Fukuyama reviews Power: Chasing the Flame

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Francis Fukuyama recently reviewed Samantha Power's new book, Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World. From the review:

In the wake of the Iraq debacle, the idea that strong countries like the United States should use their power to defend human rights or promote democracy around the world has become widely discredited. From an overmilitarized foreign policy, we are in danger of going to the opposite extreme, forgetting the lessons of the 1990s that hard power is sometimes needed to resolve political conflicts, and that we do not yet have an adequate set of international institutions to deploy it legitimately and effectively.

I take exception to one of the premises above. The U.S. does not use its power primarily to defend human rights or promote democracy. It has never done so. The U.S. acts in its own interest--the fabled "national interest" (as perceived by the ruling elites)--first, last, and always. From time to time, U.S. leaders see U.S. interests as concordant with those of defending human rights and promoting democracy, and act accordingly. But this is always incidental to the real goals of promoting national prosperity and security, and just as often the real goals conflict with the stated goals of saving others from themselves/promoting democracy, stated goals which are themselves often in tension with each other.

One lesson of the 1990s is that sovereign nations cannot be expected to act on their own to further the interests of noncitizens at some unquantifiable risk to their own interests. They simply won't do it absent a more formal institutional structure for using multilateral military force than now exists. Any political leadership that does make significant sacrifices for noncitizens at the expense of citizens will soon find itself out of a job if that country's democratic processes are functioning well, and rightly so, based on the existing parameters of sovereign government and international politics.

Perhaps Power's thesis in Problem is correct, that the slaughters in Rwanda and Bosnia could have been avoided or at least contained with some minimal effort by the U.S. and other powerful countries. I am skeptical--militarists also predicted that pacifying Iraq would be a cakewalk and liberal internationalists still chide NATO members for not contributing adequate troops for the mission in Afghanistan as western troops still struggle to impose order there 5 ½ years after invasion. Neither of these wars should have been fought, whether unilaterally or not, and each of them acts as a cautionary tale for believers in the efficacy of military power like Power and Yglesias.

The important point, though, is that, contra Power in Problem, in the current international framework, any unilateral action will be doomed from the start. A sovereign country acting on its own behalf is only obligated to act in the interests of its own citizens. That is why the U.S. military strikes in Sudan in the late 1990s did nothing to ameliorate the raging civil war there, but were instead intended to reassure an anxious U.S. public that Clinton was capable of defending America.

But Power appears to have recognized some of the failings of the unilateral action she espoused in Problem, and in the new book argues for stronger support for UN peacekeeping operations.

"Chasing the Flame" argues, as Vieira de Mello himself once did, that the United Nations is often unfairly blamed for failures to protect the vulnerable or deter aggression, when the real failure is that of the great powers standing behind it. Those powers are seldom willing to give it sufficient resources, attention and boots on the ground to accomplish the ambitious mandates they set for it. At present, the United Nations is involved in eight separate peacekeeping operations in Africa alone; failure in a high-profile case like Darfur (which seems likely) will once again discredit the organization. Power (who has been a foreign policy adviser to Barack Obama) makes the case for powerful countries like the United States putting much greater effort into making the institution work.

This is a strong argument, and I plan to read the book to see how Power develops it. But Fukuyama is not convinced.

In the end, the book does not make a persuasive case that the United Nations will ever be able to evolve into an organization that can deploy adequate amounts of hard power or take sides in contentious political disputes. Its weaknesses as a bureaucracy and its political constraints make it very unlikely that the United States and other powerful countries will ever delegate to it direct control over their soldiers or trust it with large sums of money.

Fukuyama's circular argument here is partly descriptive, but partly a common normative argument employed by sovereignists: as long as the UN is weak and ineffectual, strong countries won't trust their troops and money to it, keeping it weak and ineffectual, undermining trust and contributions, etc.

