Friday, August 1, 2008

David Brooks misses Dean Acheson; I miss sanity

In a column called "Missing Dean Acheson", David Brooks mourns the passing of the days when the U.S. rebuilt Western Europe and, in concert with a few allies, created the institutions of the global 'liberal' economic order. The rise of new powers and new actors means that collective action on pressing issues, from world trade (see the collapse of the Doha round) to climate change, is hard to achieve. More actors mean more 'veto players,' more 'narrow interests' who are able to stop collective measures that might serve the common good.

Although his basic point is straight out of a polisci textbook, Brooks conveniently neglects to mention that the Bush administration's failure to sign the Kyoto protocol, refusal to join the International Criminal Court, insistence on pursuing a ballistic missile defense system based in eastern Europe, and lack of interest in seriously reducing the U.S.'s overbearing global military presence (more than 700 bases scattered all over the world) have not exactly helped further the sort of collective action he discusses. (Not to mention the invasion of Iraq, which Brooks does at least nod to at the end.) Rather than shed tears for an era that is not returning, and that was hardly as rosy in the first place as Brooks seems to think, one should accept that the age of multipolarity (or 'nonpolarity') has arrived and that it requires a different way of thinking about foreign policy. The solution is not a League of Democracies, as Brooks suggests. This is a terrible idea that will further strain relations with Russia and China and alienate everyone who isn't included, in return for supposed benefits that will almost certainly prove to be chimerical.

The far better course is to start by revamping the UN Security Council to make it reflective of today's realities. Making India and Brazil and perhaps some other 'new' powers permanent members -- as well as Japan and Germany -- would give more states a stake in finding collective answers of the sort Brooks wants. It is ludicrous that the structure of the Security Council (5 permanent veto-wielding members: U.S., Russia, China, France, Britain) still reflects the geopolitical situation of 1945. Second, the U.S. should get its own house in order: breaking its oil addiction and reforming its sclerotic and increasingly dysfunctional political system, for starters. Third, the global economic system should be changed in ways that increase the penalties for irresponsible speculative capitalism and decrease the unprecedented and indeed obscene levels of global household wealth inequality (see the recent American Political Science Assn. report on inequality for documentation of this:

David Brooks should be using his bully pulpit at the New York Times to write about these sorts of issues, rather than proposing useless and counterproductive ideas like a League of Democracies. David Brooks may miss Dean Acheson; I miss the days when the op-ed page of the country's 'newspaper of record' reflected thoughtful consideration of serious problems, rather than recycled pablum from the latest neocon manifesto.

p.s. see James Goldgeier on Brooks' column here.


El Jefe Maximo said...

I agree with so much more of paragraph three than I do two.

Your idea about revamping the Security Council, since we have the damned thing, has merit. India and Brazil should certainly have permanent seats, as should Germany and Japan.

As for the laundry list of offenses in paragraph two, you do have a point, although I might observe that the US was (and is) much more more friendly towards the "collective action" international system you discuss as long as the international institutions involved were following policies that the US was comfortable with. I suppose my quibble with your post boils down to the question of why anybody would expect it to be different ? Powers are always out for their own interests.

You're right about the League of Democracies, and it would have exactly the bad result you describe, with a lack of commensurate gains.

Count me a believer in smoke-filled room diplomacy. States, democracies or otherwise, will work together on issues (climate, trade, arms, war etc), when it's in their interest to do so. Otherwise not.

LFC said...

Yes, quiet and hard-headed diplomacy can achieve things; and in fairness, the Bush administration did do a little more of this in the second term than in the first.