The international system is not a system, it is anarchy. Russia, like a wolf, just took a bite out of Ukraine, and China has recently been taking bites out of the maritime territiories of its neighbors. Whether due to moral progress, American imperialism, or the specter of nuclear war, the last sixty years have been relatively peaceful. There are far more functional democracies around the world, and for that we can be very thankful. There are some forms of international law and some helpful institutions. But in any heated situation, there is a playground kind of hierarchy, where the bigger players do unto the smaller ones unless even bigger ones stop them.
The US has been the biggest for two generations, using its powers for.. well, there certainly is a big debate whether we generally keep the world stable, peaceful and increasingly democratic, or whether we mostly do the reverse through our blundering about, even when our intentions are good, which they often are not, given the intense greed that drives much of the business-government nexus. Iraq is a good example. Be that as it may, we have been the top bully / policeman, and Robert Kagan asks whether we are giving up on this enormous task and turning in an isolationist or "normal" direction, which is to say concerned with our own interests, and not that of the system as a whole, such as it is.
In a lengthy article, Kagan offers a panoramic view of US foreign policy for the last 100 years or so, focusing particularly on the turn that the US took from traditional isolationism from the Revolution through the Depression, towards enormous and invasive world-wide interests after World War 2. Woodrow Wilson turned out to be the true prophet of this later American policy, announcing (if prematurely) that the US is the indispensible nation for keeping the world safe for democracy. Even his mechanism of an international organization was re-animated in the form of the UN, a way for US power to hide, in Augustinian fashion, behind a cloak of international legitimacy: the new world order.
Kagan focuses also on the unique properties of the US that brought this opportunity about- our geographic isolation, and thus lack of immediate threats or entanglements. And our relative disinterest in the particulars of foreign problems, making us a somewhat honest broker. Not mentioned is our overwhelming power, in economic as well as military terms, which put the world at our feet whether they wished or not. It has been an odd imperium.
Kagan's basic point is that the American public (and that lily-livered Obama!) seem to have lost the will to keep up the imperial banner, now that the clarity of the cold war has been lost, and the world becomes ever messier as our various imperial projects of the past (Cuba, Iran, Iraq) keep blowing up in our faces. But not to worry, he assures, imperiums are never perfect, and don't have to be to keep a lid on the more serious trends of instability.
Even if you are not a neocon, however, there is something to be said for the basic point. Because there is no question that the international system needs more structure. The Europeans recognize this, and have been laboring, with very mixed success, on a sort of united states of Europe. And every flareup around the world, where militants and terrorists, generally of an islamist character today, but of other millennial persuasions in the past, seep into weakly governed areas to spread offensive mayhem, reminds us that chaos and anarchy is the worst of all conditions. It is not some libertarian, Galtian paradise. No, it is a dog-eat-dog, zero-sum hell. Voters in Egypt gave a lesson in this, however bitter, by favoring the military's order over an incompetent democracy.
The key is to think about the policeman's role, which is not one of depotism. It is a delicate working around the edges to limit the worst behavior (WMD's, genocide) while building support through community understanding and deference to local sentiments on the vast majority of issues. It is not imperialism, but a more collaborative process where the stakeholders of the international system, by their weight of numbers, led from time to time by the US, and undergirded by the overwhelming force the US can bring to bear, can put boundaries on acceptable behavior of many kinds, but especially on political violence. It ain't a global government, but is better than nothing.
Specifically, it is better than relying on a balanced system of competitive alliances, (the Kissingerian ideal), which never stays in balance and breeds perpetual competition. With the rise of China, we may take the world into such a two-pole system again, which is likely to be unstable. That is why the recent pivot to Asia has been taking place, to convince the smaller powers that the monopolar world has legs for a few decades more.
But there are many problems with the policeman system. If the central policeman presumes too much on its prerogatives, (such as G. W. Bush and Iraq), the legitimacy of the whole system frays, since it only works when the other countries think it serves their interests better to participate and accept US leadership than otherwise (if grudgingly). Secondly, there is a general free-rider problem and indeed a tendecy for the secondary countries to gang up on the leader, just because they can, to score political points, out of spite, etc. South America has been a hotbed of such grievance and bitterness over the last couple of decades, often for the good reason of being the subject of the most retrograde US meddling. The US (or any leader of an implicit police system) makes an easy target. We saw this in the 60's domestically in the US with the groundswell of antipathy to the pigs, the man, the system, etc.
The central reason to save the policeman system is, as Wilson recognized, to make the world safe for democracy. As hackneyed as it sounds, it remains as true today as then. Democracy is not the historically normal form of government nor an easy system of government, as we have found out so sadly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, Egypt, Hungary, etc.. You don't just hold an election and declare history at an end. Democratic countries have voted themselves into autocracy, and weak ones are preyed on constantly by their more decisive competitiors, both state-ful and state-less. Yet once it takes hold culturally, it is extremely hard to dislodge, making sense of the project of international policing as a temporary way-station to universal democracy and more rationalized, federal-ish world government that is able to tackle the real issues of our time, such as climate heating. If one views democratic government as a better form than others, then having an international system that fosters it consistently under a police-type sponsorship makes a great deal of sense (if the policeman truly does sponsor it, which has been in doubt from time to time). Indeed, the long game vs China as well as vs Russia is a matter of playing for time as they become truly democratic, before the relative power of the US declines out of the policeman role.
- Alternate views on Kagan.
- A contrasting view from the "No, we can't" side.
- Newsflash to libertarians.. government is not, and can not be, voluntary. That would be anarchy.
- Corporations just can't help themselves from cheating on taxes. They are human, after all.
- More Obama heroics ... protecting (some of) the Pacific.
- Martin Wolf on "waking up" to climate change.
- The one PAC to rule them all, but probably not.
- Average Americans are not all that bright, in political and historical terms, sad to say.
- Devolution in Teatopia.
- Some thoughts on economics as a curriculum.
End Of Days: I am extinct- the European Houting.