Gulliver’s travails: The U.S. in the post-Cold-War world (John O’Sullivan, October 2004, New Criterion)
Towards the close of the twentieth century a metaphor entered circulation that compared the United States to Lemuel Gulliver at the start of his visit to Lilliput. Gulliver in Swift’s satire was, you recall, an English sea doctor who, having sunk exhausted on a foreign beach after his ship was wrecked, woke up to discover miniscule Lilliputians had tied him down with slender threads and tiny pegs. In this telling, the international community—that comfortable euphemism for the U.N., the WTO, the ICC, other U.N. agencies, and the massed ranks of NGOs—sought to constrain America’s freedom of action in a web of international laws, regulations, and treaties, such as the Kyoto accords.
It is a passably accurate account of the international status quo a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That status quo looks somewhat different five years later. But the history of the intervening period is the story of how the United States and the international community continued to grapple with each other in the process of seeking to contain or defeat Islamist terrorism. It is the story of “Gulliver’s Travails.”
Gulliver among the Tranzis
The first episode is the globalizing decade that ran from the final collapse of the Soviet Union to September 11th. This was a period in which trade walls were reduced, barriers to capital movements liberalized, and the factors of production loosened up to move around the world more freely than at any time since 1914. These economic changes brought political ones in their train. Governments had to introduce such reforms as market transparency and the rule of law in order to attract and keep the foreign investment they needed for sustained prosperity.
All this is well known. But two other global developments passed unnoticed under the radar of conventional politics.
The first was the spread of Islamist terrorism. In retrospect it is astounding that we failed to react more strongly to the first bombing of the World Trade Center, the bombings of the American embassies in East Africa, and the attack on the USS Cole. Maybe Americans were insulated from a sensible anxiety by their victory in the Cold War, their status as the sole remaining superpower, and the sedative effects of the long Reagan-Clinton prosperity. Whatever the reason, Islamist terrorism grew throughout the 1990s partly because it was ignored.
The second global development was the quiet revolution of transnationalism. Its exact lineaments are open to debate, but I would suggest that it consists of five overlapping developments:
First, the growing power and authority of international, transnational, and supranational organizations such as the U.N. and its various agencies, the European Union, and the World Trade Organization.
Second, the transformation of international law from the arbitration of disputes between sovereign states into laws that have a direct impact on individual citizens and private bodies through treaties and conventions that override domestic legislation.
Third, the dramatic increase in the number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs in the jargon) and their increasing influence on international politics both as pressure groups and as providers of services to governments and international agencies.
Fourth, the spread of economic, environmental, and social regulation from the national to the international level through laws, treaties, and “standards” by, among other bodies, U.N. conferences on such topics as women’s rights and racism.
Finally, the emergence of common values, a common outlook, and even a class consciousness among the diplomats, lawyers, and bureaucrats in international organizations, NGOs, multinational corporations, and those academic centers that serve them.
Kenneth Minogue calls this structure of governance “Acronymia” after the UNOs and NGOs that constitute it. He credits the present author with giving the name “Olympians,” after the gods of Antiquity, to those who administer it. Ancient gods used to “kill us for their sport,” but modern Olympians are content to regulate and preach at us. John Fonte has defined the common ideology they preach as “transnational progressivism”: national sovereignty and the nation-state are disappearing in favor of a new structure of international organizations and rules that goes by the slippery name of “global governance.” In domestic politics, it argues that liberal democracy—built upon majority rule, individual rights, and a common culture—is being replaced by “post-democracy” that emphasizes group rights, multiculturalism, and politics as endless negotiations between ethnic groups. But the theory hardly distinguishes international from domestic politics and policy. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas coined the term “global domestic policy” that erases a distinction hitherto important outside Germany.
As a term for those holding this ideology, “transnational progressives” is too big a mouthful. Olympians is, well, too Olympian. A London lawyer, David Carr, of the libertarian blog Samizdata, compressed the former into “the Tranzis,” now in common circulation. […]
It would be odd—and contrary to American interests—to focus entirely on spreading democracy in the Middle East and to ignore entirely the democratic deficit that exists across the transnational and supranational agencies of Minogue’s Acronymia. These bodies claim considerable powers over both national governments and the citizens of their countries. They issue directives with the force of law, fine corporations, prosecute individuals, and interrogate retired statesmen. The U.N. system in particular has spawned new treaties and conventions that propagate international norms on women’s rights, sustainable development, environmental standards, and so on—and U.N. monitoring bodies to ensure that national governments meet their supposed treaty obligations. These conferences set international political agendas that conscript governments, even when they have not ratified the treaties, and that make their way into domestic law via the courts citing customary international law. But they have not been elected by anyone. They are not accountable to any electorate. The laws and regulations they promulgate we cannot repeal or even amend. The U.N. conventions are often composed of special interest NGOs. And, almost comically, the monitoring bodies generally include inspectors drawn from the diplomatic services of despotic and authoritarian regimes.
