On a collision course with the future

Richard Falk
14 February 2007

I am not familiar with the broad range of Michael Lind's work, but from what I have read I know that he exhibits a curious mixture of toxic barb and detached analytic assessment. He is viewed as a traitor by the right and a rather menacing figure by the left. Perhaps admirably, Lind is hard to classify, but certainly thoughtful, independent-minded, and conceptually clear and imaginative. With such virtues, his take on world issues deserves to be taken seriously, especially these days when the United States is floundering so awkwardly in what most of us hope is the last stage of its dreadfully misconceived and mismanaged Iraq policy.

And yet, I confess some difficulties in doing so. I find the tone of what Lind writes far more objectionable than his substance. The ideas that he presents are worthwhile; yet the manner in which they are embedded in the framing of his inquiry troubles me in ways that cast some doubt on the proposals themselves. For instance, when writing of the brutality of some US soldiers at Iraq's Abu Graib prison, Lind puts the emphasis on the harm done to "America's moral reputation" ... "by the revelations" of torture and abuse, rather than stressing the depravity of the acts themselves.

Richard Falk 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)

Similarly, Lind laments that "the credibility of American military power has been gravely damaged" by its inability to prevail in its encounter with insurgents in Iraq, instead of than lamenting the dubious undertaking of a war of choice opposed by world public opinion, defiant of international law and the United Nations, and diversionary with respect to actual security threats posed by the attacks on the US on 11 September 2001.

In commenting on the problems associated with what is going on with respect to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Lind faults the "Bush administration's abandonment of America's policy as honest brokers". I find this wording either dishonest or incredibly naive: how could the US possibly abandon a policy it never practiced? What bothers Lind, it seems, is not what the US is doing in the world, but that it is unsuccessful in what it undertakes and has failed to adapt to a new set of conditions that emerged after the end of the cold war.

Coming to the substance of Lind's analysis, I think his brand of realism has much to offer students of world politics. I endorse his indictment of the presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W Bush for pursuing world domination on the basis of American military capabilities rather than seeking to ground global stability on a series of cooperative regional concerts of major powers. His particular call for an exploration of cooperative hegemonic arrangements that engage China and Russia, and presumably India, as well, is an appealing alternative to the sort of unilateralism that has up to now enjoyed bipartisan support in the US.

Richard Falk is professor of politics and international affairs, emeritus, at Princeton University, and since 2002 has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His many books include The Declining World Order: America's Imperial Geopolitics (Routledge, 2004) and The Record of the Paper: How the New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004)

Also by Richard Falk in openDemocracy:

"An alternative to Iraq delusions"
(16 December 2005)

"After the nuclear non-proliferation treaty" (27 April 2006) – with David Krieger

Lind's conceptualisation of "cooperative multilateralism" is a useful modification of what he calls "our ill-conceived post-cold-war policy of world domination". Lind explicitly hopes that America's next president will choose this path, although the realist filter he relies upon leads him to observe that it is highly unlikely to happen, whichever party wins the 2008 elections. I think this skepticism is well-justified, and expresses the unhealthy condition of political life in the US, which precludes giving serious attention to any world-order approach that is not administered from Washington.

Two problems

Although I welcome these formulations I would mention two major problems with Lind's analysis. First, the reliance on regional concerts is not connected positively with either the United Nations or international law. Lind moves in the other direction, reassuring readers that such concerts "need not depend on the UN Security Council." I think this seeming exclusion of global institutions and international law mistakenly places excessive reliance on major sovereign states to organise world order in the 21st century, and thereby underestimates the multidimensional relevance of globalisation.

It strikes me as a futile effort to sustain a purely realist understanding of world order as based on the exclusive interplay of sovereign states, ignoring the role played by non-state actors, financial markets, and transnational social forces and movements. Regional concerts and multilateral cooperation are valuable pillars of a viable world order, but insufficient unless they are reinforced by an effective UN system and a strengthened rule of law. This Westphalian myopia also has the effect of downplaying challenges of global scope - most notably, global warming causing climate change, but also the emerging energy squeeze.

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