Commentary Magazine

The Real World Order, by Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky

The Post-Cold-War Age

The Real World Order: Zones of Peace/Zones of Turmoil.
by Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky.
Chatham House. 228 pp. $25.00.

Three years into the post-cold-war era we are still searching for our George F. Kennan—someone to delineate the main outlines of the international environment and prescribe a new strategy, as Kennan did with “containment” at the outset of the cold war. Perhaps because of the complexity of the new international scene, or perhaps because of the relatively well-developed nature of our foreign-policy dialogue—in Kennan’s time there was little in the way of an established intellectual tradition of American thinking about foreign policy—no single such figure seems likely to emerge. What we have instead is a multiplicity of books and articles, each contributing pieces of the puzzle, none so far seeming definitive.

Max Singer, co-founder with the late Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute, and Aaron Wildavsky, a professor at Berkeley and one of the nation’s most eminent political scientists, have teamed up to offer an original, if somewhat quirky, contribution to this ongoing discussion. An avowed attack on the “old thinking” of professional foreign-policy analysts, The Real World Order attempts to define a comprehensive “new thinking” on which to base U.S. foreign policy. While the book falls short of achieving this grand ambition, it does offer some useful correctives and challenges as we think our way toward a new strategy for the post-cold-war world.

The core of the book is a highly, perhaps excessively, schematic justification for what amounts to a generally noninterventionist foreign policy. According to Singer and Wildavsky, the world is now divided into two major zones: “zones of peace,” including the United States and the other major industrial democracies and constituting about 15 percent of the world’s population along with most of its wealth; and the much vaster “zones of turmoil,” which are not yet democratic and are still in the throes of development. Within the zone of peace, they argue, the old logic of power politics—hegemonism, the balance of power, above all, war—has ceased to apply; modern, rich democratic nations may disagree and may even be bitter economic rivals, but they will not go to war against one another. Outside the zone of peace, on the other hand, the ancient international anarchy—persecution, power struggles, famine, and war—ineluctably persists.

Singer and Wildavsky’s argument is simple: there is not much we can do to improve conditions in the “zones of turmoil.” Luckily, however, nothing that happens there “will threaten the existence or vital interests” of the modern industrial democracies. What they recommend is essentially a foreign policy of benign neglect—a posture of general noninvolvement in the outside world, combined with modest efforts to promote democracy abroad (which they believe will spread inevitably anyway) and rare instances of intervention, always in a multilateral context.

In the authors’ view, foreign-policy professionals are guilty of excessive gloom in the wake of the cold war. In a never-ending search for new problems, analysts have focused excessively on the bad news while failing to digest the most salient fact about contemporary geopolitics: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States no longer faces the possibility of defeat by a foreign enemy. “No threat now existing or on the horizon remotely approaches the size of the threat that the West lived with for decades,” they write. “. . . For the first time the scourge of war has been lifted from at least one-seventh of the world.” That is why they are self-described “optimists.”

Well, almost. Threats to the Persian Gulf and its oil are a “possible” exception to this rosy picture, according to the authors, as is the spread of missiles and nuclear weapons. Indeed, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction turns out to be a serious problem. “North Korea,” they write, “may soon join Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus as nuclear powers in the zone of turmoil.” Furthermore, “if the world continues to be nuclear,” Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Vietnam, and Indonesia could join the nuclear club. Finally, “it would not be amazing” if by 2020 “there were as many as ten or more Islamic nuclear powers from Morocco to Pakistan.”

Hence, the authors contend, amid the general complacency we may adopt vis-à-vis the outside world, something will have to be done about weapons proliferation:

Since an increasing number of countries or groups are likely to have the physical ability to cause hundreds of thousands of American deaths by attacking U.S. cities with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons, one of the few fundamental objectives of U.S. national-security policy must be to provide as much protection as possible against this possibility.

They recommend redoubled non-proliferation efforts, as well as deployment of missile defenses, which they acknowledge may not be foolproof. Nevertheless, the authors assure us, even the destruction of an American city will, “in any event, not be a threat to national survival or independence.”



If this is “optimism,” show me pessimism. One suspects that Singer and Wildavsky would have been better off proposing their provocative schema in a short essay or article, because by the time they carefully (and honestly) detail all the various possible exceptions to their scenario—threats to Middle East oil, threats to Israel, Chinese Communist aggression, North Korean aggression (the possibility of which they downplay), and above all the future danger of a missile attack on an American city by some irrational third-world power, the celebrated “zones of peace” begin to look somewhat less secure than originally advertised. Indeed, in a world where mass-destruction weapons and technologies are spreading—hastened, as the authors themselves emphasize, by the break-up of the Soviet Union—it seems odd, to put it mildly, to claim that threats to U.S. basic national security or vital interests have somehow disappeared.

Certain of their arguments seem unexceptionable. Yes, the modern democracies do play by different rules from those of the outside world. No, threats from Germany or even Japan do not seem plausible today—though the authors acknowledge that in the latter case democracy may not be so deeply rooted. And, of course, in principle, the modern democratic world, or at least the United States, possesses the technological and organizational wherewithal to overwhelm any conceivable third-world military.

But security is always a function of will as much as capability. By the time the authors have finished removing much of the justification for an internationalist American foreign policy, it is difficult to see where we will find the domestic support to maintain the kind of expensive, highly ready, forward-based military force that made Desert Storm possible, let alone the money for serious missile defenses. (Indeed, if the proposed Clinton-administration defense cuts go forward, we will end up with neither.)

Some of the authors’ grand political proposals, meanwhile, seem downright silly. While one can certainly endorse the idea of intensified nonproliferation and arms-control efforts, provided they remain sensible, it is hard to take seriously the authors’ vision of an internationally-controlled nuclear force policing an otherwise non-nuclear world. Their proposal for a binding caucus of the 78 or so “democratic” member countries of the UN General Assembly is similarly quixotic. Can one imagine any regional issue on which 78 countries could agree? Besides, what good would it do, given the nonbinding character of General Assembly resolutions? Their excessive faith in the UN and other multilateral arrangements seems unwarranted—especially in the wake of the Bosnian debacle, where multilateralism has proved a recipe for shameful paralysis.



On the bread-and-butter question of when and where the United States should intervene, the authors offer little except a protracted and generally pedestrian discussion of why such decisions have become so difficult in the post-cold-war age. For the moment, to be sure, our vital interests do not appear to be threatened in places like the former Yugoslavia—though they recently were, and could be again, in the Persian Gulf. But this is by no means the first time in history that the democracies have confronted indirect challenges to the international order whose outcome could affect the course of future events.

Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 did not compromise American vital interests, any more than Italy’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia threatened those of European states. But Western complacency in both cases contributed to a climate of international lawlessness that made world war more likely. Today, the looming threat is not so much from a new great power like Japan or Germany as from third-world states armed with increasingly dangerous weapons. The question is whether such states can be held at bay in the absence of some more general and consistent effort to enforce the world order.

Singer and Wildavsky seem to assume they can be. But the world vision they articulate bears a disturbingly strong resemblance to the structure of modern American urban life, where residents of suburban “zones of peace” long to forget about the urban “zones of turmoil.” For the most part, crime remains confined to the bad neighborhoods, but more often than is comfortable, it comes home to haunt the suburbanite. The same is likely to prove true in foreign affairs.

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