The New MAD World

August 8, 2008

The New MAD World

Can foreign-policy thinkers reconcile the balance-of-power framework with the need to solve emerging global challenges?

After participating in a recent foreign policy conference call, it occurred to me that analysts are speaking to one another on different modes, often talking past one another.  One mode is the classical balance of power conversation: Which country has more power in various regional theaters? Another mode looks at foreign policy questions in a global context: What are the most urgent problems facing the world today?

Can these two modes of analysis be reconciled?

The biggest phenomenon in international relations today, the so-called rise of the rest, presents fertile ground to test such a question.  Many observers, from Fareed Zakaria to Kishore Mahbubani to Steve Weber, have noticed that "non-Western" states such as China, Russia, and India, are growing more rapidly than Western states and are doing more business with one another. They therefore have more foreign policy options-they can "route around" the United States, as Nick Gvosdev has put it. To further this conversation, Nick and I assembled a group of experts at the Carnegie Council this summer as a follow up to a panel at the Nixon Center in the summer of 2007.

A surprising consensus emerged from that panel: The current international system is witnessing the birth of an "embryonic community," as George Washington University professor Harry Harding put it.  Two camps are taking shape, providing more clarity about the system than the amorphous notion of a "multi-polar system" that has plagued foreign policy thinking for the past few years. According to Harding, the world's two camps are the U.S.-led elitist reformers and the China- and Russia-led populist conservatives.  Harding noted that these two camps happen to view the world in contrasting terms: The U.S. group wants democracy at home and order in the world, while the other group (the rest) wants order at home and democracy in the world.

If indeed a system of two camps or one that is "nonpolar," as Richard Haass puts it, is emerging, is cooperation more or less likely?  Harding's answer was optimistic: The current problems of today, including climate change and energy security, are so grave that they will force cooperation between these two camps.  In political science terms, Harding likened these two camps to political parties, concluding that bipartisanship (or cooperation) was likely.


Which brings me to my conference call.  The conversation was stuck on whether Japan or the United States will define China's rise as a "threat" without defining the assumptions or even the problem.  If the problems facing statesmen today are so severe, will they continue to view rivals in the simple terms of threat analysis?

Taking the assumption of two emerging camps, "the West" and "the rest," I might offer a way out of this analytical problem: The current system may be Cold War Lite in which noncooperation is the new mutual assured destruction (MAD).  The imperative of the global commons is such that if we fail to cooperate, our destruction is mutually assured.  Welcome to the new MAD world.


All of the greatest challenges-climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, pandemics, dwindling natural resources, and economic vulnerability as a consequence of interdependence-necessitate cooperation but states will only cooperate if they can build trust.  Classical realists can build trust by employing the traditional instruments of statecraft, such as trade agreements, treaties, sea lane protection, and military exercises, so that states can overcome the mutual distrust that is preventing cooperation.  They don't have to use liberal instruments like international law or institutions.

The deeper, perhaps more psychological obstacles preventing cooperation are those identified by Scott Barrett in his book Why Cooperate: The Incentive to Supply Global Public Goods.  The tragedy of the "new commons," as Bill Owens calls it, is that the benefit to the state that provides global public goods is diffuse except that it acquires moral leadership in the international community, something that is essential to preventing a hegemon from being perceived as a threat.  Yes, China and Russia are rising but they will only trigger balance of power politics if they do not also provide global public goods.

The task for United States is therefore to lead by providing those public goods and facilitating a sincere conversation about global ethics.  The United States can lead by example but it also must grapple with the question: What is the fairest way to address the world's problems?  Assigning responsibility for climate change mitigation, for example, is not simple.  Should the biggest polluter bear the most responsibility?  And over what time period do you measure that pollution?  Or should it be the richest country?  Or the country with the greatest ability to take action?  These are the questions that the world's aspiring leaders should have the courage to ask.

Devin Stewart is Director, Global Policy Innovations, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.