Brave Not-So-New World: A Case for Realism and Multilateralism

Brave Not-So-New World: A Case for Realism and Multilateralism

Robert Cooper.


Robert Cooper. The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003. 180 pp. $18.95.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been no shortage of attempts to explain the "new world order." Two of the earliest such works-nowadays classics of the genre-staked out opposing scenarios for global politics in the coming century: Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man sketched out a hopeful vision of the definitive triumph of liberal democracy, while Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order predicted clashes between civilizations-rather than nations and ideologies-as the driving force in a volatile world. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, numerous other works-some evidently written with almost embarrassing haste-have tried to explain the "changed world" through the optic of one overarching theoretical construct or another, whether it be the difference between "hard" and "soft" power, the technologies that have changed the nature of warfare or the impact of America's might relative to Europe's weakness. Perhaps the most influential of these epistemological quests was Robert Kagan's Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order which described recent transatlantic tensions as the by-product of differing perceptions of power and law in a world somewhere between Fukuyama's paradise and Huntington's clash and provoked debate in academic and policy circles worldwide.


However, with a handful of exceptions, including Vittorio Emanuele Parsi whose fascinating The Inevitable Alliance: Europe and the United States Beyond Iraq has regrettably received little notice outside Italy and Spain, the books and ideas driving the recent international discussions of geopolitical and diplomatic strategy-if one excludes hysterical philippics against the world's sole hyperpuissance-have been American in origin. Now Robert Cooper, a British diplomat who formerly served as special adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair and is now the Director-General of External and Politico-Military Affairs for the Council of the European Union, has made a signal contribution with The Breaking of the Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-First Century. Unlike the other works of its kind, this small book, consisting of two long essays and a brief epilogue, does not offer a single theoretical framework. Rather, by carefully crafting a rich tapestry of historical parallels and conceptual distinctions, Cooper offers a sweeping reinterpretation of the world that has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet empire.

In the book's first-and, arguably, strongest-essay, "The Condition of the World," Cooper argues that the Westphalian and Cold War nation-state systems have been replaced by not one, but three kinds of worlds: the "pre-state, post-imperial chaos" of places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Liberia, where either because of a crisis of legitimacy or simply the widespread availability of conventional arms, the state no longer meets Max Weber's criterion of having the legitimate monopoly on the use of force; "modern world" where the classical state system remains intact and states both retain the monopoly of force and are prepared to use it against each other (in this category are relatively peaceful states like Brazil, as well as occasionally tendentious neighbors like India and China); and the "post-modern element," such as the European Union, where the "modern" state system is being replaced by an emerging transnational order based on transparency, law and mutual security.

Noting that, at least in Europe, the traditional balance of power had ceased to balance and that the sovereignty of the Europe's independent states led to self-destructive nationalist extremes that, twice in the last century, plunged the continent into war, Cooper comes out clearly in favor of the "post-modern" solution adopted by Europe with its mutual surveillance/interference in affairs traditionally regarded as domestic, open borders, free trade and avoidance of recourse to war. In contrast, the United States, which according to Cooper made possible the post-modern world, "has stood outside the system and above it as its guardian," and has yet to decide whether it will embrace the new interdependent order or pursue "modern" power politics. However, the EU diplomat cautions against facile characterizations of America by post-modern Europeans:

In one respect, however, the United States diverges from the norm of the modern state. There is an imperial tinge to American policy in its desire to promote democracy. This is a cause that attracts both Left and Right, Wilsonians and neoconservatives. And yet if this is imperial it is also anti-imperial: on the one hand, it tells countries how they should be run; on the other, it tells them they should do the running themselves. It is a typically postmodern approach but it may also have solid modern motivations…Like parallel lines, in America the modern and the postmodern may eventually meet.

What saves these reflections from being a mere repetition-albeit pithily expressed-of conventional pieties is Cooper's thorough grounding in realism. The second essay in The Breaking of Nations, "The Conditions of Peace: Twenty-First Century Diplomacy," was originally conceived as a briefing memo for the British prime minister to read over Christmas 2001. As a consequence, its author reveals himself to be no dreamy-eyed utopian; rather the note itself opens with an ominous warning: "This is a dangerous world and it is going to become more dangerous." While the essay asserts that "it is essential that we start now on the search for political solutions to our problems" and proceeds to set out five maxims for diplomacy, Cooper acknowledges that "the twin dangers of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction present us with a radically altered security environment."

It is these dangers which bring Cooper to his brief epilogue on "Europe and America," with which he rounds off his brief volume. While transparency and interdependence may have increased the security of European states by lessening the likelihood of another intra-European conflagration, the post-modern European order still faces the same threats as the American imperium. As Cooper acknowledges, "We may not be interested in chaos but chaos is interested in us." At one end of the spectrum, terrorism-especially if coupled with nuclear or biological weapons-represents a threat to the entire international system by its "pre-modern" privatization of war; at the other end, only marginally less dangerous, is the risk that modern and post-modern states-through humanitarian interventions and the like-will be "sucked into the pre-modern for reasons of conscience and then [be] unwilling either to take over or to get out." As Cooper sees it, the American response to these threats is hegemonic: to control, through military force if need be, the foreign policies of all potential threatening states. The European response is to extend its cooperative system further, absorbing potential threats along the EU's periphery. Both approaches have their limits:

The weakness of [the American] approach is that the task is too great for even the United States. Power may be distributed too widely for easy control; if too many interventions are required, the costs of sustaining them may become too high. At the same time intervention creates resentment and fear: the cure may spread the disease rather than end it…The postmodern, European answer…relies on the spread of European political culture. For many of Europe's neighbors this amounts to regime change-and even where this is possible it is likely to be a slow business. Second, there are obvious geographical constraints; the European commonwealth has to be more or less contiguous, but the threats, in a globalized world, can come from anywhere.

Cooper's solution to the dilemma is dialectical, proposing a synthesis that would require the U.S. and its European partners to confront the threats together over the long term. Citing the experience of the Balkans and Afghanistan, Cooper argues that military power "still counts more than softer forms of power" and that "power has an attractive as well as a coercive force," hence, Europeans ought to do more to build up their military capabilities since their lag behind America is far greater than even the gap in military spending might suggest-a point made recently by his fellow Briton, Admiral Sir Ian Forbes, who qualified the assertion that NATO could have gone to war in Afghanistan alongside the U.S. on any comparable scale or level as "questionable." Even if the European nations undertake commitments to upgrade their military force to credible levels, they will still remain highly dependent upon the U.S. Nonetheless, Cooper finds the idea of a single country having unrestrained-and irrepressible power-undesirable:

The state is based on the legitimate monopoly of force and the difficulty with the American monopoly of force in the world community is that it is American and will be exercises, necessarily, in the interests of the United States. This will not be seen as legitimate.

The point is well taken. Unfortunately, here Cooper fails to follow up his good political intuition with any concrete policy recommendations as to how to achieve legitimacy in a global community. While those who want pluralism point to the United Nations as a powerful, if not necessarily always the most preeminent, source of legitimacy in international affairs, both the organization's many failures over the years and the willingness of even the most vociferous voices for multilateralism have been willing to be unilateral when their interests are at stake-witness France's repeated interventions in its former African colonies and its Loi de programmation militaire pour les années 2003 à 2008 that sanctioned preventive military action-have rendered the proposition rather ambivalent. What can be done practically to make multilateralism a workable security system, rather than just a slogan?