My long review essay on Paul Kennedy and the United Nations
Paul Kennedy’s book on the history and future of the United Nations, Parliament of Man, appeared in 2006. A Spanish translation appeared in late 2007, which I review in a (very) long essay (some 10,000 words, be warned) appearing in Spanish in the Revista de Libros (Madrid), November 2008 issue. The Revista, for which I serve as political science advising editor, I am proud to say, is one of the best book reviews going in any language, anywhere.
It is interesting, as a side note, to see how the title of Kennedy’s book has shifted between national markets. In the US edition, it is subtitled “the past, present, and future of the United Nations.” In the Spanish edition, it is merely the “history of the United Nations.” Whereas the British edition has it as “the United Nations and the Quest for World Government.”
My review runs across a wide range of issues, related both to Kennedy’s work and the project of global governance. My view of Kennedy is that he is a “platonist” as regards the UN; forever looking past the rather sordid reality of the present to dream of the glorious future of global governance that is, alas, always coming but never come. And, in a world that seems to be returning to stronger regional multipolarity, global governance looks less on offer, and the UN as, at best, a place for multilateral negotiation among sovereigns, more so. My view is that global governance always looks most possible when the US is at its hegemonic strongest to offer the guarantee of security that allows all the platonic dreamers to do their dreaming. History however is upon us once again.
It is available on SSRN in the English version that will appear in Spanish in the Revista in November; I will also post the Spanish version to SSRN once it is out. Some bits - this one observing that a Europe attuned to the spirit of Raymond Aron would look with alarm upon American leaders in a new administration bearing the gifts of ‘meek multilateralism’ and superpower humility:
The truest description of the international security situation since 1990 is that it is a conjoined and parallel UN-US security system. It is best described as two parallel, interlinked security systems – a weak one, the UN collective security apparatus, and a strong one, the US security guarantee. Understood this way, the US is not merely a, or even the, dominant and most powerful actor. Rather, the US offers a genuinely alternative system of international peace and security. And the dominant actor’s willingness to extend a security guarantee to a sizable portion of the planet, explicitly and implicitly, alters the meaning, necessity, and quality of collective security at the UN itself. They are two different game-theory scenarios – a dominant actor within a UN collective security-defection international relations “game”; versus an actor that offers its own security package alongside that of the UN in a parallel collective security “game.” In a diplomatic system characterized (in game theory terms) by insincere public promises, easy defection, moral hazard, and free-riding, the fig leaf is assiduously maintained that the UN constitutes, or anyway offers, a collective security system. Whereas in fact, most leading players in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, and even the Middle East, are unwilling to test the strength of that system: insincere lip service to the UN system while actually relying on the United States.
A realist might say, in other words, that for all the extant elite complaining and populist anti-Americanism, a remarkable number of countries have counted the costs of adherence to the US security promise and found it rather better than their own, and better than the UN’s, and better than anything else on offer, as to both benefits and costs. After all, the US does not even particularly care when those under its security hegemony (which extends far beyond its allies or clients to provide, perversely, significant stability benefits even to America’s acknowledged enemies) heap abuse on it (justified or not) because, in the grand scheme of things, it understands (however inchoately and inconstantly) that the system incorporates (often heartfelt but, in the final policy result, insincere) public rejection and protest by the system’s beneficiaries. The US is not imperial in a way that would cause it much to care. Part of accepting US security hegemony by its beneficiaries includes their rational desire to displace security costs onto another party, even if that providing party thereby has equally rational reasons to look to its own interests first, since it so overwhelmingly pays the costs.
Acceptance also includes realistic appraisal of the alternatives: would Europe (let alone Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, India, the Philippines, New Zealand, or Australia, or even Russia) prefer, for example, Chinese hegemony to the US? The crisis in Georgia has forced a little bit of discussion – less than the current newspaper headlines suggest, however – on the mission and role of Nato. On the one hand, Europe is in strategic disarray with the reassertion of regional Russian imperial will; the interests of those close to it are different from those far away and at some point even the United States will wonder, as a matter of budget and defense plans, what Nato is worth: how long does a hegemon support its free riders? Prudent, Aronian-thinkers in Europe will be wary, above all, of liberal internationalist Americans bearing gifts of multilateralism: an America that does not assert, rudely and brusquely, its own interests and views first through Nato and elsewhere, an America that sings sweet songs of multilateral interdependence is, surely, a superpower that has decided to simply go along with what everyone else does, which is another way of saying it has tired of supporting the free riders, which is another way of saying that it, too, says one thing but might do another, and what it might do is not show up when the big battalions are finally needed. Prudent Europeans fear and do not trust, above all, an America that does not put its own interests first and carry the rest along in train. Europe will soon enough face an Iranian nuclear weapon along with its massive dependence upon Russian natural gas, even as its military strength declines yearly – hourly – and in important respects it is today at least arguably more dependent on the American security guarantee, not less, than at any time since 1990.
Come to that, one does not hear a great clamor among Europeans for the collective security of the UN, in the form of calls for resolution of the Georgia crisis by action of the Security Council – for obvious reasons. And yet, if one gives up the idea of the Security Council as the seat of collective security governance and understands it as the talking shop of the great powers, then it performed as well as should be expected. Of course it resolved nothing – but the architecture of the Security Council in the UN Charter anticipates that in a conflict among great powers on the Council, of course it cannot resolve anything. But it did provide a talking shop in which it was as a matter of course assumed that active, relatively public discussions would take place there – and, moreover would take place not just between antagonists, but much more publicly with other great powers, and even with non-great powers represented in rotation at the Council. The Security Council performed well in the Georgia crisis, given what it is, not badly.
