They Made a Multilateralism and Called It Peace

The Obama UN speeches and appearances last week have caused some comment among conservatives along the lines of President Obama simply wanting the US to be ‘one among the guys’ of nations.  Andrew Ferguson picks up this notion in his Weekly Standard commentary this week, and it’s been around other places, too, including Richard Fernandez and other commentators.  I think it’s basically right, and is one of the basic motivations behind Obama administration proclamations of of “multilateralism.”  Multilateralism – well, I suspect a number of the world’s leaders (even if not their peoples so far), both our enemies and our friends, are drawing the correct conclusion that, to the Obama administration, it means … to lay down the burdens, mouth the same words as everyone else, and quit having to bear the costs of providing the essentials of the global security system.  Go along, get along.  Iran might force a change of direction, but quite possibly not.

I’ve been talking about this for quite a while, in alas unread academic papers that languish in backwaters of the internet (SSRN, I mean), so you’ll just have to forgive me for quoting myself.  Note to everyone:  As with all my prose, the full papers are well worth reading.  Also a review-essay on the history of the United Nations that appeared in an excellent literary review, La Revista de Libros which, while very well circulated and the publisher of some of the finest literary prose in the contemporary Spanish language, does, however, publish out of Madrid and in Spanish:

Be wary, O Europe, 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.  Re-read Raymond Aron.  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.

The broader point being that for all the talk about UN collective security, the reason anyone even talks about it is that it is, for much of the world, a fifth wheel on a broad, US security guarantee.  If you are European states, you can talk about UN collective security because you don’t need it and it isn’t truly your security guarantor.

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 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?

But then there is a question, how is it that NATO avoids all the problems of collective action that would undermine UN collective security if even there were a “collective” with a shared interest to secure?  Well, NATO doesn’t have to worry about collective action problems because it isn’t truly a collective security system.  On the contrary, it is an extension to a very special top-tier crowd of the full benefits of the US security guarantee.  Our allies trust it because it is not a collective security system; it is a US security guarantee in which the allies provide some legitimacy and the US supplies everything else.  It’s a friends-with-benefits kind of arrangement.  They trust it because they fundamentally trust two non-collective-action propositions:

  • First, the US will put it interests sufficiently first that it will not engage in free-riding behavior – even though, for the sake of some measure of gained legitimacy, it will not worry when others do.
  • Second, the broad security interests of the United States are sufficiently close to theirs, on a costs and benefits basis, that they will be willing to go along with the overall US security plan, even as they seek to alter it to meet their interests by the effect of talking, complaining, maintaining an illusion of collective security, and so on.

The question is whether President Obama is genuinely signaling a new paradigm.  Multilateralism as a signal of the Tired Superpower that wants to refocus inwards and let the rest of the world deal with its own problems?  Or what every first term American president always does – try to focus on the domestic issues that got him elected?  One can’t say with certainty at this point – what the President would like to do is clear; not clear whether political events will let him.

Nuclear weapon in Iran?  We’ll sing kumbayah at the Security Council and be presented with the remarkable spectacle of an openly incredulous French president reminding an American president that, tacitly, that as he speaks the Iranians knit together the pieces of their nuclear weapons.  It’s quite an exchange, and not one that initially even penetrated the warm syrup of the NYT or other American mainstream media, presumably because it didn’t fit many existing narratives, about the United States, about France, about many things.

But at the same time, American conservatives wonder why on earth, if there were no Israel to worry about, they should worry overmuch about a nuclear Iran aimed at Europe, when the Europeans have themselves been so relaxed about it.  If, in an alternate universe, the Middle East contained no Israel and never had, would America have much reason to care about nukes pointed at Europe?  When the Europeans have themselves been so unconcerned about it?  Not our world, of course, and we do worry correctly about both Tel Aviv and Paris, but that’s because – let’s be clear – we’re not multilateralists in things that truly count.  But then, what I have always admired about every senior intellectual I’ve known in France is that they are not multilateralists, either, not truly, and whether of left or right, whether they want to be or not, they are pour la France, Gaullists down to their toenails.

If you doubt it for a moment, watch closely the two YouTube videos of Sarkozy and Royal singing La Marsillease  the night Sarkozy won.  They both mean it, more so, I’m afraid, than Obama, husband or wife, or any of my academic friends in the administration, for whom something as embarrassing as the national anthem is to be strictly limited to ball games, and God forbid anyone be preserved on a FB photo putting a hand over one’s heart.  It’s Gaullist because it is finally not about justice or morality or any of the stuff that tends to move Americans and which, to be sure, moves me – it’s about honor. They’re not finally multilateralists, either, not when it comes to “France-of-Caverns,” to cite Rene Char: and therefore let us be more French.

The United States has done the inward-turning before, and notably following military defeat, in the post-Vietnam 1970s.  It appears, at this juncture, that the United States is moving to accept “soft” defeat – finally do what James Fallows, for example, has always wanted to do, simply declare victory and come home – both in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Enable the Obama administration to focus on achieving two fond dreams at once – domestic social democracy and, by reason of the domestic cost of that burden, ensure that the United States cannot play the role of ultimate security guarantor in the world over the longer term.

