Monday, August 28, 2006

These Colors

Driving on Pacific Coast Highway on a weekend during the summer invariably provides time for deep thought. It's something to be avoided whenever possible (driving on PCH, that is, not deep thought), but my son was returning home from a week in Texas and so I was fighting the traffic on the way down to LAX to pick him up.

On my way to the airport, I spotted a bumper sticker with an American flag and these words: "These colors don't run . . . the world." Michael Mandelbaum, I thought to myself, would disagree.

Mandelbaum's The Case for Goliath is an application of hegemonic stability theory. At its most basic level, hegemonic stability theory says simply that those who have the power make the rules (or, as the Athenians put it in their discussion with the Melians, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must"). The theory also contends that those rules, when enforced by the dominant power, promote order in the international system. Since World War II, the United States has been the world's leading power; since the end of the Cold War, it has had no rival.

Primacy of the sort enjoyed by the United States since 1945 has brought with it the opportunity to create a world order based on American values. In an earlier book, The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-first Century, Mandelbaum made the case that, by the end of the twentieth century, American values had been firmly entrenched as the principles of the new world order. (It's worth noting that the phrase "new world order"--in its Latin form, novus ordo seclorum--appears on the Great Seal of the United States.) The British legal scholar Philippe Sands has also argued recently (in Lawless World) that the modern international legal system bears the indelible stamp of American values put into place in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Unlike Mandelbaum, however, Sands goes on to argue that the United States now finds itself on the wrong side of many of the laws it established for the world.

Clearly there's a strong argument to be made that American power has helped to shape a world in which human rights, democracy, free trade, and the commitment to peaceful conflict resolution enjoy wider support than at any prior point in human history. So what about the argument that America runs the world? Or, to put the question more discreetly, what about the claims of hegemonic stability theory?

Mandelbaum, who argued in The Ideas That Conquered the World that peace (that is, the commitment to seek peaceful solutions to conflict) has become a global norm, is an apologist for the Iraq War in The Case for Goliath. Human rights, the torture debate, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo form no part of his argument. His argument, in other words, is essentially that the United States runs the world according to principles that it no longer honors. A hegemon may be able to get away with hypocrisy for a while, but few things are likely to arouse more resentment over the long term.

It's true that the world has largely bought into American values, if by "American values" we mean the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the Nuremberg Principles. If, however, by "American values" we mean preventive war, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees, defiance and open disparagement of the United Nations, and efforts to undermine the International Criminal Court, then few in the world want any part of those values.

Here, then, is the central problem for the hegemonic stability theorist today: The hegemon is not acting in a manner consistent with its own rules and therefore it is generating turbulence, not stability, in the world. What the bumper sticker should have said is this: "These colors don't run . . . the world according to the values they once represented." That, however, would have necessitated covering up the "Free Tibet" bumper sticker.