Multi-Polarity, Globosclerosis, and Realpolitik

What’s going on here?   Admit it:  it gives one pause to see David Brooks waxing Wilsonian in the New York Times:

But globally, people have no sense of shared citizenship. Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so. There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism. The autocrats of the world don’t even want a mechanism because they are afraid that it would be used to interfere with their autocracy.

Before hitting send, Brooks might have done well to sample the Saturday musings of his soulmate to the West, George Will, writing on quite a different topic:

And no more locutions such as “citizen of the world” and “global citizenship.” If they meant anything in Berlin, they meant that Obama wanted Berliners to know that he is proudly cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is not, however, a political asset for American presidential candidates. Least of all is it an asset for Obama, one of whose urgent needs is to seem comfortable with America’s vibrant and very un-European patriotism, which is grounded in a sense of virtuous exceptionalism.

Otherwise, “citizen of the world” and “global citizenship” are, strictly speaking, nonsense. Citizenship is defined by legal and loyalty attachments to a particular political entity with a distinctive regime and culture. Neither the world nor the globe is such an entity.

Then, in repsonse to Brooks’ piece, a bracing dose of foreign affairs realism from a chap named Daniel Larison, (see his terrific blog filling in for Andrew Sulivan:

Officially, everyone solemnly intones that nuclear proliferation is undesirable and should be prevented, but the Iranian acquisition of nuclear technology does not appear to India or China as a threat.  Their perspective as rising powers that have more recently acquired their own nuclear arsenals means that even an Iranian bomb seems far more rational and justifiable to them than it does to our government.  At the same time, the real power and status that India has derived from its arsenal, such that our government has been trying to seal a nuclear deal with New Delhi in pretty obvious violation of the NPT, show every aspiring state that the way to be taken seriously by the U.S. is to possess this sort of power.   

What a multipolar world really shows is the limits of multilateral institutions.  During most of the Cold War, the U.N. did not provide much in the way of collective security because the member states were either divided between the two superpowers or organized under the Non-Aligned Movement, and after the Cold War the U.N. was able to provide meaningful collective security only when the remaining superpower backed the action.  Now that there are multiple new powers emerging in the world, the multilateral framework, which presupposes a consensus that will almost never exist among so many divergent interests, has been breaking apart.  This has been exacerbated by the consistent targeting of Russian and Chinese satellites for sanctions and attack, while leaving U.S. allies that have their own egregious records unscathed, but these are simply symptoms.  The problem, if you want to call it that, is that the artificial and unusual disparity of power between the U.S. and the rest of the world that occurred in the wake of WWII has been steadily narrowing, and it will continue to do so.  This is essentially a return to something more like a normal state of affairs after the extremely abnormal 20th century.

Of course, both of these guys have a point.  Larison is pretty impossible to argue with when he says, essentially, “multi-polarity means a greater diversity of irreconcilable self-interests, so get over it.”  And as he notes, the collapse of the Doha round makes a fine Exhibit A.

But he  goes too far in introducing the idea that because the 20th century was a historical exception, we should be comfortable  returning to a 19th century posture of “every man for himself.”  Unfortunately, easily the greatest source of the 20th century’s exceptionalism is that it has produced the seeds of the planet’s sudden annihlation, and those seeds are now in their seventh decade of germination and spread.  Ok that sounds a little overwrought, but it’s also not wrong.

Nuclear non-proliferation–which amazingly, has received precisely *no* air time in the U.S. Presidential campaign–*must* be foreign policy job #1 for every responsible nation.   And anything other than the broadest-based multi-laterilism won’t get job #1 done.  To say that China sympathizes with Iran’s nuclear aspirations has much basis in fact.  But I sympathize with my labrador’s desire to eat the whole bag of chow.  I don’t let her do it, because there will be consequences to her and to me which are far more predictable than the consequencs to China of a nuclear-armed Iran.

In Michael  Dobbs’ new Book, One Minute to Midnight, (highly recommended, btw) he recounts an episode during the Cuban missile crisis when the pilot of a single-seat F-106 airplane muffed his landing at a foggy Terre Haute airstrip and skidded off the runway.  This would have been the 19th century equivalent of falling off a horse, except that the plane had in its hold a 1.5 kilo-ton nuclear war head, about a tenth the size that was dropped on Hiroshima.  And then there’s the one about the sub that got away:  U.S. forces tried madly but in vain to track down and force to surface a Soviet submarine which had been escorting two vessels toward the quarantine line.  That the sub was never located was fortunate:  it was packing a nuclear tipped missile and piloted by a captain under orders to use it.

And all this, nearly 50 years ago.  God only knows how many near-misses there have been since. 

No, the “new” international order has as much in common with the geopolitics of another planet as it does with those of the 19th century, with the proliferation of of nukes being the game changer.  If there is one use for a multilateral institution with real teeth, nuke non- prolif is it.  The details of such body are well above my pay grade.  But the next POTUS can’t  afford to say the same thing.


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