Commentary Magazine

The Inequality of Nations, by Robert W. Tucker

Challenge to the New Order

The Inequality of Nations.
by Robert W. Tucker.
Basic Books. 214 pp. $10.95.

This short and extremely well-reasoned book was written, as Robert W. Tucker announces at the outset, “out of protest against the intellectual confusion that has attended current discussions of equality in relation to international society.” It succeeds brilliantly.

As the current wisdom has it, we are in the midst of a great revolution in international relations. It is said that this revolution will transform, and has in large part already transformed, the international system from one of gross inequality among nations to one of greater equality and justice. Whether this claim is made on the basis of the shifting balance of economic power (exemplified by the OPEC cartel and its ability to blackmail the industrialized nations) or on moral grounds (like the statement of John P. Lewis, “there is not a modern social ethic anywhere that could pretend to provide enduring justification for the existing, let alone worsening, inequality in international income distribution”), the net effect is the same. The revolution we are living through, it is maintained, will produce a new international order, in which sovereign states are increasingly interdependent, where resort to force becomes increasingly less frequent, and where gross disparities in the standard of living become increasingly rare.

Tucker offers a reasoned reply to this scenario. In the first place, he writes, the new egalitarianism is not challenging the essential structure of international relations. The claims made by the critics of the existing system are rarely, if ever, made on behalf of individuals searching for greater justice, but are invariably pronounced in the name of nation-states seeking a larger share of the world’s riches and enhanced power and prestige. Thus, Tucker says, what is actually being challenged by the emerging nations is “the distribution of wealth and power within the system.”

Second, although it claims to be producing a new order, the “revolution” will in fact produce disorder. Greater interdependence increases the number of the forces producing chaos. At the same time, the diminished ability of the powerful nations to exercise their strength enhances the ability of the less powerful to throw monkey wrenches into the system.

Third, the challenge to the present order comes not from the poor, but from formerly poor states whose growing wealth gives them new power. “It is not at all apparent,” Tucker writes with considerable understatement, “how helping the latter would thereby ease the problems such inter-dependencies have created.”

Fourth, the notion of freedom is strikingly absent from discussions of the new order. “It is the persistence of material disparities that commands primary attention rather than the persisting denial of personal freedoms. . . .”

This bring us to the real cutting edge of Tucker’s analysis, and it is unfortunate that he spends so little time on it (perhaps because it is so obvious to him that he assumes, I fear mistakenly, that it will be equally obvious to his readers). For it is clear that the demands for the new order are specifically directed at the wealthy Western nations to share their bounty with the poorer (but not the poor) nations of the South. Indeed, at the so-called North-South Conference in Paris last June, the developing nations asked for vastly greater amounts of Western aid, refused to discuss the question of oil prices, and swallowed (without a word) the remarkable position of the Soviet Union that any aid to developing nations had to come from democratic countries and not from the totalitarian bloc.

What is going on, under the rhetorical umbrella of the “new economic order,” is the old game of acquiring and using power. The so-called egalitarianism of the new states, as Tucker wisely observes, “is not—and cannot be—directed against the hierarchical character per se of international society but against the particular hierarchical ordering that characterizes the present system.” In other words, the new order is finally indistinguishable from the old.

The old international order, based on notions of sovereignty stemming from the 18th and 19th centuries, held that a state’s independence depended in the final analysis on its ability to defend itself. To put the matter as bluntly as possible, sovereignty meant sufficient strength to wage war successfully whenever one’s vital interests were threatened. This concept has only been seriously questioned in the post-World War II period with the introduction of nuclear weapons, which, it is said, make the waging of total war an unacceptable act.

This does not mean that military power is irrelevant. To the contrary, military might has continued to be an indispensable element of national sovereignty, but the standard for measuring it has changed. Power has come increasingly to be measured in nuclear terms, and to the extent that the possession of nuclear weapons is the privilege of a few, those excluded from the “nuclear club” become relegated to the minor leagues of nations. True equality (which is to say, roughly equivalent power) can never exist between two nations if one of them has nuclear weapons and the other has only conventional arms.

In the nuclear age, power is not just a function of economic strength—indeed, militarily powerful nations may be economically quite second-rate, as in the case of the Soviet Union; conversely, an economic superpower like Japan is militarily feeble. Power in the modern era means the ability to obtain and wield thermonuclear weapons, and there will be no new order truly satisfactory to the newly powerful nations until nuclear proliferation has taken place. Tucker spells this out in characteristically concise form:

For those who are able to pursue it, the logic of equality is ultimately the logic of nuclear proliferation. In turn, the logic of nuclear proliferation is one of decreasing control over the international system by those who are its present guardians.



In the long run, then, the demand for greater equality among nations will mean more of what we have had in the past, except with less control, greater risks, and, since many more nations will have the “right” to threaten nuclear war, increased chaos. Like the hierarchies of the past, this new one will be ushered in on a flood of romantic verbiage designed to assure one and all that true democracy has finally been achieved. This, however, is unlikely, if only because most of the developing nations show little understanding of, or interest in, real democracy. All the more reason, then, to listen to Tucker, for the myths about the nature of the world order which he systematically exposes and refutes in this book have come to dominate the political rhetoric not only of the developing nations themselves (who use them as a standard and a rallying cry) but of influential sectors in the West as well.

The campaign for the new order is being fought, for the moment, largely with words. The proponents of the new order have found a formidable opponent in Robert W. Tucker, and his admirable little book deserves the widest possible hearing. Thus far, however, it has been greeted with almost complete silence—three months after this book was published it had still not been noticed in any of the major reviewing media, despite the importance of the subject and the great reputation of the author. For once, the advocates of the new world system have taken a page from the old textbooks on strategy. From Caesar to Napoleon, wise generals have avoided pitched battles against superior forces.

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