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April 21, 2008

For The Good Of The Order
Posted by David Shorr

[Note: I'm at TPM Cafe Book Club this week for a discussion of Matthew Yglesias' excellent new book Heads in the Sand, which should be of interest for DA readers. I will cross-post here; below is the first.]

First off, we needed this book, and Matt has done us a service in writing it so well. So thanks, Matt, for dealing with the root questions -- what does it really mean to be the superpower, what wrong ideas about superpowerdom have led us astray, and why are they so dangerous?

Yes, the problem with circling the wagons of fellow democratic nations is that it's trying to order up legitimacy just the way we want it. Setting aside the question of how many democracies will go along, this is a fundamental misreading of how legitimacy works. Now that the US has a deficit in our moral authority account, we don't get to dictate the terms on which we will bring it back into the black. By definition, legitimacy is not self-conferring.

The rules-based international order is very much a miss-it-once-it's-gone proposition. In effect, the attempt to work only with other democracies redefines membership qualifications for the international community. I can agree that rights-respecting liberal democracies are the most in line with the ideals of the UN Charter and the strongest foundation of global peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, though, non-democracies are bound by numerous other international norms that I'd rather not take for granted (non-aggression and non-proliferation, to name two).

I'm not sure whether it will lead to a new Cold War, but all of this does point toward exclusive rather than inclusive international diplomacy -- more attempts to isolate of any nation chafing under the world community's norms, less engagement in a search for solutions. Nor does such an all-or-nothing standard of regime character seem like a smart approach to spreading democracy. If we truly have learned that democratization is a complex and organic process, trying to rally a narrow circle of like-minded countries to determine all the rules for the international community is a bad idea.

The Iraq War is proof-positive that destruction does not lead to construction of a better alternative; sometimes it's just ... destructive. Same goes for the international order. America indeed stands for progress -- including the spread of human rights and democracy. Let's just not be too glib in dismissing the value of stability and order. I don't mean to sound too much like a realist, because I'm not; I take the rules of the rules-based order very seriously. But I appreciate Matt's reminder that the push for progress and compliance needs to be tempered by a prudent calculation of effectiveness and what can actually be accomplished.


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I thought your post over there was very good. I took you to task a little, though. I'm destor23 at TPM which is probably obvious to you.

Thanks for letting me know, Mike.

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