We’re about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II, and they’ve asked: Why can’t we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today’s problems?
The answer is that, in the late 1940s, global power was concentrated. The victory over fascism meant the mantle of global leadership rested firmly on the Atlantic alliance. The United States accounted for roughly half of world economic output. Within the U.S., power was wielded by a small, bipartisan, permanent governing class — men like Acheson, W. Averell Harriman, John McCloy and Robert Lovett.
Today power is dispersed. There is no permanent bipartisan governing class in Washington. Globally, power has gone multipolar, with the rise of China, India, Brazil and the rest.
This dispersion should, in theory, be a good thing, but in practice, multipolarity means that more groups have effective veto power over collective action. In practice, this new pluralistic world has given rise to globosclerosis, an inability to solve problem after problem.
This week, for the first time since World War II, an effort to liberalize global trade failed. The Doha round collapsed, despite broad international support, because India’s Congress Party did not want to offend small farmers in the run up to the next elections. Chinese leaders dug in on behalf of cotton and rice producers.
In a de-centered world, all it takes is a few well-placed parochial interests to bring a vast global process tumbling down.
And the Doha failure comes amid a decade of globosclerosis. The world has failed to effectively end genocide in Darfur. Chinese and Russian vetoes foiled efforts to impose sanctions on Zimbabwe. The world has failed to implement effective measures to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The world has failed to embrace a collective approach to global warming. Europe’s drive toward political union has stalled.
In each case, the logic is the same. Groups with a strong narrow interest are able to block larger groups with a diffuse but generalized interest. The narrow Chinese interest in Sudanese oil blocks the world’s general interest in preventing genocide. Iran’s narrow interest in nuclear weapons trumps the world’s general interest in preventing a Middle East arms race. Diplomacy goes asymmetric and the small defeat the large.
Moreover, in a multipolar world, there is no way to referee disagreements among competing factions. In a democratic nation, the majority rules and members of the minority understand that they must accede to the wishes of those who win elections.
But globally, people have no sense of shared citizenship. Everybody feels they have the right to say no, and in a multipolar world, many people have the power to do so. There is no mechanism to wield authority. There are few shared values on which to base a mechanism. The autocrats of the world don’t even want a mechanism because they are afraid that it would be used to interfere with their autocracy.
The results are familiar. We get United Nations resolutions that go unenforced. We get high-minded vows to police rogue regimes, but little is done. We get the failure of the Doha round and the gradual weakening of the international economic order.
A few years ago, the U.S. tried to break through this global passivity. It tried to enforce U.N. resolutions and put the mantle of authority on its own shoulders. The results of that enterprise, the Iraq war, suggest that this approach will not be tried again anytime soon.
And so the globosclerosis continues, and people around the world lose faith in their leaders. It’s worth remembering that George W. Bush is actually more popular than many of his peers. His approval ratings hover around 29 percent. Gordon Brown’s are about 17 percent. Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda’s are about 26 percent. Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Silvio Berlusconi have ratings that are a bit higher, but still pathetically low.
This is happening because voters rightly sense that leaders lack the authority to address problems.
The bottom line is that presidential candidates can talk grandly about global partnerships, but it’s meaningless without a mechanism to wield authority. A crucial question in an authority crisis is: Who has a strategy for execution?
The best idea floating around now is a League of Democracies, as John McCain and several Democrats have proposed. Nations with similar forms of government do seem to share cohering values. If democracies could concentrate authority in such a league, at least part of the world would have a mechanism for wielding authority. It may not be a return to Acheson, Marshall and the rest, but at least it slows the relentless slide towards drift and dissipation.