A Janus-faced World

The Breaking of Nations: order and chaos in the 21st century
by Robert Cooper
Atlantic Books, 180pp, £14.99

International relations may or may not be in a mess; the theory of international relations certainly is. The old theory was that the world consists of “states” which exist in an “international anarchy”. It was an “anarchy” because there was no world government. But there was, nevertheless, a principle of order, or rather two: empire and the balance of power. These coexisted in uneasy juxtaposition. By the end of the 19th century, the balance of power in Europe had become a world balance as the United States and Japan took their place as “great powers” alongside the empires of the main European states. After 1945, there was a bipolar “balance” between two “imperial systems” headed by the US and the Soviet Union. At any rate, this was the theory, though the facts never quite fitted it. Then the Soviet pole collapsed, and conceptual confusion reigned.

Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” in 1989. The triumph of the western idea of markets and democracy would bring about a boring kind of bliss for all. Somewhat in parallel grew the concept of globalisation. Economic interdependence and the internet were creating a single world community. Some looked forward to a new law – or rule-based international society. Common to all three was the thought that we had entered a historically unprecedented era in which peace, prosperity and justice might be sustained without the old power relations, which as often as not had brought war and impoverishment.

There were dissenters. Samuel Huntington talked about a coming “clash of civilisations”. John Gray envisaged wars for control of scarce resources. For Gray, human beings are fighting animals. Order has to be imposed. The “Enlightenment project” is a delusion.

The dissenters now have some pretty good evidence on their side. Fukuyama’s idea that post-history had arrived was shattered by 9/11. The US, with its world-wide military and economic tentacles, was unmistakably “in history”: that’s why it was attacked. Still, the hope that history might be overcome lingers on.

How, then, to conceptualise the Janus-faced world we now inhabit – one that aspires to post-historical bliss but still seems to be rooted in the conflict of states and peoples? In his intelligent and stylish book The Breaking of Nations, the diplomat Robert Cooper, said to be Tony Blair’s favourite foreign policy adviser and now based in Brussels, divides the world into three parts: the postmodern, the modern and the pre-modern.

The postmodern consists of states that have decided never to fight each other again and which value the rights of peoples above the rights of nations. This enables their peaceful interdependence to be carried much further than in the past. The chief example of postmodernity is the European Union, a “highly developed system for mutual interference in each other’s domestic affairs, right down to beer and sausages”.

The “modern” world is roughly the world of sovereign states of traditional international relations theory. Its ordering principles remain hegemony/empire and the balance of power. The US, China, India and Russia are the big beasts in this particular jungle. The pre-modern world is the easiest of all to categorise: it is the world of “failed” states, which have regressed from nationhood to tribalism, criminality and chaos. Most of them are in sub-Saharan Africa, though Yugoslavia is a recent example.

There is much else of interest in this short book. The second part has a collection of “maxims” for statesmen, with apt historical examples and useful reflections. It is good to be reminded that “foreigners are different” and there is much practical wisdom in the thought that to “enlarge the context” is to enlarge the possibility of trade-offs. But the book will be judged by its conceptual map. How useful is it? And what practical conclusions follow from it? On both counts, the verdict is mixed.

The most important use of the language of postmodern, modern and pre-modern is to signify that the nation state is ceasing to be the main source of people’s identity. The “breaking of nations” is occurring through the formation of multiple identities at the top and the retreat to tribalism at the bottom. This suggests new patterns of both “order and chaos” in the world. I doubt if either movement has gone far enough to justify the title Cooper has chosen. Even the EU, which is the most advanced postmodern construction, has not been able to transcend the national limits to democracy. Unless this happens, war between the European states cannot be said to have been finally “disinvented”.

The new language suggests the possibility of both progress and regress, nicely capturing the mingled sense of achievement and disappointment of the past decade. In this, it is superior to the monochrome constructions of Fukuyama and Gray. It gives a limited warrant for optimism while avoiding the errors of both Pangloss and Cassandra.

It rightly acknowledges the role of power. But this leaves the US awkwardly poised between the postmodern and modern worlds. If postmodern is roughly equated with wealth, the US is undoubtedly post- modern. But it is anchored to the modern world by its superpower status and the often violent hostility this provokes. There is also no doubt that consciousness of its exceptionalism makes the US very reluctant to sacrifice its sovereignty. The same may well be true of Russia and China. The European states have had their own notions of uniqueness rubbed off by centuries of close (and often destructive) interaction.

The conclusions for action are far from clear. For the “failed” states, the main alternatives would appear to be to ignore them or to put them under some kind of international trusteeship. The trouble with the first is that they are ideal havens for terrorists; the trouble with the second is that occupation is very costly. Still, some system of supervision of “failed” states as a precondition for receiving aid looks inevitable.

The second issue concerns the role of the US in any system of order. In his book Paradise and Power, the American “neo-con” Robert Kagan equates the post-modern “paradise” of Europe with its unwillingness to use force. This leaves the US as the world’s sheriff: Mars is needed to protect Venus. Cooper disagrees. “It is unsatisfactory that 450 million Europeans rely so much on 250 million Americans to defend them.” Although Europeans hanker for an extension of the postmodern world, Cooper believes they will in the end develop enough military capacity to defend themselves. One can go further: it may be that the EU’s military weakness is due less to its postmodern outlook than to the inherent difficulty of building a coherent foreign and security policy out of not wholly united parts.

My personal belief is that terrorism will cease to be the mortal threat to world peace that it now seems to be. I believe that it is fairly easy to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Many of our present fears are based on science fiction, not science. For this, scientists themselves are largely to blame. It is time they joined in the construction of our theories of international relations.