The Book Club

Hegemony Ain’t What It Used To Be

Dear Max:

You ignorant imperialist slut! (Slate’s editors forced me to say that.) While I hope never to become an expert on international law and the U.N. Charter, you’re wrong to say that we acted without the U.N.’s blessing in Bosnia and Afghanistan. After the World Trade Center attacks, the Security Council passed two robust resolutions justifying a resort to force on Sept. 12 and Sept. 28; in the case of Bosnia, NATO legitimated its air strikes by drawing partly on language from a 1992 Security Council resolution authorizing member states to take “all necessary means” to deliver humanitarian aid. Even in Kosovo, where we didn’t seek a Security Council resolution because we knew we couldn’t get it, the U.N. still played an important diplomatic role—hell, it’s running the place now.

I agree that the early 1990s were a horror show of U.N. ineffectiveness, not least because the United States pushed the U.N. to do far more than it could. (Let’s not forget that the first President Bush presided over a quadrupling of U.N. peacekeepers abroad, to more than 40,000.) In fact, of the 54 U.N. peacekeeping operations since 1948, 41 were created by the Security Council in the last 12 years. But while you see the U.N.’s glaring failures in Rwanda, Somalia, and Bosnia as proof of its terminal ineffectuality, I think it’s learning from its mistakes. Not only can it organize the occasional conference on human rights, but it’s running 15 peacekeeping operations with roughly 47,000 peacekeepers (less than 2 percent of whom are Americans) reasonably well. (One-worlders and black-helicopterists can find useful info, factoids, and links on U.N. peacekeeping through the Web site of the Henry L. Stimson Center, Even Jesse Helms’ staff apparently liked the U.N. peacekeeping committee’s Brahimi Report, which laid out a series of sensible recommendations for peacekeeping reform a couple of years ago.

Let me clarify one other point about a possible U.N. military force before getting to what Frank Zappa called the “crux of the biscuit.” I’m not talking about a big standing army, but a small (5,000 or so) force of well-trained, well-armed soldiers who could be quickly deployed (with help from Uncle Sam, the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, even Japan). Think Americans, Belgians, Canadians, Indians, and the Irish, not the poorly equipped Bangladeshis, Ghanaians, and other hapless Third Worlders basically rented out by their governments. Yes, even if such a force could be created, there would be political obstacles to its use. But the 40-plus U.N. deployments over the last decade suggest that those obstacles can be overcome, maybe more easily than the domestic hurdles to the dispatch of 5,000 U.S. soldiers to the Congo, Ethiopia, and other post-Cold War garden spots that now host U.N. missions. Don’t like this idea? Tell it to Ronald Reagan (!), who gave a speech at Oxford University in 1992 calling for “a standing U.N. force—an army of conscience—that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out humanitarian sanctuaries through force if necessary.”

But let’s face it, all this talk about the U.N. is a smokescreen for what really divides us: You think that our national interests are best served by extending our hegemonic moment for as long as possible. I think that hegemony ain’t what it used to be. Yes, as you put it in your book, we need to police our virtual empire and deter major power adversaries. And I’m all for keeping our defense budget at a higher proportion of our GDP, provided that we apply the same principle to our spending on diplomacy and foreign aid. But higher defense spending and more aggressive interventions won’t change two fundamental realities. First, no matter how powerful we are, we can’t single-handedly coerce solutions to global threats like terrorism, narcotrafficking, alien smuggling, climate change, and the spread of deadly disease. Second, sooner or later every balance of power gets upended, whether by a single challenger, a coalition of envious rivals, or some combination thereof. We have a remarkable chance to build an international system that not only helps us to meet today’s complex transnational challenges, but also institutionalizes our values and ideals for future generations. That’s why I put such a premium on multilateral action, because if we work to get it right, we strengthen the system for our ultimate benefit. In that respect, my problem with the Bush administration is not that it rejects treaties that it considers flawed; it’s that it seldom works with others to put forth good alternatives.

In short, the biggest challenges we face now have less to do with winning small wars than improving global institutions.

Institutionally yours,