Another concert! First we had the idea of a concert of democracies propounded by such Democratic Party foreign-policy luminaries as Ivo Daalder and Morton Halperin and taken up by the "national greatness" Democratic Party foreign-policy wannabes grouped around the so-called Truman Project. This was basically American hegemony with a human face and really not all that different from the neo-conservatism that has brought the United States to its current disastrous situation. However, it replaced the frank unilateralism of the neocons with a neo-liberal multilateralism that, reduced to its essence, consisted of the US venue-shopping until it could find a venue that could cover its wishes in septic sheets of compliant multilateralism.
David Rieff is a Senior Fellow of the World Policy Institute and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is the author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (Simon & Schuster, 1995), A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2002), and At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
David Rieff is responding to the article by Michael Lind:
"What next? US foreign policy after Bush"
(12 February 2007)
Also in openDemocracy:
Mary Kaldor, "America's Iraq plight: old and new thinking"
(13 February 2007)
Richard Falk, "On a collision course with the future"
(14 February 2007)
Sankaran Krishna "Looking into America's dark places"
(15 February 2007)
Mark Kingwell, "A question of moral legitimacy"
(16 February 2007)
Mark Lucarelli, "A regional path to peace in Iraq"
(20 February 2007)
Then there was the concert of democracies as refracted through the Princeton Project on National Security, in which a group of distinguished political scientists led by Anne-Marie Slaughter and John Ikenberry posited a concert of democracies that, together, would ensure a "democratic peace". In this version, the commitment to international law was far more convincing. However, the conviction that democracies should "aim to sustain the military predominance of liberal democracies" suggested that this was Pax Americana lite and hence, while perhaps a concert, was no democracy in any viable global sense.
And now we have Michael Lind. Mercifully, his concert is not one of democracies; American satrapies might be a better description. (And, as Lind understands - but Halperin, Slaughter, the Truman people and others seem not to - fewer and fewer nations are eager to put their faith in America's ability to act in concert about anything). Lind wants a realist concert - a concert of power, he calls it.
The fact that he sees clearly that the US is less and less able to determine international rule-sets makes his search for another role for the country in the coming 21st-century global order worthy of respect. His lack of sentimentality about the US is bracing, as is his refusal to take refuge in either the fantastic dogma of American exceptionalism (which now cripples the US foreign-policy debate, as Lind well knows) or in nostalgic fantasies for the immediate post-second-world-war order in which the "west" was a coherent category and in which everyone listened to Harry Truman and was grateful for America's leadership.
Unfortunately, Lind's concert-of-power idea has no more chance of being realised, even were the US to commit itself to bringing it about, than does the concert of democracies. The problem, I think, is that while Lind accurately describes the multipolar world that is coming into being - a world in which China, the European Union, Russia and India will have as much say about global order as will the US - he errs in imagining that his concert of power can supplant the "competitive multipolarity", as he accurately puts it, that is the alternative.
The reason for this is simple: multipolarity is by definition competitive. The idea that somehow the interests of great powers can be reconciled is no more reasonable today than it was in 1914, or, for that matter, in 1945. Those who created the United Nations had the preposterous fantasy that the great powers would ensure world peace through a military committee in which Russians and Americans would cooperate.
The stark fact is that competition is the lifeblood of power, and the only reason why this is not clearer is because this silly season that began after the fall of the Berlin wall - and the end of which is now in view - gave a profoundly distorted sense of how power is exercised.
Lind is wrong, I think, to imagine that Russia and China - to use one of his examples - have acted as "spoilers" on issues of concern to the US, such as Iran and North Korea. There, I fear, he has absorbed too much unipolarity and it has clouded his otherwise stimulating thinking on 21st-century global order. In fact, Russia and China have acted in this way because it is in their national interests to do so. In other words, these actions are harbingers of how things will be in a multipolar world, not some distortion of it. That is simply how nation-states act, and the more power they have, the more they are likely to feel free to do so.
To imagine anything else is to imagine that the insights of Thomas Hobbes and Niccolò Machiavelli have been superseded. And much as Michael Lind (and I) might wish it otherwise, the insights of Hobbes and Machiavelli have not been superseded.