Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ne serait-ce point un <hegemon> lasse de son metier?

The world longs for an agreeable America. America longs to be agreeable. Why not, after all? After the hardness and harshness of the Bush years, you are either with us or against us, our war against terrorism is the measure of all things, the closed fist of military power and the open, greedy, grasping palm of the global reserve currency, ready to take, the rest of the world wants an America that goes on a Listening Tour. And America today is eager to listen, is she not? Smart diplomacy, reboot, reset, and above all re-engage, with friends, allies, enemies, anyone who wants to talk. We are the new multilateralists and the UN is a good place to show it.

This essay has addressed throughout the strategic ambiguity of multilateralism, its ability to be, on the one hand, the device of coordination, even highly robust coordination, among sovereigns. But also how different the meaning of multilateralism, on the other, if it is imagined as a forward-looking, expectation-based vanguard-party for genuine global governance through liberal institutions of law that presumably will transcend mere international power politics. But multilateralism can also exhibit another form of strategic ambiguity – this one particularly focused upon the hegemon, the superpower, the hyperpower, the dominant power that has … grown tired of its calling, lasse de son m├ętier.

What happens when the hegemon decides that it wants to turn inward? What becomes a hyperpower most, when it decides that the parlous state of its domestic economy – despite being intimately intertwined with nearly all of the global economy – requires that it put the issues of the previous eight years, foreign policy and war, terrorism and counterterrorism, issues of the global order, on hold, and focus itself upon its domestic policy and politics? How best to put that decision to the rest of the world?

America has enemies who would rejoice if the US were to forsake its role as provider of hegemonic order. It also has friends and allies who would be glad to embrace a ‘multilateral’ America – not realizing that America has something else in mind, or perhaps realizing it, but still on multilateral-autopilot. But where is Aron? Where is Raymond Aron? Or for that matter, De Gaulle? What would they say? You can trust an America that is mostly about its interests, a little about its ideals, even if you have to denounce it sometimes as a unilateralist in order to keep it and you in the game; you can trust an America that undiplomatically, rudely even, declares its interests and its ideals, puts them first, and invites others to go along with it; multilateralism is great if it means you can have some influence on the plans of America, but only if you can still trust that America plans to carry out its plans because they’re still its rather than yours. An America that suddenly wants to work the hardest, most intractable, hard-realism problems through the UN? What is this? An America that believes that the multilateral processes of the Security Council are the right way to pursue foreign policy because those processes treat the US as just another of the big boys in the world? The biggest, sure, indispensable, even, if you want to play the flatterer, but that’s neither here nor there – hey, we’re just another player in the game, everybody, even if we’re big or even the biggest, hey, we’re just another player. What would Aron say to that?

It is, after all, what the UN theorists always saw as the proper role for America – all that marvelous power, hard and soft, at the disposal of global institutions, the power of a mighty sovereign infused into and transformed by the legitimacy of an international institution, a global constitutional order with teeth at long last. It is a beautiful dream, power and legitimacy that equal authority. But, just as with Nato, it does not work that way. No. Friends, allies, even countries that do not much like the US but rely on it for a certain amount of order, both economic and security: be wary, O world, of an America that promises a smiling multilateralism.

Perhaps it is sincere. But perhaps it is not. Is the uncertainty killing you yet? But we’re all multilateralists now, we mean our global promises, just like you – don’t you? Perhaps America has grown tired of its global responsibilities and just wants a good night kiss from its friends and allies and then a good rest, though what this might mean in a competitive, multipolar, rising-new-power, increasingly mercantilist-with-nukes world, who can know, but maybe we’re willing to give it a try. Perhaps it has decided to really join the legitimate global system of the UN and embrace governance through multilateral institutions after all, and perhaps it has decided, too, that it is less effort to do what others do, multilateralism as others do it, to engage in insincere promises and toss hard things to the UN, to the Security Council, to institutions that will allow America to focus on its fiscal problems and unemployment and education and health care and social security: the President is available for speeches in the larger foreign capitals, particularly those holding large amounts of US Treasury debt, and anyway, he already did Berlin, watch it on Youtube, but as for Iranian nukes and North Korean missiles, Russian expansionism and natural gas blackmail, Chinese protection for Sudan in the Security Council and the always-present question of war in the Taiwan straits, the collapse of Eastern European economies, Mexico-the-narco-failed-state and the rise of Britain-exporter-of-global-jihad, and the ever-imminent war between India and Pakistan that constantly risks, against all our multilateral hopes and dreams, reversion to its six-decade mean, well, remember, we’re multilateralists now, and the US is a good global player, a team player in the big leagues of multilateralism, and if the US acted like a bully, wouldn’t everyone just hate us, and haven’t we had enough of the hate?

America just wants to be loved and henceforth we will measure the success of our foreign policy according to the Gallup global polls that so fascinate our media, foreign policy experts, and Department of State. It’s empirical! And also – if it’s not too much to ask – America wants not to have too much to do with anyone else, except on a strictly commercial and, okay, okay, sometimes charitable, do-gooding basis. Got that part? We’ve got our own problems and our own issues, if you haven’t noticed. We’ve realized multilateralism is good for that, though not necessarily the way you thought: we plan, by the way, to be multilateralists just like you. We’ll even pay over our .7% GDP for development, and to the corruptniks, rent-seeking kleptocrats at the UN, no less, because frankly it’s easier to send the check to one address than try and keep all those Africans alive on retrovirals that need constant attention, constant organization, constant management, constant unilateral care – but then will you just fuck off and leave us alone to figure out our new social-democratic tax system? You asked all those years why the United States couldn’t be more like Sweden. Or maybe it was Holland or Finland or Denmark or Luxembourg or Andorra. Well, we can, we can, we can be a well-run little social democratic welfare state of modest multilateral mien, and a real joiner at the UN, too, inchallah, a member of the Human Rights Council, proud multilateral sponsor of Durban III, IV, and V, and maybe even see an American as President of the General Assembly someday, a good multilateral day, if we pay enough attention to us and stop paying so much attention to you.

(This is a bit of a manuscript on UN-UN relations I’ve been working on that won’t survive the editing cut, because even I will find it too cute, so I thought I’d stick it up here so that it won’t get lost forever. The book, in which I assure you these passages will not appear, is titled Returning to Earth: Abiding Principles of Relations Between the United States and the United Nations, for the Obama Administration and Beyond, from Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2009 inchallah.)


Guanaco said...


I'm glad you published this here, at least.

KA said...

Why thank you!

Not quite sure my French is right in the title - is it 'lasse'? It's a great line that comes from The Red and the Black - "could it be that she is a prude who has grown tired of her calling?"

A Jacksonian said...

Yes, this is what I have come to call Slacker America, save that in our wanting to be the best in everything, that will include slacking off and convincing others that there is no equal to us in this. Yea and verily should the world beware of an America looking to out-slouch them, out pass-the-buck on them and generally give it all for someone else to screw up. Soon, I am sure that this will have a global effect... which will actually make everything much warmer beyond the dreams of any global warming priest.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing.
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