Whistling past the graveyard of great powers?

"Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed."

—Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

May 21 should have been a wake-up call for the United States. The threat of an ongoing entente between two major geopolitical competitors, Russia and China, went from theory to strong likelihood. The $400 billion, 30-year gas deal between Russia and China portends the single largest shift of the global balance of power since the end of the Cold War. It also represents a fundamental challenge to the Western way of conceptualizing world order.

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For Americans, unaccustomed to thinking in geopolitical terms, the names of thinkers like Halford Mackinder, Nicholas Spykman and (except for U.S. naval enthusiasts) Alfred Thayer Mahan don't ring much of a bell. However, as the 21st century unfolds, the work of each should be embraced as the past becomes prologue to the future. However, American policymakers of both parties seem to be whistling past the graveyard of past great powers and acting in ways directly contrary to the national interest while there is a sense of superpower fatigue palpable in the body politic.

The United States has undergone past periodic bouts of self-doubt and depression regarding its status in the world. The last such experience was during the second half of the 1970s, in the wake of Watergate, the Vietnam War, stagflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis. Today, the country faces something similar in the aftermath of over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, polarized domestic politics, a sea of red ink as far as the eye can see and the rise of a new great power challenger in East Asia.

While America's deeply embedded optimism has historically helped the nation recover, a confluence of events both domestic and international raises the prospect that the future will not resemble the American past, though it may well resemble the past of other societies.

It is commonplace for politicians to pontificate on the U.S. national debt, at over $17 trillion, as unsustainable. Yet the inability of the Obama administration and Congress to work towards meaningful reforms means a solution is nowhere in sight.

Not only does this have negative economic impacts, but it has a serious long-term impact on the Department of Defense. Already, the Pentagon has been dealing with serious budget reductions as a result of sequestration and the general draw-down in Afghanistan and Iraq. The problems expand as long-term planning becomes increasingly difficult to achieve as budgetary constraints threaten to re-hollow out the military similar to what occurred prior to President Reagan's build-up. The Army is set to shrink to the smallest it has been since World War II. Despite some sleight of hand by the Obama administration to count hospital ships in our battle force, the Navy is probably at its smallest since the early 1900s.

While the domestic situation has already hamstrung America's military posture, perhaps, the most disturbing recent developments are geopolitical in nature and could not come at a worse time for a struggling America.

In particular, the blossoming Sino-Russian entente that is emerging threatens to stretch America's declining military at a time where domestic concerns are rising about ongoing American involvement in global affairs.

While the recent Russian-Chinese oil deal is not, in and of itself, detrimental to U.S. interests, the challenge is that the interests of those two powers and those of the U.S. are increasingly divergent. Russia's efforts to re-establish primacy in its near abroad and China's new challenges to the status quo in East Asia undermine much of the liberal international order underpinned by the U.S. and its allies throughout the post-World War II period.

President Nixon and Kissinger used geopolitical tensions exposed in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split to usher in a triangular diplomacy that kept the U.S. in the pivotal role of global power arbiter at a time in the 1970s when American power also seemed to be declining. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are acting out the Nixon/Kissinger roles.

Rather than opening up a Cold War playbook against Russia over Ukraine, the U.S. should perform a "Reverse Nixon" to China with Russia. Unlike President Obama's "reset," this would involve a fundamental reassessment of U.S.-Russian relations within the context of both Russia's East and China's Central Asian ambitions.

A failure to reform the U.S. domestic spending combined with an inability to think geopolitically means the U.S. will continue perilously walking the path of past great powers from Rome to Great Britain, a path to decline. The problem today is that all too many policymakers seem unable to deal with the new reality. The window of opportunity to change paths is closing. Seriousness with the national debt and a geopolitical mindset are the keys to avoiding the "inevitable" fate outlined by Kissinger above.

Lawson is a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.