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Delusions of World Order


How states create and maintain order in a world of sovereign powers has been the fundamental and so far insoluble problem of international relations. During the cold war, the super-powers, driven by the fear of nuclear war, devised, by trial and error, a network of rules and restraints aimed at avoiding direct military collision. Now the world faces new circumstances whose implications it is just beginning to discover, and the problem of order has become even more complex than before.1

One reason for this is the unexpected increase in the number of independent states; even five years ago no one predicted the end of the Soviet Empire in Eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself. A second reason is that the states, while still playing the traditional game of diplomatic and strategic competition, are now also engaged in an intense competition for economic and financial power that does not entail the use of force. In the past, when such activities did not dominate the plans of states as much as they do now, order was provided by the rules set by the economically dominant nation: Britain in the nineteenth century, the US after 1945. What order there was broke down when the dominant nation’s hegemony was challenged (as Britain’s was after 1870) or when there was none, for example during the period between the two world wars. Today, the predominance of the US has been put in doubt, both by Japan and by the rise of a united Western Europe increasingly dominated by Germany.

In any case, world politics, and therefore world order, are no longer monopolized by states; on the one hand, they are constrained by the world capitalist economy, which limits their domestic and external freedom of maneuver, particularly when it comes to supplies of raw materials such as petroleum. On the other hand, the various peoples of the world, as opposed to governments, are more turbulent than ever before. From Algiers to Uzbekistan, they demand participation in public affairs, or a state of their own if they feel oppressed, or neglected, in a multi-ethnic state; and they also want both more wealth and a more equitable distribution of it—demands which are usually both unachievable and incompatible.

As a result, while the world no longer lives under the shadow of a superpower nuclear confrontation, the numbers of actual and possible conflicts, both among and within states, seem bound to grow, whether because of aggressive ambitions, as with Saddam Hussein, or border disputes and rival claims over the same territory, as in the case of Palestine, or domestic crises and policies that have effects abroad, causing other states to threaten external intervention, as with Yugoslavia. The breakup of countries such as Yugoslavia and the USSR is already causing refugees to flee toward their neighbors.

Two sources of international insecurity seem to me especially important. The first derives from the hardly understood workings of the global economy, and includes poverty, overpopulation, and migrations. The inequality among states is, on the whole, exacerbated by the capitalist world system, and most of the poorer countries, particularly in Africa and central Asia, are getting poorer without any prospect of reversing the trend. The same can be said for the ecological tragedies, such as ozone depletion, that are too slowly becoming known, the struggle for access to resources such as oil, the threat of the drug traffic, and the highly lucrative arms trade, essential for the favorable balance of payments of many states, including such advanced capitalist countries as Sweden and Switzerland.

No less ominous are the dangers created by the one general ideology that has survived the collapse of communism: nationalism, which is often heightened by or concealed behind religious revivalism. It owes its current success not only to the end of the cold war, but to its appeal to the basic emotions of tribal solidarity, which were often suppressed under one form of imperial rule or another. Nationalism can both dissolve states and cause trouble among them. Since many states have advanced weapons, and either possess or could soon possess the means of mass destruction, all these conflicts raise a threat of, at least, regional chaos, and worse, if, as in the Middle East, the region is thought to be of strategic and economic importance for the entire world.

Virtually all discussions of world order are based on four principles, all of them flawed and in conflict with one another. The first is the principle of state sovereignty. As enshrined in the charter of the UN, it commits all members to preserve the territorial integrity or political independence of any state from threats or uses of force. It has one enduring merit: it can serve as a shield against the imperialist or aggressive designs of other states, which explains why small and new countries cling to it so fiercely. But it is inadequate today when the world economy has already deprived states of much of their theoretical financial, industrial, or commercial autonomy. The US, still the most powerful country in military strength and the size of its economy, depends on Japanese and European loans and investments to finance its budget deficit. Until the still very shaky experiment with a common-wealth made up of the former Soviet republics, the only nations to give up state sovereignty voluntarily in the modern world are those of the European Community; and notwithstanding years of discussion they have done so only to create a single market, while refusing to give up independence in matters of diplomacy, defense, or immigration. State sovereignty, moreover, by granting each government full and exclusive control over its territory, allows for domestic atrocities that not only offend the sense of justice but can also all too easily foster international disorder, for instance when the victims, or the parties locked in internal conflict, call for outside help.

