Here’s how Charles Hill, former Foreign Service officer, now Diplomat-in-Residence and leader of the Grand Strategy seminar at Yale, describes the tendency for those in power to fail to recognize the decline of the established order:
“…when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation.” (quoted by David Brooks in his NYT column Saving the System)
Hill explains Putin’s recent aggressive moves in Ukraine, China’s aggressiveness in the South and East China Seas, and Middle East upheavals as attempts to exploit such deterioration:
“When the wolves of the world sense this, they, of course, will begin to make their moves to probe the ambiguities of the aging system and pick off choice pieces to devour at their leisure.
This is what Putin is doing; this is what China has been moving toward doing in the maritime waters of Asia; this is what in the largest sense the upheavals of the Middle East are all about: i.e., who and what politico-ideological force will emerge as hegemon over the region in the new order to come. The old order, once known as ‘the American Century’ has been situated within ‘the modern era,’ an era which appears to be stalling out after some 300-plus years. The replacement era will not be modern and will not be a nice one.”
It is not clear whether Hill thinks such attempts to exploit deterioration are a new phenomenon or whether he would similarly explain earlier aggressive moves by China against Taiwan, Germany against Austria, and so on. Was the modern era already deteriorating so long ago?
Perhaps the exploitation of opportunities provided by international system deterioration is not so much a result of conscious sensing of an opportunity, but more like the attack of an opportunistic infection. Perhaps the attempt to exploit opportunities is perpetual, though more likely to succeed when systemic weakness allows.
Regarding the question of whether there is currently a systemic decline to which leaders are oblivious, consider that whereas 45 years ago America was able to send astronauts to the moon, it now must rely on Russian rockets to accomplish the far less challenging task of visiting the International Space Station. The disappearance of Malaysian Flight 370 has revealed the remarkable inability of modern societies to keep track of all their civilian aircraft. Modern countries are unable to avoid nuclear power plant disasters, as shown by the Fukushima catastrophe. If it is objected that these failures don’t necessarily show lack of ability, the answer is that yes, it may be more precise to say that they result from neglecting to make use of the relevant ability, or in other words from an inability to make proper use of relevant abilities. The problem is not lack of technology that could track planes or protect a nuclear power plant from tidal waves. As in the failure to take serious steps to address global warming, the fundamental problem is lack of sufficient intelligence, organization, and wisdom to do what should be done.
Paul Krugman recently described how such failure to apply available technology and understanding has impeded recovery from the Great Recession:
“…policy makers and politicians have ignored both the textbooks and the lessons of history. And the result has been a vast economic and human catastrophe, with trillions of dollars of productive potential squandered and millions of families placed in dire straits for no good reason. … Most of the waste and suffering that have afflicted Western economies these past five years was unnecessary. We have, all along, had the knowledge and the tools to restore full employment. But policy makers just keep finding reasons not to do the right thing.”