Friday, August 01, 2008

History Never Happened

Unlike almost every other liberal I know, I really like David Brooks. Really. I do. He's smart and funny and seems to have a heart and a mind and he's good on TV, and I liked reading Bobos In Paradise, and I like to watch him when he's on NBC or PBS and I like to read his column in the New York Times.

But his column today -- which otherwise has all the hallmarks of one of his better columns, like big ideas set against a sense of history and a certain wry synthesis of pragmatism and idealism -- just feels so, well, wrong, that it's a little embarassing. It's almost like he forgot what he was writing about when he was halfway through and never bothered to see whether one paragraph made any sense when put next to another, so it winds up arguing against itself.

Here's the core of the argument:

We’re about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II, and they’ve asked: Why can’t we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today’s problems?

The answer is that, in the late 1940s, global power was concentrated. The victory over fascism meant the mantle of global leadership rested firmly on the Atlantic alliance. The United States accounted for roughly half of world economic output. Within the U.S., power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class — men like Acheson, W. Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett.

Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.

This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.
Okay, this sounds pretty good, and pretty smart. But then you stop to think for a little while about the Cold War. And then it doesn't sound very good at all.

For one thing, Brooks makes it sound like the U.S. was the only global power after World War II, and we weren't. We might have been the biggest game in town, and we still are. But Russia and China, then as now, were big drags on the ability of the rest of the world community to get very much done, especially in the way of crisis intervention, human rights, and global agreements. We just didn't notice those things so much, because we were so worried about killing each other most of the time.

It's true that the Marshall plan was a great effort at global institution building aiming to solve real problems. But what happened when we tried to extend it eastward? Russia said no, and we didn't have the power to force it. So Eastern Europe kinda got screwed. And that was an effort where we were giving money away to rebuild nations, with very few strings attached.
Just think about the UN in 1945, with its 51 member nations, and the UN of today, with 192. That's not a move from unipolarity to multipolarity. That's just pure political fragmentation. And it occurred before the Berlin Wall fall, largely as a result of revolutions and partitions freeing different nations from colonial powers. The concentrated powers couldn't do much to project stability then, largely because they were actively taking sides, even when they weren't the colonial power being forced out.

The UN and its resolutions ultimately couldn't do very much to stop apartheid in South Africa, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bring any kind of permanent resolution to the war between North and South Korea, prevent bloodshed in the partition of India and Pakistan (or the partition between Pakistan and Bangladesh), prevent mass killings in Cambodia or dozens of other places, or the seizure of territory like Tibet and parts of present-day Israel. It's possible that the global community by way of its norms and institutions, carrots and sticks has done a better job of keeping a lid on such conflicts, but it's not like it was one unmitigated success after another until we suddenly forgot how to act.

You could make the argument that conflicts then were framed as ideological ones, clashes between competing world systems, while now they're nakedly functions of parochial self-interest. But I don't know whether this is really a new phenomenon either. Local interests have always been pretty parochial. Again, I think we just didn't notice so much before.

You could also make the argument that it's harder now even for friends and allies with common ideological assumptions to work together beyond simple self-interest. If France has contracts with the Iraqis, they're never going to support an invasion, even if they "should" agree with its principles. But if that's the case, then Brooks is suffering from a fatal lack of self-consciousness. After all, it's the U.S. that's the elephant in the tea room, not anybody else out there in the multipolar universe. The rest of the world has been able to put together some important agreements on climate change, or on international law and human rights. It's the so-called leader of the free world that won't go along with any of it, because of our narrowly parochial self-interest. And we weren't always so good at getting countries with common values to play along. France pulled out of NATO, most of the rest of the world was deeply ambivalent about American power, and any attempt to lock in US strategic advantage (which is what a lot of those institutions and agreements were all about).

And if this is the argument, that interest trumps shared values, then it doesn't seem at all like a "league of democracies" will do anything to ameliorate the problem. And here Brooks nails shut his own coffin. He begins his story by noting that the "Doha round [of free trade talks] collapsed, despite broad international support, because India’s Congress Party did not want to offend small farmers in the run up to the next elections." But then he ends it by endorsing a League of Democracies. "Nations with similar forms of government do seem to share cohering values."

That may be -- but they also share similar economic realities and democratic pressures, and when those pressures say "don't get rid of the farm subsidies, especially for a free trade agreement that we don't understand and makes us anxious," serious democracies have to respond to them. There is no reason at all why democracies, let alone a league of democracies, will have any greater success at overcoming inertia and doing good things in the world. In fact, there are good reasons (and Brooks names several of them) to believe the opposite.

Unless you think China and Russia are the problem, and that you can isolate them and cut them out of the loop to get things done. In which case, welcome back. The Cold War missed you. History never happened.

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