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July 03, 2008

I've Been Outed
Posted by David Shorr

Just as Shawn did, I noticed Patrick Doherty's post over on American Strategist. I appreciate, and identify with, Shawn's defense of both the prudence and liberalism in our shared approach. On the other hand, I'll actually cop to some of the "sooo 20th Century" charges Patrick levels.

But first a related defense against Shadi, who really recoiled at my referring (positively) to the United States as a status quo power. As I explained in a comment on his post, what I mean is the American interest in the strength of the system as a system, not a preference to keep world conditions just as they are. A status quo power is generally content with the terms of the international social contract, doesn't feel they're in need of radical revision. (A point Shawn echoes quite well.) As principal author of the post-WWII order, that's how the United States should feel -- hastening to emphasize, though, the need for a serious update to address power shifts, unresolved inequities, and a fast-changing world. Even so, the fundamentals of the current rules based order are basically sound.

As with a durable constitutional order, the seeds of renewal lie within the system itself. Having recently spent two strenuous years trying to help the cause of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's reform push, this idea is articulated eloquently in his In Larger Freedom report. Both the United States and the international system itself (not coincidentally) are urgently due to have their stores of legitimacy restocked. (I happen to think spreading the economic benefits of globalization are at the top of that agenda.)

But if the test of a 21st century progressive is an orientation toward things transnational and non-state, I fail the test. I am state-centric in my worldview. I have my reasons, and you can be the judge. The rise of non-state actors is an undeniable feature of the overall global diffusion of power in the 20 years since the Cold War's end. Even with the relative decline in the influence of states and governments, though, they remain the indispensible actors for the solution to any international problem you can think of. Yes, I know, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, etc... But the way I see it, political will from national capitals is the necessary condition for international progress -- insufficient, perhaps, but necessary.

Now, as to transnational. The blurring of international borders is indeed key to the way I see today's world. And yet, there are a couple of reasons I don't like infectious disease and climate change as symbols of contemporary challenges. Let me be clear, they are both urgent and addressing them is imperative. Their impact on our fellow humans is dramatic and tragic. As international agenda items, though, they have a heavy technical element. Maybe this is the bias of a 20th century guy whose focus has mostly been on violent conflict and persecution -- man-made problems in the sense of willful inhumanity toward fellow man -- but some of this transnational stuff for me lacks the real messiness of a true man-made problem, and making them the poster-problems for global threats feels like a cheat.


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You say that "as principal author of the post-WWII order, that's how the United States should feel." [i.e, content with the terms of the international social contract, not finding they're in need of radical revision.]

But that conservative stance toward the post WWII international order doesn't follow either logically or naturally from the fact that the US was the principle author of that order. I am the sole author of my PhD dissertation. But if I were to publish it now, I would undertake some fairly radical revisions. Life goes on; things change; we learn and evolve. The fact that the US takes pride in its role in the creation of the post-WWII order is no automatic reason to regard that order as not in need of major revision. The French justly take pride in the achievements of the Grand Siècle and in the legal majesty of the Napoleonic code. But few of them now want to live under a political order based on the rule of the Sun King or the Napoleonic Empire. And the conservative call asks so little of us, and engages so little of our minds and imaginations.

If you want to make a case for the post-WWII international system and its general continued adequacy, you should make the case on its merits, not just from legacy considerations. Personally, I would prefer some very substantial changes to the existing order. Where the semantic line falls between "very substantial" and "radical", I am not sure. But I think the world is in great need of some major new institutions, and building them would be a worthy project for a generation. Some of these innovations might be:

1. A treaty-based international energy transition order, charged with regulating the global energy economy, forging rational collective decisions of global scope for the management of supply, the regulation of prices, the security of producing nations against neo-colonialist exploitation and land-grabbing, the insuring of consuming nations against significant disruption of supply, the establishment of firm national targets for reducing petroleum demand, and the allocation of resources for the development of new technologies.

2. A revitalized global labor movement. If business enterprises have a WTO and other organizations looking after the collective interests of producers of goods and services, why shouldn't labor have its own powerful international organizations, capable of exerting pressure, pushing for redistributive measures and protecting workers on a global scale? Will a state like the US choose to be part of the solution, as it was during the Roosevelt era, or part of the problem.

