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How China, Russia, and Iran are Undermining World Peace

The revisionist rulers of Russia, China, and Iran are disrupting the deep peace that characterized the post-Cold War years, in an attempt to maintain legitimate control. In conversation with "The Arena," Professor Michael Mandelbaum discusses what the world stands to lose if the only known formula for long-term peace is failing.

President Hassan Rouhani (left), Chairman Xi Jinping, and President Vladimir Putin | Adapted from: Hassan Rouhani by Mojtaba Salimi (CC BY-SA 3.0) - cropped from original; PM Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping by Narendra Modi/Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0) - cropped from original; (CC BY 4.0) - cropped from original

Professor Michael Mandelbaum regards today’s world with a mixture of optimism and pessimism. A veteran academic and the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., Mandelbaum argues that the twenty-five years after 1989 were unprecedentedly peaceful and have, in retrospect, furnished a formula for peace.

Yet, as he writes in his new book The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth (Oxford University Press), this post-Cold War peace did not last. In this decade three revisionist states – Russia, China, and Iran – have undermined that peace. In present circumstances, asserts Mandelbaum, the formula for peace that emerged in the last century cannot be implemented.

Mandelbaum (R) speaking at The Arena Diplomatic Forum | Photo: Gal Spiner

In June, The Arena’s Diplomatic Forum hosted Mandelbaum, the author or co-author of 16 books and the editor or co-editor of a dozen more, for a discussion of the current prospects for war and peace around the world.

Q: What makes the post-Cold War peace so different than any other peaceful era in history?

The question “What are the current prospects for peace?” presupposes another question that is asked far less often. That question is, “What is peace?” The obvious answer – peace is the absence of war – is not very rigorous. War is episodic, not continuous, which means that, by this definition, almost every country can be said to have experienced peace almost constantly.

A more rigorous definition defines peace as not only the absence of war but the absence of the imminent threat of war, of urgent preparations for war, and of diplomacy conducted with the prospect of war looming in the background. Another way of phrasing this more rigorous definition is that peace entails the absence not only of a shooting war, which is rare for most countries, but of what political scientists call “security competition,” which has been ever-present for most sovereign states for most of their respective histories.

By this more rigorous definition the world has experienced peace – perhaps “deep peace” is a more helpful term – just once: in the 25 years following the fall of the Berlin Wall, from 1989 to 2014. True, there was violence during that period, but it arose primarily from governments oppressing and persecuting their citizens or from rival militias fighting one another. It did not come from the strongest states waging war with large military forces and the most modern weapons – which is, historically, by far the greatest cause of death and destruction.

Q: What brought along this unique “deep peace”?

The deep peace stemmed from the unusually robust presence of three peace-promoting features of the international system. The first was the benign hegemony of the United States; even countries that disliked American hegemony did not feel able to actively challenge it. The second was economic interdependence. This was, after all, a great age of globalization; when countries invest in and trade with one another, they are reluctant to go to war since this would cost both of them economically. The third great cause of peace was the spread of democracy – meaning both popular sovereignty and liberty – which promotes peace in a variety of ways.

Q: What has changed in recent years to uproot the deep peace that you argue existed?

In Europe, Russia invaded and occupied Ukraine. In East Asia, China – contrary to international law – claimed most of the western Pacific, built artificial islands there, and – contrary to the promises of its leaders – constructed military installations on them. In the Middle East, Iran has used proxy forces to extend its influence at the expense of the governments of neighboring countries and pursued, and may well still be pursuing, nuclear weapons.

Q: Why did these three countries challenge and upset the status quo?

The motives were multiple and complicated in each case, as I discuss in the three major chapters of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth. All three governments had, however, one motive in common: they pursued policies of aggressive nationalism in an effort to generate popular support for themselves, support that each felt it urgently needed in part because its economic prospects had become poor.


The absence of good economic prospects made aggressive nationalism a tempting option for each of the three regimes.


In Russia, economic growth depends on the export of energy. During Vladimir Putin’s first term as president (2000-2008) the global price of oil skyrocketed, money poured in, and Putin was able to spread it around to the Russian people (while keeping much of it for himself and his cronies). When he returned to the presidency in 2012 the price had fallen by half, and shows no sign of returning to the peak it reached during his first stint in office.

A tanker unloading Russian crude oil at an English oil terminal, February 2019 | Photo: Darren Hillman from Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

China recorded double-digit annual economic growth for three decades, the result of large-scale population movement from the countryside to the cities, heavy investment – especially in infrastructure – and ever-increasing export totals. By the time President Xi Jinping took power as the country’s supreme leader in 2012, however, that formula had begun to falter. In recent years, China’s growth rate has fallen by half.

As for Iran, the clerics who seized power in 1979 have never presided over appreciable economic growth. The country has stagnated for four decades, adding to the unpopularity of the regime among the Iranian people.

The absence of good economic prospects made aggressive nationalism a tempting option for each of the three regimes. All three presented their aggressive policies toward their neighbors in nationalist terms: as necessary to ward off what they claimed (falsely) were the predatory designs of the democracies, led by the United States; and as measures designed to restore each of them to its rightful place as the dominant power in its home region.


The impetus for democratization must come from within the country in question


Q: What benefits can democracy bring to the world, and can it guarantee peace?

Even in conjunction with American hegemony and interdependence, democracy cannot provide a foolproof guarantee against war. Nothing can do that. History has no iron laws like those of physics. The presence of democracy does, however, provide a barrier, if not an insurmountable one, against the onset of war. Many studies have established the “democratic peace” theory, according to which full-fledged democracies (those that incorporate both free elections and the protection of liberty) have a pronounced tendency not to go to war – at least not with one another, and since the middle of the 20th century.

