Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Nationalism, Trans-National Threats, and the Political Zeitgeist of the Twenty-First Century

I'm never quite sure how to view David Brooks. On the one hand, I don't share his overarching political philosophy, at least not when it comes to most U.S. domestic issues (not the subject of this blog I know), and I have found that during the Bush years, he has wasted far too much ink in half-hearted defense of Administration policy with which I don't think he really agrees. On the other hand, more than any other columnist at his institution, he has the capability to insightfully compare and analyze not merely different points of view, but different philosophies and world-views in a way that gives each one due intellectual respect. It is in this spirit that I draw attention to this recent piece.

In it, he describes two visions of twenty-first century global politics recently elucidated by two eminent political scientists, John Ikenberry of Princeton and Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ikenberry, who has been sharply critical of Bush foreign policy, outlines his vision for an American grand strategy for the coming century in terms that dimly resonate with the international orders of centuries past. Whereas the greatest and most dangerous internal contradictions in the various global orders of the past two centuries, be they based on a multipolar or bipolar balance of power or on a unipolar hegemonic dominance, were state-based (the greatest security threats were large-scale inter-state warfare), today such contradictions are more diffuse. Whereas the appropriate grand strategy in times past was "positional," meaning that great powers' primary goals were to position themselves advantageously vis a vis one another, today's grand strategy should be "milieu-based," focusing on building up the norms and institutions that prevent diffuse, shifting threats such as terrorism, environmental degradation and state collapse from threatening the foundations of international order. To quote Ikenberry:

If the world of the 21st century were a town, the security threats faced by its leading citizens would not be organized crime or a violent assault by a radical mob on city hall. It would be the breakdown of law enforcement and social services in the face of constantly changing and ultimately uncertain vagaries of criminality, nature, and circumstance.

I lack space and time to go into all of his prescriptions in detail, but Ikenberry implores American leadership to re-focus on enmeshing U.S. power in international institutions and "grand bargains" with other democracies and emerging powers that will legitimize U.S. leadership and enable the global order to flexibly respond to the threats of the coming years.

According to Brooks, Robert Kagan sees things quite differently. I don't doubt that he does. Kagan's most popularly-known work of recent years is his pre-Iraq War treatise Of Paradise and Power, in which he argues that Europe's passage into a post-national paradise has led it to self-imposed weakness, and thus it seeks to "balance" against the United States by deligitimating it's efforts to enforce international security and promote its interests. A cursory look through this work is enough to see that Kagan sees the world in terms (more or less) of a traditional realist. In Kagan's view, primary international actors are nation states, and ones that, for all their post Cold War niceties, still fundamentally lack the shared values that would make Ikenberry's vision of a liberal global order feasible. Nationalism, for Kagan, is not going away any time soon (perhaps not even in Europe), and traditional inter-state jockeying will remain the principal task of world leaders in the coming years.

As I fear my treatment of these authors' work betrays, I tend to agree with Ikenberry more so than with Kagan. While I share Brooks' sentiment that Ikenberry is overly dismissive of the remaining political power of nationalism, particularly in states like China and India that have no recent historical experience as great powers, but look to such status in the near future, state-based nationalism will soon cease to be the driving force behind the foundations and threats to global order. I say this not because I believe nationalism will disappear, but because the glue of the modern international system - complex economic interdependence, rapid movement of technology and intellectual capital around the globe, high-speed communication etc. - mitigates the practical power of nationalist feeling. On the other hand, non-national threats - terrorism, global warming, environmental degradation, state collapse - are actually amplified by the interconnected nature of that system. A refugee crisis half a world away can disrupt the global economy such that people in the United States are affected by it. That was far less true fifty years ago.

My point, put simply, is that Ikenberry's threat analysis is prescient. While I am less optimistic than either he or Kagan are that the U.S. can remain the center of this century's global order, I think that this will be far less significant if America can create a robust, stable liberal order that will allow for the disbursement of power to other global centers without the kind of disruptions that have accompanied such shifts in the past. I can think of no better legacy for America to leave behind after its moment in the imperial sun.


Jeb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeb said...


Assuming that it's alright if I ask, where do you work in the non-profit sector?

Matt Eckel said...

For a non-profit medical association that has nothing to do with foreign policy. Go figure.

Jeb said...


Would you be interested in co-blogging over at FPW? We'd have to work out some of the details but, if you're interested, I'd love to try it out.