3. A self-standing, UN based, policing, peacemaking and peacekeeping force, one that is not so tied to the whims of member states, and does not borrow soldiers from the armed forces of its members, but which recruits and trains its soldiers directly. Allowing one's citizens to join and serve in such a force would be a condition of UN membership. Decisions to use the force would still be in the hands of the UNSC, but the readiness and capacity of the international community would be enhanced.

4. Security Council reform.

5. The creation of a UN-based global parliament, or the reform of the General Assembly to play such a role. The reforms should make some cautious first steps in the direction of proportional representation. The parliament should have the ability to craft legislation, and submit it back to member states for ratification by some established proportion of those members. It might even have limited abilities to (gasp!) levy taxes.

6. An international education fund, that is, a sort of educational IMF, charged specifically with providing financing and grants for the construction of schools, with an educational program tailored for the needs of individual countries, but designed specifically to bring the world's slum-dwelling, under-economy millions (or billions,) who inhabit impoverished megacities, into the global economy.

I'm sure others could add many other excellent ideas here. Clearly, this is not a program for the next presidential administration. It is a program for a generation. We need to try to break out of our American habit of looking at change and policy in short term chunks, and formulate some more ambitious longer term plans. Some Americans, though, seem to object to the very idea of long-term generation-scale plans, and put there faith entirely in whatever happens to emerge from the ungoverned, self-interested behavior of scattered entrepreneurs, so it is a tall order.

I believe we are in a watershed period in history, and the world is poised for an era of political dynamism and major epochal change. People sense that something has come to an end and that something else - what is it? - is about to begin. Many prominent global public intellectuals, and the leaders of emerging powers, are issuing heady calls for a new order. (We just heard another one yesterday from Medvedev.) Some of these calls are bound to capture the imaginations of the rising generation. The US can't respond to this simply with a call to restore and redeem the former status quo. The US needs to offer its own voice to the emerging global movement for change. Otherwise, we will fail to protect our own interests, and will suffer for it and be swept aside by history.

I think Obama is an almost ideal US leader to carry the US message at this point in history: young, bright, energetic and of mixed race. But so far, I don't see exactly what that message is going to be. To 300,000,000 Americans, plus a few hundred thousand of our greatest fans abroad, the call to "restore US leadership" might sound totally awesome. But I don't think it is going to sell all that well among the rest of the world's billions. Point out for me a time in US history when a broad international movement was built on restoring the lost power of a single great power.

I agree with you in your skepticism about excessive calls for, and predictions of, transnationalism. And I believe the world order we build has to be anchored in a system of powerful, well-governed states, responsive to the desires of their citizens, and capable of resisting the economic power of private firms, which are after all hierarchically organized and thoroughly undemocratic command systems - a fact to which anyone with a low-level or mid-level job in a large corporation can attest. Just as you can't have a vibrant, well-ordered, self-governing democratic society if the individuals in that society are not to a significant degree well-educated, intellectually and morally virtuous, and personally responsible agents exercising disciplined governance of their own individual sphere of activity, so you can't have a well-governed international order that is not based on well-governed states.

I don't believe in the vaunted disappearance of the state and corporatization and of absolutely everything. I also don't believe in the doom and gloom about the "coming global anarchy" and the awesome power on non-state actors. These were attitudes that were very popular in late 90's, with its globomania and unrestrained market enthusiasm, and its exaggerated fears at every little crack in American control. But they were oversold and unrealistic. States are still where it is at. I also have little regard for anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, "libertarian socialism" and the other radically anti-government pathologies of the Chomskyan left, movements that have sapped the lefts strength in recent decades, and left it mired in alienated analysis and self-indulgent and unorganized, politically impossible fantasy.

I believe in government of, by, and for the people that are governed, and the rule of law. I suppose I also believe in the eventual creation , many years hence, of a global federal order - a central world government - with very substantial power, but its power checked by the powers by individual nation states, with their powers in turn checked by the powers reserved by their states, provinces and administrative regions, etc. But now we're talking about social plans that are too long-term even for me.

I can imagine right-wingers going absolutely berserk over my agenda, and recommending prison and/or electrocution for wild-eyed internationalists like me. But if we are not driving the Glenn Beck's of the world into sovereigntist, uber-nationalist apoplexy, we're doing something wrong.

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