Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Build Anew?

Michael Hirsch has a piece in the Washington Monthly entitled "Don't Go Wobbly, Barack." It's a bit of a meandering piece, starting at first with the personal histories of Samantha Power and Anthony Lake (major foreign policy advisers to the Obama campaign), moving to a critique of the Iraq war that nobody would find controversial, and ending with a plea for Obama to not abandon international institutions in their current form.

Power and Lake, two heavyweights in liberal IR circles (for excellent reasons), are used by Hirsch to embody the growing despair many liberals feel as to the efficacy of the UN and other international organizations.
Power's Pulitzer [for A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide] was awarded in April 2003, just as the looting began to rage in the streets of Baghdad, providing the first glimpses of the nightmare that Iraq was to become. And as the months passed, Power watched her interventionist dreams turn to dust. In just a few years, she believed, President Bush had squandered the efforts of half a century, in which Washington carefully nurtured an international system and worked its way, fitfully, toward a vague doctrine of global leadership. While Bush talks of freedom, democracy, and human rights, most people see a savage, botched occupation, alignment with Arab autocrats against Iran, and waterboarding in secret prisons. Says Power: "Now we're neither the shining example, nor even competent meddlers. It's going to take a generation or so to reclaim American exceptionalism."

Hirsch agrees with Power that the Bush administration has done severe, possibly catastrophic damage to America's ability to enact positive changes in the global arena. However, they differ as to the implications. Power and Lake are despondent over the ability of the UN to effectively deal with international crises, from genocide in Darfur and Rwanda, to refugee problems, to environmental catastrophes, to just the general enlargement of human rights and democracy around the world. Hirsch believes that there is nothing intrinsically flawed with the international system built after 1945, and that if the US was under proper leadership, there would be no need to start "from scratch."

Unfortunately, Hirsch provides very little evidence that the current international system is capable of doing the work liberal theorists expect and demand of it in the coming century. The closest Hirsch comes to an argument here is the assertion that international systems today enjoy more power than at any comparable point in history:
Compared to previous periods of imperial rule, this international system was--and still is--unmatched by any other in history in the depth and breadth of its reach. As James Richardson, an Australian scholar of international relations, has pointed out, the global economic order policed by institutions like the World Trade Organization is "without historical precedent; earlier attempts to establish international order relied mainly on political and military means."

It is indeed true that international institutions have far more power today than ever before. But this leap in capacity, drastic as it is, still pales in comparison to surge in responsibilities expected of the international arena. We expect it to keep the peace between nations, promote democracy, protect human rights, defend against genocide, reduce famine and suffering, foster dialogue among nations, and maintain an objective neutrality towards all nation-states. Never in history has any entity, much less one essentially created from scratch, been tasked with such an assignment.

While the UN can if it chooses enact policies that directly effect the sovereignty of its member states on some very key issues, its power and influence are no where near at the level it would need to be to accomplish these aforementioned goals. Moreover, the body has been unwilling to focus what power it has effectively, with genocidal maniacs either running out the clock as UN bureaucracy grinds, or being ignored entirely. The UN's grant of each state equal power also becomes problematic by allowing non-democratic states to control the agenda--this makes it unlikely that the body will act meaningfully to promote the cause of free elections in the face of its dominant members' interests. These are structural problems that cannot be fixed just by repairing America's damaged image. They strike at the very heart of the UN's legitimacy, impeding it in its quest to expand liberty and protect the marginalized, and responsible for its anemic response to some of the most brutal human rights violations over the last century. Hirsch does not offer a compelling reason how the current system can be expected to transcend these problems. And in absence of that, I do not find it unreasonable that some of our brightest luminaries are questing for alternatives.

Looking at a UN which has fallen so far short of our dreams, many of the world's brightest liberal scholars have all concluded that we gotta get out of this place (metaphorically if not literally). Hirsch is right that, even today, no country aside from the US has the credibility to become a leader in the international arena (the nightmare is that a network of "non-aligned" states like Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela will try to contest America's international political dominance, but I don't see that happening, yet). The problem is that we don't have the credibility anymore, either. This is the legacy of the Bush administration in international arena--a terrifyingly anarchic world in which no country can lead and no country can effectively press for the reforms so desperately required. This, I suspect, is what leads so many liberal internationalists into depression, and this, I suspect is what leads them to Obama, as well. Democracy Arsenal had an amusing post tallying Google hits for "[Person] is the Messiah." Of a bevy of politicians, public and even religious figures, Obama stomped the constitution, with 360 hits (Mohammed came in second with ten). The Obama-as-Messiah motif, while hyperbolic, is also real. There are a great many people, myself included, who see him as a last, best hope to save the world from some of our most intractable social and political problems. We're probably asking too much of him; he may well fail (even if elected). But the fact that we feel the need to prop someone up as a pseudo-messianic figure is evidence of how far the world has fallen, and how desperate we are for a savior.


  1. Anonymous10:55 PM

    It's also interesting to note that the few powerful international institutions are overwhelmingly the IMF, the WTO - the organizations committed explicitly to a Western capitalist agenda. And, whaddayaknow, Western capitalist powers are by and large, more than happy to cooperate with their policies. If only we were as good at crushing genocidal regimes as we are at shutting down socialists and protectionists...

  2. To that extent, many people have suggested setting up an international organization solely for democracies. Socialistic democracies are still welcome, but certain basic norms -- open and fair elections, some freedom of speech and religion, etc. -- are required. This gets us away from the UN dominated by dictators, as well as the IMF, WTO, World Bank focus on furthering capitalism's ends.

    NAFTA had some of this role originally, of allied democracies organized around the U.S. and in opposition to an non-democratic enemy. I'm not certain as to whether modern Russia could belong to the democracy club, though. Such is the appeal of the UN: you're a nation, here's your seat. The biggest problem they have is just deciding which government at the moment is the real one (e.g. China vs. PRC, Taliban in Afghanistan, etc.).