For neocons, it's always 1938, the year Chamberlain capitulated to Hitler at Munich. As a recovering neocon, Fukuyama would be well-advised to fast-forward to 1945, the year the Allied powers acted on the lessons of 1938 and founded the United Nations. After the UN was founded, Allied leaders worked hard to solidify public support for the organization. In the U.S.:

The overwhelming majority of the American people, regardless of party, support the United Nations.

They are resolved that the United States, to the full limit of its strength, shall contribute to the establishment and maintenance of a just and lasting peace among the nations of the world.

---Harry Truman, 1946

And Britain:

A world organization has already been erected for the prime purpose of preventing war, UNO, the successor of the League of Nations, with the decisive addition of the United States and all that means, is already at work. We must make sure that its work is fruitful, that it is a reality and not a sham, that it is a force for action, and not merely a frothing of words, that it is a true temple of peace in which the shields of many nations can some day be hung up, and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.

. . .

Courts and magistrates may be set up but they cannot function without sheriffs and constables. The United Nations Organization must immediately begin to be equipped with an international armed force. In such a matter we can only go step by step, but we must begin now. I propose that each of the Powers and States should be invited to delegate a certain number of air squadrons to the service of the world organization. These squadrons would be trained and prepared in their own countries, but would move around in rotation from one country to another. They would wear the uniform of their own countries but with different badges. They would not be required to act against their own nation, but in other respects they would be directed by the world organization. This might be started on a modest scale and would grow as confidence grew.

---Winston Churchill, 1946

The same Allied leaders who defeated German and Japanese aggression after the missteps of 1938 had no qualms about offering unqualified support for a powerful UN. So why is it so hard for Fukuyama and other UN-skeptics to do the same?

[Cross-posted at yave begnet]

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3 Comments

Ultima said:

I has always been the case and largely always should be that people, countries, and governments act in accordance with their perceived enlightened self-interest. Even those people who think they are acting solely out of altruism derive significant pleasure from the reaction to their altruism and the public recognition of their philanthropy. In other words some folks do this because of the feel-good return they get on their investment of time and money.

kyledeb Author Profile Page said:

Thanks for stopping by again Ultima,

You mind tell us a little bit about yourself? I like to get to know commenters as it better helps us to arrive at a mutual understanding and hopefully truth.

It's always difficult to define the difference between altruism and self-interest. I'm of the mind that most people are good at heart and do what they believe is best for themselves and for others. Whether or not they derive satisfaction from being good at heart, it's difficult to say. The complexity of the human experience and the competing emotions involved in all of our actions makes it difficult to say everything is self-interest.

yave begnet said:

I has always been the case and largely always should be that people, countries, and governments act in accordance with their perceived enlightened self-interest.

Agreed. For instance, it is in my interest to pay taxes so that law enforcement and the criminal justice system can protect me from bad actors who might otherwise hurt me and my family (setting aside for now problems with existing law enforcement). I trust the government enough to perform these functions that I won't set up my own law enforcement and defense like the militias that dot the Mountain West.

Ultima, I presume that you feel more or less the same way, as does most of the U.S. population. If law enforcement and criminal justice were less institutionally racist, even more Americans would support those systems.

My main point is: why draw the line at the nation-state, as you have? It seems arbitrary in historical context. In this country, we don't accept the right of cities to defend themselves from outside invaders, though cities have done so in the past elsewhere. Since the Civil War, we don't accept the right of regions to defend themselves, but that conclusion was only reached at the end of a bloody war of attrition, and was contingent on geography and historical circumstance.

So why not try to expand the circle of trust outward such that justice is enforced by a global, more truly democratic sovereign? The EU Common Foreign and Security Policy is a step in this direction. So is NATO. So was the UN, but its initial promise was stymied by the Cold War.

Self interest has to be the motivator, not altruism, which I don't believe exists, anyway. But under the current international political system, self interest too often leads to military conflict. So I ask: please offer your reasons for defending an unequal, undemocratic system.

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