Declinism as a thesis about the United States is an intellectuals’ game that sporadically flares up.  Paul Kennedy, in the late 1980s, or Jimmy Carter, and Fareed Zakaria, Niall Ferguson, and many others today.  In today’s version, it is a consequence of the loss of US dominance over the global financial system, loss of dominance of the dollar, and so on finally extending to undercut the economic basis of the US empire.  Michael Lind, whose intellect I greatly respect even when I find his ideas not at all right, has a recent essay linking multipolarity to the end of US security hegemony.  I’ve written quite skeptically about all this, in yet another unread academic article on the relationship between UN collective security, the Security Council, and the US security guarantee.

However, I confess that I find these declinist theories deeply attractive aesthetically, beguiling even, even when I don’t find them intellectually warranted.  At bottom I would like to be a deterministic historical materialist.  I was once an undergraduate research assistant to the distinguished Marxist historian Robert Brenner – I wasn’t very helpful because I knew almost nothing about the subject of history and nothing about economics, and my only useful function was in cataloging the fifteen years of overdue library books lost in his office.

I love nothing so much as reading the utterly exquisite Marxist prose of Perry Anderson, for example, on early modern Europe.  If I could write as he does I would be pretty darn happy.  The problem is, when I look and see what he has written over the years in the same exquisite style about The Crisis, referring to the contemporary period and not, say, the Enclosure Movement, over in the pages of New Left Review, I can’t say that any of it seems to turn out as argued.  And after enough times when it doesn’t, even I start to wonder if maybe it isn’t quite the right way to think about early modern Europe, either.

One of these days decline will turn out to be true; it just seems to me that the academics should not try to beat each other to the punch every couple of years and announce that it is so.  However, if American decline were to turn out to be true in this current epicycle of the world, it would be not so much on account of movements outside the United States as inside.  If you make enough social democratic promises, and combine that with the singularity of an aging population with many needs, sure, you can make decline come true.

It is always possible for a society to eat its seed corn, and that seems to me an apt description of what the administration and Congress are proposing for American society domestically.  A long-term collateral effect, in other words, and not unwelcomed by parts of the administration, as far as I can tell, of debt-financing domestic social democracy is to starve the US security guarantee to the point that it can no longer even guarantee the freedom of the high seas.

Don’t get all schadenfreudey too soon, however.  What most of the academics I know believe is that American decline is a zero sum condition of the rise of liberal internationalism – the eventual triumph of international law and institutions can come only with the decline of sovereignty and most particularly the great sovereigns, of which currently the most powerful remains the United States.  Collective security will gradually consolidate itself as the UN consolidates itself, as institutions of international law consolidate themselves, but this necessarily requires a diminution of American power, even if we politikly call it a “new form of sovereignty,” new and better.

What I’ve suggested above, however, runs quite the other direction.  The dream of global governance through international institutions and law is a lovely dream that supervenes, like oil floating upon water, alas, upon the fact of the American hegemonic security guarantee.  A genuinely multipolar world is not only a more insecure one (as the ever bleak but always incisive David Rieff has pointed out); it is also a more unjust one.  Be careful what you wish for.  Your dreams of liberal internationalism were never on so firm a foundation as upon the US’s clumsy and imperfect security hegemony.

And finally, as has also been remarked upon, and on which I am now writing in my little book-essay on US-UN relations, what President Obama might well, and quite deliberately, have presaged is the end of the era of human rights.  Oh sure, the language will be there, the bureaucracies will grow, the NGOs will continue to institutionalize.  But they might well do so in the way that the rest of the institutional UN acts – marching, marching, marching, but always in place.

Trapped in the cul-de-sac of internationalization and global institutionalization.  The genuine power of human rights, which, contrary to liberal internationalist theory, has always been (as much as anything truly “transnational”) the power of nation states to force their way onto the agendas of other nation states in the name of universal values.  But now it risks finding itself trapped, as though in a magnetic bottle, hedged and hemmed from all sides, by its own international rules, regulations, norms, institutions, and governance structures, which in an age of multipolarity largely ensure, HRC-style, that no state shall criticize another.  Wasn’t that the take-away of what President Obama said in the Security Council?  Except, of course, that everyone can criticize the United States and Israel.

The point is that after decades of human rights emerging as the language of value at the United Nations and international community, it turns out that we are tired of it as our values-language.  It’s so un-multilateral, this unseemly criticism of individual countries that are not the US or Israel.  Let’s talk different kinds of language of values – climate change, poverty, lots of things that don’t require singling anyone out for, say, genocide.  It’s weird to see that after decades of evolving away from the now antiquated language of “world peace” of the UN of the 1960s, to the flowering of human rights as the new apex language of global values, President Obama might well have put the capstone on human rights as the apex language, and signalled a return to a more multipolar world in which the apex language of values is, once again, world peace.

(The Olympic silliness raises another set of issues; another time.)