Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Remaking the World

David Brooks wrote last week of a recent conference where foreign policy thinkers gathered to discuss the future state of the world order. Princeton's John Ikenberry proposed what took up the most intriguing space in Brooks' piece:

The new global architecture would have three features.

First, there would be a global social services sector, providing health care, education, shelters, emergency services and other parts of any healthy community. Second, there would be renewed security alliances, in part to enmesh China before it becomes so powerful that it's uncontainable. Third, the U.N. would be reformed and a Concert of Democracies would be created, where the free world could respond as threats emerge.

As Brooks writes, this vision underestimates the power of nationalism and, I would add, the power of inertia, but much of it is compelling. I don't believe the world is at all ready for a global social services sector, nor do I think it would be a good idea. But a nascent agency to coordinate information sharing, rapid disease response and the like would be a promising beginning.

Re-doing our security alliances makes sense as well. Times have changed a great deal since the Cold War, and many countries are still unsure where their most lasting alliances lie.

Is NATO still relevant? I would like to think so, but perhaps it requires a new mission. Can it bring Russia into its fold? I doubt it can anytime soon, as the country has regressed into past jingoism and confrontationalism to complement its dangerous slide away from democracy.

Will China and Japan be able to reconcile? Will the United States reassert its leading role as honest broker in the Middle East in the post-Bush era, or are we too far gone? If so, who will step into that vacuum? Such fluidity demands a fresh look at the underpinnings of the alliance system.

The third concept, a reform of the United Nations into a Concert of Democracies, is the most fascinating to me. The U.N. has a role to play in the world, but by and large is not doing so. Its bureaucracy, in the experienced words on the Bull Moose, is arrogant and inefficient. Its committee makeup - most notably the Human Rights Commission - is a notorious joke. It is plagued by scandal, and its General Assembly sessions too often, not just in the Bush era, amount to opportunities for small countries to bash the United States. I am optimistic based on new Secretary General Ban Ki Moon's early-term actions, but there is so much to fix.

Bringing together democracies has many potential pitfalls, but also much greater opportunity to act efficiently and with concerted aims. Likely it would not be a reformed U.N. but a separate organization that, if it works, would effectively assume some of its power. Indeed, some competition may be good for both organizations regardless of other benefits we may expect.

Do I see these things happening? Only in part. Alliances are already shifting to some degree, but it's unclear if America has a coherent grand strategy into which to fit them. If a Concert of Democracies emerges, it may happen informally and almost by happenstance, or perhaps even grow fortuitously out of an existing organization like the G-8 or European Union.

The world is changing drastically, and it's not just American politics that is undergoing a realignment. The Bush administration's response to shifting international conditions has largely been to exercise as much hard power as possible, a track that is still useful but increasingly outdated. Its retreat from international institutions will be reversed by the next president, and we should all be relieved for that. But who we elect will have a significant impact on which direction we go with the topics at hand. As damaged as its reputation may be, the United States is still clearly the world's leading nation.

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