Liberal advocates of a multilateralist, rules-based, post-sovereign foreign policy have recently been having their noses ground in the grim fact of great-power rivalry.
Robert Kagan first called attention to renascent great-power politics a decade ago in End Of Dreams, Return Of History with its blunt opening line: "The world has become normal again." In the last few years, the realists - including Henry Kissinger in his 2014 book, World Order, Hal Brands, and Foreign Policy's Stephen M. Walt - have had a field day at the expense of idealists who, they said, had persuaded themselves that the end of history had arrived.
Well, last week we got a taste of old-fashioned great-power competition so harsh as to make even a realist yearn for the allegedly deluded days of former president Barack Obama. Saudi Arabia, evolving in a matter of months from a middle-sized power punching below its weight to a middle-sized power punching way above it, virtually declared war on its regional rival, Iran, as well as on small fry Lebanon, which it rather torturously held responsible for a missile launched at Riyadh by rebels in Yemen.
At the same time, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping made nice with each other - but they did so as classic interest-maximising great powers. With that special gift for clarity that comes from a complete lack of inhibition, Mr Trump said in Beijing: "Who can blame a country for taking advantage of another country for the benefit of its citizens?"
After all, isn't "taking advantage" of other nations' citizens on behalf of your own the whole point of being a great power? It is. But for that very reason, the United States, with its missionary sense of its global role, has tried to reinvent the concept ever since reaching great-power status.
A century ago, then president Woodrow Wilson asked if the war then destroying Europe would end in a "just and secure peace" or merely "a new balance of power".
If the latter, he said: "Who will guarantee, who can guarantee, the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement?" We know how that noble experiment ended, of course: In the Treaty of Versailles, Britain, France and Italy, the great-power winners of World War I, snatched up whatever colonial goodies they could and wrought their vengeance on Germany, the loser - leading, ultimately, to another war.
ough he had predicted just such an outcome should Europe revert to the norm, Wilson came to be mocked for failing to grasp the irrepressible reality of power politics - the first in a long line of American naifs.
It would be left to another, perhaps not so naive American president, after another devastating war, to establish a "liberal world order" that would provide incentives for major states to restrain their sovereign capacities. In that order, of course, the United States ran the show.
The unipolar moment could not last; and now, 70 years later, it's plainly over. Not only rivals like Russia and China, but even alleged allies like Saudi Arabia or Egypt, no longer defer to the United States. Kagan was prescient; great powers and would-be great powers once again roam the earth.
Nevertheless, the world has become "normal again" only if we believe that 19th-century patterns have reasserted themselves, and thus that we need to master the old rules of realpolitik - to "relearn Power Politics 101" and "play hardball with friends and foes alike", as Walt put it.
What would that entail? Perhaps we could seek to forge a new version of the "concert of powers" European states established after Napoleon's defeat in 1815. But contemporary princes and their diplomatic emissaries can no longer run the world. More likely, we will cooperate where possible with rivals like China and Russia and deter them, and any countries aligned with them, where necessary along with allies. That would be the new hardball. But is that really the range of options?
For the last century, the US has been a great power in denial. Every president has gone to war solemnly swearing that the United States seeks only to promote peace and freedom, not to aggrandise itself as other states have always done.
Yet American moralism, and even American hypocrisy, have served a profound purpose, providing a deeply appealing alternative model of what it means to be a great power. That is, after all, the meaning of "soft power".
One way of understanding Mr Obama's foreign policy is that he sought to offer a model of post-hegemonic great-power status. The United States would listen rather than hector; convene others rather than inform them after the fact; carefully calibrate the costs of action; and even, at times, "lead from behind". It was not a conspicuous success.
The US... should have something to say about how such powers should act towards each other and lesser states. If we stay mum, or play hardball, we reinforce the message not just to the likes of Saudi Arabia but also to India... and other democratic rising powers that they, too, should consider scorn for the principles of international law, and of the liberal rules-based system, among the privileges conferred by membership in the great-power club.
But do we wish that he had defaulted to "normal"? In Destined For War, his new book on great-power rivalry, Harvard professor Graham Allison observes that in the era before Wilson, the United States set a dreadful example of rising-power behaviour, fighting an unprovoked war against Spain and deploying its navy to bludgeon weaker states into submission. America unbound was not a pretty sight.
But the US under Mr Trump no longer cares to provide the model for great-power comportment. During Mr Trump's visit to Vietnam, Major-General Le Van Cuong made a telling comment to The New York Times: "China uses its money to buy off many leaders, but none of the countries that are its close allies, like North Korea, Pakistan, or Cambodia, have done well. Countries that are close to America have done much better."
The observation was elegiac, for the contrast has lost force. At the Asia summit in Vietnam, Mr Trump described free trade as disaster for the United States and self-aggrandisement as the natural strategy of states. "There's no place like home," he reflected. Message to Vietnam: The strong do as they can, and the weak suffer as they must, as the original great-power theorist Thucydides put it.
Mr Trump has not simply surrendered the American model of great-power behaviour; he has actively encouraged and enabled the archaic model. The Obama administration chastised China for defying international law in the South China Sea; Mr Trump has given China a pass on the subject, as he has given human rights offenders everywhere a pass.
Mr Trump's gross cynicism may have reminded even some realists of the merits of a values-based foreign policy; Walt has recently written that the belief that the US stands for something "other than naked self-interest" has served it well in the past. It would, in fact, be a grave mistake for Washington to forsake its status, however hypocritical, as the role model for aspiring liberal great powers.
While the United States can hardly decide who does and does not qualify for great-power status, it should have something to say about how such powers should act towards each other and lesser states.
If we stay mum, or play hardball, we reinforce the message not just to the likes of Saudi Arabia but also to India, Mexico, South Africa and other democratic rising powers that they, too, should consider scorn for the principles of international law, and of the liberal rules-based system, among the privileges conferred by membership in the great-power club.
We don't know how this new "normal" will work. But since the old normal ended badly, we should hope that it will look very different. It is profoundly in the interest of the United States to shape that difference.
The writer is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Centre on International Cooperation.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2017, with the headline 'America should resist great-power hardball politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.