Monday, April 24, 2006

The Waning Momentum of Freedom

The disheartening discrepancy between the potential importance of the discipline of International Relations and the actual low relative dominance in output of analytical ideas of its main producers is again underscored by one of its brightest outsiders, Robert D. Kaplan (any shortlist of the most influental pieces of IR literature in the 1990s cannot but include three titles by non-IR-scholars: Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy, Fukuyama's End of History and Huntington's Clash of Civilization?).

As with his last Washington Post piece this new one is brillant in both academic and real terms: do go read "Old States, New Threats". The last piece was a call for more emphasis on stability and less on "democracy": as stated in this post there are several caveats to bear in mind before embracing his analysis. This new one basically takes its outset in the logic of states' lowered cost of entering the international security politics market because of the falling relative price of devastating disruptive and other coercive technologies and practices:
Borders may be eroding and stateless terrorist groups like al-Qaeda proliferating, but don't be fooled: The traditional state remains the most dangerous force on the international scene. Perhaps the greatest security threat we face today is from a paranoid and resentful state leader, armed with biological or nuclear weapons and willing to make strategic use of stateless terrorists. These old-fashioned bad guys often have uncertain popular support, but that does not make them easy to dislodge. We don't live in a democratic world so much as in a world in the throes of a very messy democratic transition, so national elections combined with weak, easily politicized institutions produce a lethal mix -- dictators armed with pseudo-democratic legitimacy. (...)

Globalization is a cultural and economic phenomenon -- not a system of international security. Indeed, the notion that a state's sovereignty carries less weight these days because the international community will not tolerate grave human rights abuses seems relevant only in the case of poor, marginal states like Liberia, Somalia and Haiti, where no great power has an overriding interest in maintaining the regimes. Nevertheless, just look at how hard it has been to get Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Bashir, to cooperate in alleviating the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur.

Meanwhile, the tyrants from big states continue to use the global media as an equalizing weapon against the United States and the rest of the West. They may also use what Yale political science professor Paul Bracken calls "disruptive technologies," referring to nuclear and biological weapons -- the secrets of which cannot ultimately be protected. A host of new powers, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, can, by concentrating on such technologies, render our tanks, bombers and fighter jets impotent. Our military edge against these traditional bad guys is slipping even as our military gets better because our relative power in the world depends on a status quo that cannot be maintained.

We are entering a well-armed world, with more players than ever who can unhinge the international system and who have fewer reasons to be afraid of us. That's why a resentful state leader, armed with disruptive technologies and ready to make use of stateless terrorists, poses such a threat.

What would Kaplan's two latest pieces mean in combination? A less pro-democratic agenda coupled with a more cynical realist preference for stability; multilateral means for the former and old-school bilateral stick and carrots for the security related crisis situations, perhaps ... which sounds ominously like a Cold War paradigm where less change is in the cards. That may not be a bad thing if it contributes to uphold the economic integration process known as globalization which serves both to feed the world and potentially to be a building block for the spread of freedom in the long run (even if it does result in postponing the cashing in).

But it would mean, on the other hand, that the special moment -- one of plasticity and remoulding of base lines in world politics -- identified by Condoleeza Rice as akin to the 1947 situation, is gone. That analysis is supported by another bright guy, Sebastian Mallaby's piece on multilateralism's new weakness: "Why Globalization Has Stalled".
Fifteen years ago, there were hopes that the end of Cold War splits would allow international institutions to acquire a new cohesion. But the great powers of today are simply not interested in creating a resilient multilateral system. Europe is distracted by its economic malaise and by the challenge of building its own union. Japan has yet to translate its economic clout into political or military power. China's dictators care about keeping the lid on simmering unrest, not about helping to resolve global financial imbalances or Iran's nuclear crisis. India has huge potential as a Democratic superpower, but has only just begun to realize it. The United States remains the only plausible quarterback for the multilateral system. But the Bush administration has alienated too many players to lead the team effectively. Its strident foreign policy started out as an understandable response to the fecklessness of other powers. But unilateralism has tragically backfired, destroying whatever slim chance there might have been of a workable multilateral alternative.
The momentum sensed a few years ago does seem to be waning. Whereas the rest of the OECD has in practice been bandwagoning around the American world order, China and other countries like Chavez' Venezuela point to a future of renewed indirect confrontations over what a reasonable state should look like. The balancing struggle looks increasing like a Cold War setup except for the fact that the opposing camp has as its only common agenda the opposition to a too American-looking globalization of not so much economics but of democratic politics.

And with the major players on the Western side wavering in their commitment and failing ability to promote the latter agenda,
realpolitik is definitely on the rise -- as exemplifed in the American policies on the autocracies in the former Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan and Kazahkstan (see Jackson Diehl's piece on "Retreat from the Freedom Agenda"). That is a pity.

Later UPDATE: Robert Kagan's monthly piece in the Washington Post -- "League of Dictators?" -- touches on the same subject as this post and the one below on China. Interesting as always.

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