On Our Rules Based World Order.

            From 1940 to 1990, the United States led a global struggle against aggressive tyrannies.  Despite many heartbreaks and defeats, the United States and its allies emerged victorious.   Victory posed the question of how to create some “new world order.”  The political scientist Francis Fukuyama posited an “end of History,” by which he meant that capitalist democracy represented “the last man standing” after two centuries of ideological struggle.  The Clinton administration adopted a policy of “democratic enlargement.”  It was argued that liberal states rarely fought each other.[1]  It was argued that the use of raw power to achieve national ends could be reined-in by international agreements (amounting to law) and rule-writing.  National power could—and morally, should—be used only in self-defense or to advance democratization.[2] 

            Not everyone found this analysis compelling.  Outside the covers of the American Political Science Review, the world is a messy place.  Many countries of the world are “failed” or “failing” states.[3]  There is a large overlap between “failed states” and kleptocracies in which elites plunder their countries (and the international donors trying to promote democracy and economic development).  For many rulers, “the good old rule /Sufficeth them, the simple plan/That they should take who have the power/And they should keep who can.”[4]  (Which is good for the arms industries of advanced countries.)  Moreover, the universalism of the West’s political, economic, and cultural ideals doesn’t sit well with many people in the developing world.  Democracy and Western notions of proper labor laws certainly don’t sit well with the elites ruling many developing countries.  Western environmentalism gets in the way of people trying to solve the problem of finding work for hundreds of millions of their people, along with big pay-days for themselves.  Western cultural progressivism doesn’t sit well with many ordinary people in such societies.  Trying to shove these things up their noses just breeds resistance.[5] 

            During the Cold War, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington[6] believed in symmetrical opposition to the Communist powers: “we’ve got to go wherever they go.”  Those days are over.  There are no existential threats.  There is a world where economic interdependence and new technologies are ripping apart any sense of world order.  A better strategy today may lie in using air and sea power to guard the trade routes of the world, while practicing more restrained advocacy abroad.[7]  This will appeal to some natures, but not to all. 


[1] The flaw in the argument is that there have been few liberal or democratic states in history.  Most European states only granted the mass of their citizens the right to vote in the second half of the 19th Century.  Merely having a constitution and an increasingly broad electorate didn’t make a country “liberal.”  The German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and the Soviet Union, were all false-front constitutional states.  Liberal states got along well enough with illiberal states when it suited their purposes.  But Britain, France, Belgium, and the United States all made war on illiberal states—then called empires or tribes or declining powers—when it suited them.  Which if often did.  It’s like the “Great Illusion” malarkey from before 1914 that the world’s economies had become so deeply integrated that war had become impossible.  Here endeth the sermon. 

[2] Arguably, this view of things got us the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Knock over some tyrant, declare “Democracy is Here,” put up some big box stores, and leave the newly-contented people to manage their own affairs.  WTWTCH?

[3] Or, in the words of Jeff Spicoli, “What Jefferson was saying was, Hey! You know, we left this England place ’cause it was bogus; so if we don’t get some cool rules ourselves—pronto—we’ll just be bogus, too!”

[4] William Wordsworth, “Rob Roy’s Grave,” Memorials of a Tour in Scotland (1803). 

[5] Walter Russell Mead, “Wokeness is Putin’s Weapon,” WSJ, 12 July 2022. 

[6] Someone who actually was “the sharpest tool in the shed.”

[7] Robert D. Kaplan, The Return of Marco Polo’s World (2018).