Commentary Magazine


The Real World Order

To the Editor:

COMMENTARY is a forum for great debates, but Patrick Glynn’s review of The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil, which I wrote with the late Aaron Wildavsky [Books in Review, October 1993], leads away from debate about the new ideas our book presents concerning the long-term character of world politics, by conflating what we said with familiar positions in the current policy debate.

For example, his review accuses us of recommending a policy of “general noninvolvement in the outside world.” In fact, our recommendation is “to participate with other democracies in efforts to limit violence and encourage democracy in the zones of turmoil. . . .” And our conclusion is that “the United States must be engaged in the effort to improve international order in the zones of turmoil. . . .” We also argue that, “particularly during the current transition, . . . there may be an important need for the United States to take leadership responsibility in the world.”

Mr. Glynn thinks we oppose an activist role for the U.S.—but what we actually say is that in the future, U.S. activism will have to be justified on a basis different from before. Most American uses of force will not be necessary to protect the life of our country, even indirectly, but will be required by our sense of obligation as the most prominent and competent citizen of the world community, by our need to help make the world “a little better than a den of thieves.”

However, the point of The Real World Order is not to make recommendations, but to describe the new shape of the world, so that people can make their own recommendations, using their own values and analysis. . . .

Mr. Glynn’s review does not address a basic proposition asserted in our book: that there is a fundamental difference between threats to a country’s independence or survival and all lesser threats. This seems obvious, but the implications are surprisingly pervasive. The question for debate is whether or not, in the absence of practically any danger of being conquered, the security situation of the U.S. and the great democracies today is fundamentally different from that of great powers in the past, even though these countries still face significant threats to their interests and citizens. . . .

Most of those who see, as we do, an urgent need for American action, feel more comfortable basing their arguments on “vital national interests,” or long-term threats to our national security. But continuing to justify all intervention in foreign conflicts on the basis of danger to our country, after the Soviet threat has been removed, is like an addiction—it always seems too soon to stop. Sooner or later, the vital-national-interest argument is going to get too thin to carry the debate. So we forthrightly argue for action on the basis of responsibility to the world, and try to figure out the implications of going in this direction. . . .

Pursuing goals that go beyond narrow national interest requires policy-making and political consensus-building that is significantly different from our cold-war policymaking. Often it will be more like altruism than like traditional foreign-policy thinking.

If we make decisions to intervene in conflicts in the zones of turmoil on the basis of “good citizenship,” isn’t it inevitable that there will be strong pressures to make such decisions in collaboration with other countries? Are we the only ones who are wise and good, who have to carry the burden alone? This just won’t fly as standard operating procedure; we will be forced into multilateralism, whether it works or not.

We propose that America’s increased need for external moral authority should be met by acting in agreement with other great democracies—unless the UN can be changed so that it has more integrity. Mr. Glynn is wrong that we have excessive faith that the other democracies—or the UN—can be counted on to carry their share of the load. Our position is not that they will be up to the challenge; it is that the time is coming when, if they do not carry their share, the load will not be carried, cannot be carried. Therefore, we had better start working toward load- and decision-sharing. This may not be pessimism, but it certainly is not optimism. . . .

Max Singer
Washington, D.C.

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