Lind on the UN, US, and Utopian Illusions

In the fateful month of March 2003, Michael Lind published an op-ed in The Australian entitled Future world stability does not require either a US or a UN hegemony. Here’s how it concludes.

The rival conceptions of the UN as world government and the US as world governor are two versions of the same utopian illusion. The only realistic method of maintaining a minimal degree of order in international affairs is world governance neither by all nor by one but by some. When the great powers of a given era compete, the results are expensive and lethal proxy wars or direct conflicts. However, when the great powers form a concert and collaborate in managing regional crises, the chances for a nonviolent, if not necessarily just, world are maximised.

This was the perception of 20th-century realists such as Theodore Roosevelt, who envisioned a US-British-French alliance as an alternative to US president Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations after World War I, and it inspired Roosevelt’s hopes for a US-British-Soviet concert after World War II.

The relative success of NATO in the Balkans suggests an approach to world order that requires neither collective security under the UN nor collective acquiescence to the US. Most so-called global problems, including Iraq and North Korea, are actually regional problems and should be dealt with chiefly by those great powers that have the greatest interest in doing so, in addition to the greatest capability to act.

The hype about the US as the sole global superpower obscures the fact the US is best described as a multi-regional great power. Both the US and Russia, among the great powers, have a stake, for reasons of geography alone, in what goes on in Europe and North-East Asia. Russia, bordering on many Muslim nations, arguably has a greater interest in the Middle East and Central Asia than does the US, which has been the hegemon in the Persian Gulf only since the first Gulf War. BECAUSE neither the US nor Russia colonised the Middle East, Russo-American co-operation in the region might have more legitimacy than interventions by the former colonial powers of Britain and France (although US acquiescence in Israeli extremism hurts US legitimacy).

By the same realist logic, the North Korean crisis ought to be addressed not by all (the UN) nor by one (the US) but by some – the US, Japan, Russia, China and South Korea, the states with the greatest stake in the outcome. Unlike the Bush administration’s collection of bribed and opportunistic client states, these regional coalitions, to be perceived as legitimate, would have to include more great powers than one.

The alternative to the false utopias of UN world governance and US world governance, then, is not global chaos, as the rival proponents of the two schools of collective security and unilateralism claim. Rather, the alternative is a sustainable system in which different groups of great powers collaborate to resolve regional problems on an ad hoc basis.

Such an approach is not likely to inspire the visionaries who dream of world federation or world empire. But the 20th century should have taught us that there is nothing more dangerous than visionaries wielding power.

Even when Lind fails to convince me, I do admire his pragmatism (and even his cold-blooded foreign policy Realism to some extent) but I appreciate most of all his provocative failure to adhere to the standard partisan talking points.

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