But if we are indeed moving toward a more multipolar world – at least in certain regions, the Russian ‘near abroad’ or the Chinese periphery – then the great power conflicts promise to become more acute, not less. As David Rieff has pointed out, multipolarity is by definition competitive, not coooperative. In such a world, the Security Council performs a vital, but perforce limited, function as multilateral talking shop for those conflicts – and its ability, as one hopes Ban Ki Moon and his advisors understand, to perform that function depends fundamentally on accepting its limitations. The rapturous fantasies of global governance that feature so prominently among liberal internationalists – Professor Kennedy and nearly all professors of international law, for example – are not just a quaint holdover in a multipolar world, they are today an affirmative danger, because they tempt institutions beyond their limits in time of crisis. The grand irony, for which Georgia perhaps serves as a harbinger, is that the most propitious time for dreaming of global governance was precisely when the US was at its maximum, largely unopposed strength, because it allowed much of the world, much of the democratic industrialized world, the luxury of imagining that its security was one thing, when it fact it was another.
There are people in the world who must rely on the UN collective security apparatus; and not to their benefit. Why? Because not even America’s peculiarly changeable combination of interest and ideals extends everywhere: Darfur and Congo, for example. An important reason why the dual system persists is that the US and the industrialized world that takes its stability from US hegemony together see the UN system as the least costly system for enforcing minimum order in the hopeless world of failed and failing states – places that they will not, and realistically cannot, police (pace Afghanistan). But all this is emphatically not the system as Kennedy describes it; he offers instead the classic collective action problem located at the UN itself, in no small part because it is built into his a priori moral vision of the rise of UN hegemony necessarily through US decline. Kennedy might profitably consider that the existing UN system is one that is publicly in perpetual crisis and yet somehow, because of the parallel US security guarantee, never truly forced to a crossroads. It seems more plausible to see the UN in collective security as actually stable, to the point of stasis and stagnation. Even episodic protestations of crisis are an integral part of the quotidian theatre of the UN cul-de-sac.
On nearly every measure – population, influence, military might – the Security Council’s five permanent members are completely unrepresentative of the world; Kennedy devotes much discussion to the issue, as one would expect if one thought the Security Council ought someday to be the principal organ of global security. After all, the Council is not even especially a collection of the great powers anymore. This issue was (foolishly) the dominant discussion in largely abortive UN reform negotiations that took place in 2004-5: how to alter the composition of the Security Council to make it more realistically a meeting ground of the great powers, and how to make it more representative of the world as an idealized institution of global governance. Kennedy candidly acknowledges that there is no solution to this issue; Kofi Annan, to his credit, urged the main players in UN reform to leave this question aside in favor of more urgent questions that could be resolved. The main antagonist was not the United States, whose place on the Council is beyond question and is thus in the rare position of being a relatively neutral “honest broker” on the issue. The disputes arose instead from the lesser and declining military powers, France and Britain, as against the clamors of Japan, India, Nigeria, Brazil, and even economically powerful but de-militarized Germany. Yet even if the existing “permanent five,” holding a veto, would accept any alteration, in real life Japan is checked by China, India by Pakistan, Brazil by its Latin American neighbors, Germany by the global recoil at a third EU permanent member and, alas, it is far from inconceivable that, in the next quarter century, Nigeria might fall into grave civil war.
Nonetheless, to a large extent Kennedy insists on telling the tale of the Security Council in the post-Cold War period as largely an ‘America versus the world’ story – a morality tale of heroic liberal internationalists checkmated by Republican Party intransigence. It is both tiresome and seriously misleading to devote so much of the text to minor and parochial issues of US politics in what is supposed to be a discussion of the world system. It is as though Kennedy, whose prose is otherwise lapidary, stunningly clear, and entirely free of academic jargon, suffers from a sort of political Tourette’s Syndrome that causes him suddenly and inexplicably to lapse into irrelevant criticism of the US for this or that. Of what conceivable importance, for example, is his Little Englander digression on the virtue of the BBC over US news programmes, or any of a dozen other indulgences?
The US, as Madeline Albright famously said, is the ‘indispensable party’, but what matters are not the little bits of internal US political wickedness that Kennedy cannot shake from his mind, but instead a much more basic fact that much of the industrialized world accepts the US role and depends upon it regardless of what is said. Kennedy fails to take account of a conjoined UN-US security system that prominently features diplomatic insincerity. He moreover assumes, as ever, a specific normative direction for “progress,” toward a genuinely UN system of collective security. Suppose, instead, that UN collective security is what everyone wants in theory but no one wants in practice? In any case, the rise of a new, multipolar world – not the decline of the United States as such, but instead, as Fareed Zakaria argues in a new book, The Post American World, the rise of new powers such as India and China, and the global risks posed by ‘resource extraction authoritarian states’ such as Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – offers the opportunity to see how much America’s allies and friends, and for that matter its enemies, actually want to give up the stability proffered by America’s security guarantee. That new world might offer much in the way of schadenfreude – it might not, however, be a thing of beauty.