This raises the question of whether democracy can spread to every country. I don’t believe that democracy is entirely impossible in any country; but it is surely the case that this form of government requires certain political, economic, and cultural conditions to flourish, and that some countries are better equipped with these conditions than others.

To expect democracy to take hold immediately throughout the Middle East, for example, as some did upon the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” revolts, is unrealistic. Moreover, the United States has not had much success in exporting democracy directly. The impetus for democratization must come from within the country in question.

Q: How do you reconcile the ideas of democratic peace theory with free, fair, and frequent elections that lead to extremists winning office? The most recent example being Hamas’ wins in the 2006 Palestinian elections, following which they eventually declared Sharia law in the Gaza strip. How does this advance a peaceful world?

As I’ve noted, democracy properly understood entails not only free and fair elections but also the protection of liberty, which comes in three varieties: economic liberty – private property; religious liberty – freedom of worship; and political liberty – freedom of speech, the press, and assembly. Hamas obviously does not permit liberty, and therefore is not a democratic organization. In summary, elections alone do not make for democracy.

Q: Given your argument that the deep peace of the post-Cold War era has ended, and prospects for its immediate restoration are poor, what should the United States and other democracies do?

What is needed, as I argue in the March/April issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, is a revised, updated, reconstructed version of the Cold War policy of containment. During the Cold War the democracies banded together to contain the Soviet Union. In the 21st century they can and should do the same thing vis-à-vis Russia in Europe, China in East Asia, and Iran in the Middle East.


The three revisionists present challenges – at least military ones – only in their home regions. Instead of a global threat, we face three regional ones.


Note that containment now will have to differ from containment then because the world has changed in important ways. Whereas the Cold War was an ideological competition, with the Soviet Union and its allies and clients attempting to impose distinctive political and economic systems wherever they could, Russia and China do not present challenges of this kind. Neither is trying to export a particular political or economic model. The Islamic Republic of Iran does have an ideology, but it is relevant only to Muslims, and, in fact, probably only to Shia Muslims.

Moreover, while the Soviet Union presented a single global challenge to the democracies, the three revisionists present challenges – at least military ones – only in their home regions. Instead of a global threat, therefore, we face three regional ones.

Finally, while the communist bloc had very little economic contact with the democracies, the three revisionist states are all part of the global economy, with China playing a very important part. This makes the task of containing China a complicated one, requiring thwarting Chinese political and military designs while maintaining, as much as possible, economic ties with that country.

It’s also worth mentioning two other points about 21st century containment. First, the instrument of containment must be coalitions. The United States is indispensable in each of the three regions, but it cannot act effectively without partners. Alliances, that is, still matter. Second, it is not clear to me whether such a policy in current circumstances is politically feasible in the West, including in the United States. Time will tell.

Q: So far, we’ve discussed the three challenging states that are disrupting world peace. But how has the United States, as sole superpower and global hegemon during these 25 years, influenced the trajectory of these three countries and the foreign policy choices they have made?

The United States influenced Russia’s trajectory for the worse, as I explain in The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth. By expanding the Atlantic Alliance, NATO, to Russia’s borders – over Russian objections and contrary to assurances given to Soviet and Russian leaders – while making it clear that Russia would never be invited to join, the United States needlessly alienated both elite and mass opinion in Russia.

US Soldiers and UN Police in Kosovo on a NATO-led peacekeeping mission. Sowed the seeds of Russia's anti-West sentiment | Photo: DoD photo by Sgt. Brendan Stephens, US Army/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

NATO expansion and other measures – such as the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and the Bush administration’s withdrawal in 2001 from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 – created an anti-Western sentiment that made it easy for Vladimir Putin to justify his aggressive policies to the Russian public as defensive in nature, designed to repel the anti-Russian designs of the United States and its allies. The United States was not responsible for the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine, but its policies in the 1990s unintentionally helped prepare the ground for what Russia did in 2014.

Q: Your analysis focuses on states as primary actors in the international arena. But how does the rise of non-state actors in various regions impact the prospects for peace? One cannot disregard the ability of the Islamic State to wreak havoc and disrupt entire countries, though it is only an organization.

Non-state actors are more important than ever in the twenty-first century. Still, large-scale war can only be carried out by sovereign states. Matters of war and peace still depend on the policies of states.

Q: In conclusion, are you optimistic or pessimistic about the chances of re-achieving the deep peace that is now slipping from our fingers?

Over the long term – say 50 years – I am optimistic about democracy’s global prospects. I agree with what Winston Churchill once said: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I believe that, with all its problems, democracy is the political system best suited to meet the economic, technological, and political challenges of the twenty-first century. I believe, too, that as people become wealthier and better educated – and these are global trends – they will increasingly demand for themselves liberty and a say in how they are governed. As I note in the final chapter of The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth, signs of the public’s desire for liberty and self-government have already appeared in Russia, China, and Iran.

In the shorter term, however, democracy faces two formidable obstacles: autocratic elites determined to hold on to their dictatorial powers and to use force to do so; and the absence of the political culture – the habits, values, beliefs and institutions – necessary for sustained democratic governance. So, while I do not believe that the autocracies of Russia, China, and Iran can last indefinitely, when they will fall and whether democracy will replace them are questions that neither I nor anyone else can answer.

Siena Greenwell and Leora Lupkin contributed to this article.

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