Liberals concerned with world order have made much of the excesses of sovereignty. They hoped to square the circle by promoting a second principle: self-determination. From Mazzini to Wilson they believed that a world of sovereign nation-states—each nationality having fulfilled its destiny by obtaining a state of its own—would be able to live in harmony, or in sufficient harmony to deter and to punish violators. They did not see how this principle can be a formidable factor of disintegration and conflict, as we can observe in Yugoslavia, and the former USSR, as well as in Russia itself, Cyprus, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Kurdistan, and with the Arab-Israeli quarrel.

Who can define with any consistency the national “self” that is entitled to autonomy or sovereignty? Is every sizable group that is ethnically distinct entitled to form a nation? And if the definition of a nation is based more on people’s expression of collective preference than on ethnic identity, is any association of people who want to live together entitled to call itself a nation and demand a state of its own? If self-determination is a fundamental principle, why shouldn’t the Ibos have had their state of Biafra? But if it is, what happens to current borders and to the sovereignty of existing states? Does one serve justice by granting statehood to nations that are likely to contain, and often to mistreat, their own ethnic or religious minorities?

Wilsonian liberalism proposed a third principle. World order would emerge if the world of nation-states was also a world of constitutional governments. Harmony thus was ultimately dependent on the triumph of democracy, because it has been assumed, ever since Kant, that democratically elected governments that respected the rights of citizens would not make war against other democracies, and that constitutional government would encourage a rational discussion of the sources of conflict and act as a dam against surging passions. 2 But from the viewpoint of international legitimacy, self-government still has a lower status than sovereignty and self-determination. The UN Charter does not require that all members be democracies (unlike, in practice, the European Community). It mentions the “self-determination of peoples” as one of its basic principles, but when it comes to the way sovereign states govern themselves, it only mentions the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms through international cooperation.

In other words, world order still remains tied to the distinction between domestic affairs and relations among states. International and domestic legitimacy remain distinct, in conformity with the doctrines of “realism” based on traditional balance of power, which prescribe that states attempt to affect each other’s external behavior but not the domestic conduct and institutions of political regimes. Whereas many theorists, including liberals, have supported external intervention to help a people obtain self-determination, few have advocated similar interventions for democracy. John Stuart Mill, in an argument recently reformulated by Michael Walzer,3 sharply distinguished these two cases. They argue that freedom from tyranny, unlike liberation from alien rule, cannot be conferred on nations from the outside. To reverse this rule would open the way to constant foreign intervention, manipulation, and domination.

Not all democracies protect what Isaiah Berlin called negative liberty—individual rights to take action without being hindered by others and by the state. Some are Jacobin democracies that allow no such obstacles to stand in the way of majority rule—in which case minorities as well as individuals may have their rights destroyed. Also, whether a democracy emphasizes “negative” or “positive” freedom, the benefits of both may well be reserved to nationals, with inalienable rights (as well as the power to participate in common decisions) denied to foreigners, including immigrant workers. The issue of citizenship is nowhere a simple one. This is why a fourth notion has gained much intellectual support: the universal protection of human rights, which would allow individuals and groups to survive and flourish under any regime and in any conditions. But scholars and politicians disagree about which rights are essential ones, and states both resist external intrusions in so vital a domestic matter and are notoriously fickle and self-serving about taking up the cause of human rights abroad.

What is clear is how difficult it is for most states to pursue simultaneously the four goals of sovereignty, self-determination, self-government, and human rights. Even though President Bush said that Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule was the ultimate justification for the Gulf War, both the US and the coalition of states that supported it settled for the restoration of Kuwait’s sovereignty and for thwarting, by partially destroying, Iraqi power, while allowing Saddam Hussein to crush both the Kurds and Shi’ites, whom we had encouraged to rebel against the regime. When the flight of the Kurds provoked an outcry, the US took some steps to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s wrath, but never endorsed Kurdish demands for autonomy. Neither in Iraq nor in Kuwait has self-government, or even modest steps toward democracy, or the protection of elementary human rights, become the goal of US diplomacy.

  1. 1

    See “A New World Order and Its Troubles,” in Nicholas Rizopoulos, editor, Sea Changes (Council on Foreign Relations, 1990), pp. 274–292.

  2. 2

    See Michael Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 1983), pp. 205–235, and Vol. 12, No. 4 (Fall 1983), pp. 323–353.

  3. 3

    See Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (Basic Books, 1977), chapter 6.

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