Center for Strategic Communication

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on September 28, 2012. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)

Cross-posted from Joshua Foust’s regular column in The Atlantic.

… at least compared with the periods defined by the Cold War and the War on Terror. But with no guiding paradigm, where does foreign policy and national security go from here?

During the Cold War, American foreign policy experts divided the world into two broad camps: communist and non-communist. It was a neat paradigm that allowed for quick decisions: alliances, treaties, and even wars pivoted on this paradigm: American stood for capitalism, the Soviets stood for communism.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, everyone involved in national security and foreign policy have struggled to create a new paradigm. No easy enemies also means there are few easy friends. Without a simple paradigm to define the world as good or bad, strategy has become incredibly difficult to create and pursue.

As a result, what has defined the recent eras of foreign policy in America have been defined largely by what they’re not: the post-Cold War 90s, the anti-terror 2000s, and now we are moving in the post-War-on-Terror 2010s.

Defining the world negatively is really just a process of elimination — it does little to help understand what the world is like right now, or how we can plan for it. But what is the world? What do we, as Americans stand for?

It is extremely difficult to define the world in positive terms. At a recent international conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a broad swath of the foreign policy elite from the U.S., Canada, and Europe all struggled with the question.

Because there is no simple paradigm guiding world politics, few can define, with any clarity, what our place in it should be. Without that grander vision, strategic consensus and foreign policies are becoming increasingly muddled. Policymakers plan for immediate benefit, and lose sight of long-term strategic objectives.

“In a unipoloar or bipolar world, it was easier to toe the line and stand together as Americans,” Senator Mark Udall said to the panel on American global leadership. “But now there’s not one strategy we can agree on for a variety of threats.”

What does this mean for the future of foreign policy and international security? It’s unclear. One still hears among the elder statesmen of the world a nostalgia for the Cold War: a simpler, more predictable time when the western world knew what it was and what it wanted.

In many ways, the Cold War was simpler than the modern world. But the world is also unquestionably better off than it was. Odd Arne Westad wrote in The Global Cold War that the competition between powers “put a number of Third World countries in a state of semipermanent civil war” and made those wars harder to settle. This constant state of warfare created in otherwise small conflicts the potential for global catastrophe, dramatically raising the stakes of almost every interaction between the two competing blocs.

The last two decades of post-Cold War policy has seen the world agree to a single economic system. Wars are smaller, less international, and less deadly than ever before, and the threat of global nuclear annihilation is greatly diminished. Thus, the stakes of the international system are much smaller.

But just because the stakes of global politics are far lower, however, does not mean the complexity of global politics is lower. And it is that complexity that vexes so many.

The appeal of the “War on Terror” policy framework that so defined the 2000s is its similarity to the Cold War: a state of semi-permanent war for the country, which also raised the stakes of some conflicts and gave America the global mission of stamping out terror movements. Mali, for example, is not just a civil conflict in a backwater in Western Africa – it has the potential for global jihad, and thus becomes an interest for the United States.

So why is the current paradigm of the world so hard to conceive? Is it not enough to simply accept that the world is a bit messy, that most dilemmas are not easy because there’s no big enemy to unite views, and that the eroding dominance of the old interstate system might mean we need to think more flexibly?

Indeed, there is a fundamental attribution error in assuming the world was not complicated before; even though the simple paradigm of the US-Soviet rivalry is long gone, local politics and local wars are hardly more complicated than they were in the 1970s. But because these local politics and local wars do not fit into a global paradigm of conflict, their natural complexity can’t be subsumed to a simple narrative.

That old, Cold War narrative wasn’t so simple anyway. In fact, for America and the West it was defined international politics as much by what they were not as much as by what they were. While America believed in freedom, the American government also supported horrific dictatorships whose sole virtue was being non-communist.

Defining one’s role in the world in positive terms — by what it is, rather than by what it is not — is not an easy task. But if we approach the world knowing who we are (instead of who we are not), then we can make policy decisions with an eye toward the future: not just a temporary fix on a pressing problem, but developing long-term solutions for a bigger payoff down the line.

This sort of thinking does not come naturally. The difficult work of making and analyzing policy incentivizes immediate thinking: angling for a short-term payoff rather than a long-term benefit. It also flows from the negative definitions of the world: If you don’t know what the world is, then all you can do is react to events as they appear.

Changing that entrenched mode of thinking is more important than ever.