan Crisis (1905).  Neither Napoleon nor Hitler knew any “natural” limits, but their ambition was essentially confined to Europe.  With the United States today, the novelty is that this ambition is extended—literally—to the whole world.  Not only the Western Hemisphere, not just “Old Europe,” Japan, or Israel, but Taiwan, Korea, and such unlikely places as Armenia, Bosnia, Estonia, Georgia, Kosovo . . . all the way to Zimbabwe are considered vitally important.  The globe itself is now effectively claimed as America’s sphere of influence—Russia’s Caucasian, European, and Central Asian backyards and China’s northeastern and southwestern neighborhoods most emphatically included.

On August 7, 2008, the game itself became alarmingly asymmetrical.  For America it is still ideological, but for Russia it has become existential.  Russia is now acting as a conservative, pre-1914 European power in seeking to protect her limited, easily definable vital interests.  America is acting like a global revolutionary power.  It is therefore futile for Russia to try to “manage” the crisis in a pre-1914 manner and hope for some elusive softening on the other side, because the calculus in Washington is not rational.  The counterstrategy of unpredictability, exemplified by Medvedev’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is a rational response under the circumstances.  It may yet force the remnant of sanity inside the Beltway—and especially at the Pentagon—to exercise some adult supervision over the “foreign-policy community” gone berserk.

Regardless of who is inaugurated come January, there will likely be no true debate in Washington on the ends and uses of American power.  The ideologues’ resistance to any external checks and balances on the exercise of that power will be upheld under either of the two candidates.  The teams comprising Anthony Lake, Robert Kagan, Dennis Ross, Bill Kristol, Joe Biden, Randy Scheu­nemann, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Max Boot may differ in some shades of rhetoric, but they are one regime, identical in substance and consequence.

The ideologues will dispute the validity of the emerging balance-of-power system because they reject the legitimacy of any power in the world other than that of the United States, controlled and exercised by themselves.  They will scoff at the warning of 1815, 1918, or 1945 as inapplicable in the post-history that they seek to construct.

They will confront the argument that no vital American interest worthy of risking a major war is involved in Russia’s or China’s near-abroad with the claim that the whole world is America’s near-abroad.

Their ambition, unlimited in principle, will remain unaffected by the ongoing financial crisis—just as Moscow’s Cold War expansionism was enhanced, rather than curtailed, by the evident shortcomings of the Soviet centrally planned economy.

Come what may, they will not allow the reality of global politics to interfere with their world outlook, which is interchangeably “neoliberal” or “neoconservative,” but hegemonic and irrational at all times.