The democratic deficit in these bodies is frequently admitted by the Tranzis running them, but their admission is then treated as a frank and manly acknowledgment that has solved the problem. In fact, they will not reform without firm pressure from outside. They have a class interest in maintaining their power. And they have ideological allies in most European political parties. Only the United States might lead the resistance to this growing nexus of unaccountable power, in part because its classical liberal U.S. Constitution forbids the Tranzi project of global governance and the loss of democratic sovereignty that it entails.
Like Lilliputians dealing with Gulliver, the Tranzis could not independently resist pressure from a determined United States. If, however, a giant inhabitant of Brobdingnag were to come to their assistance, Gulliver would be defeated. Can the Tranzis hope for similar assistance? Most rising powers—China, India, Japan, Indonesia, Brazil—have little sympathy with Tranzi ideology because it threatens the independent national power they are just beginning to enjoy. The exception is a rising power composed of declining ones—the European Union.
The E.U. sees itself, internally and externally, as the model of a new kind of postmodern superpower. In the accounts of its theorists such as Robert Cooper, the Eurocrat author of The Breaking of Nations, the world is divided like Gaul into three parts: premodern states like the failing despotisms of the Middle East; modern nation-states such as the United States that still exhibit the vital signs of democracy and patriotism, and postmodern polities that have moved into a future of overlapping jurisdictions, multiple national identities, and governance by treaty obligation. These features of the postmodern E.U. are not merely consistent with Tranzi ideology. They are Tranzi ideology, conforming to Fonte’s analsyis and exhibiting the aversion to clear lines of democratic accountability that are hallmarks of Tranzi institution-building.
In large measure the E.U. is a Tranzi project—though one still hobbled by scattered resistance from the voters and national governments. It has a missionary desire to export its distinctive postnational ideology to the rest of the world. It is increasingly driven by an ideological hostility to the United States as the classical liberal democratic alternative to its own post-democracy. And in particular it believes itself superior to the United States in dealing with premodern states and Islamist terrorism—preferring diplomacy to the war on terror and deferring to international bodies in principle.
If the United States is to defeat the terrorists in war or the Tranzis in international politics, it will have to take on the E.U. first. It is likely that this clash will occur most substantially over the war on terror. The United States and the leading E.U. powers have been drifting apart over how to conduct that war; it became an acute crisis over Iraq, and European skeptics have felt themselves vindicated, not wholly unreasonably, by the course of events since Baghdad fell. They will therefore want to conduct the war against Islamist terrorism on intelligence rather than military lines. They will be supported by Acronymia. But the United States—under Bush and probably under Kerry—will confirm the general lines of the Bush doctrine. And the clash will worsen.
Mark Steyn has argued in various venues that this process is likely to end in a complete breach. The NATO allies are inevitably drifting away from the United States and into a policy of appeasing Al Qaeda. Given Mr. Steyn’s fine record of prescience since September 11, only a rash man would gainsay him. But there is another possibility rooted in the fact that the first reactions of most people to a violent but distant revolution are generally appeasing—vide the reactions of almost everyone except Burke and Churchill to the French and Nazi revolutions respectively. Only when it becomes clear that the terrorists’ aims are limitless and that nobody is safe does opinion turn harsher and more realistic: On both continents today opinion is divided between appeasers and resisters in proportions that reflect the fact that Americans know that they are the targets of Islamist terrorism while Europeans can think otherwise for a time. Madrid was not September 11 because Europeans still lack a common identity. For non-Spaniards it was a foreign affair. But with the murder of more than 300 Russian children in Beslan, the kidnapping of the two French journalists, and the bombing of the Australian embassy in Indonesia—all within a week of each other—it is plain that the Islamist terrorists have declared war on the entire non-Islamic world and apostate regimes in the Islamic world. Nobody is safe. And since such terrorism will continue to strike country after country, the political climate throughout Europe is likely to become harsher and more realistic—and so more receptive to the greater realism of American policy. […]
Until recently Washington has relied on Britain, Italy, Poland, and other Atlantic-minded powers to represent its interests in E.U. affairs. But Washington can no longer afford this passivity. That does not mean a Kerry-like anxiety to please the leading European states at the expense of our interests. Quite the contrary. We must intervene for such purposes in order to ensure that the proposed E.U. defense structure does not compromise NATO’s role as the monopoly supplier of European defense. Or to obstruct a common European foreign policy that seems likely to prevent old friends from joining the United States in some future coalition of the willing. Or, more broadly, to encourage the E.U. to develop along Atlanticist lines and away from any role as a “counterweight” to the United States.
If that is to be accomplished conclusively, however, then the United States must also encourage those powers that share its distrust of postmodern structures—plainly Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, and less plainly the Baltic states and some East European countries—to seek more liberal constitutional arrangements within the E.U. Until now, it has consistently discouraged any such resistance to whatever was described by Brussels as “integration.” Even a modest version of such reforms in the E.U. would be a major setback for the Tranzis—their Grenada—and have knock-on effects on their other projects such as the International Criminal Court. And, of course, the mere fact that the E.U. and the U.S. were fighting the war on terror on more American terms would tend, as after September 11, to reduce Tranzi power and influence throughout Acronymia—just as the current Iraqi troubles have helped them. Gulliver would give some Yahoo energy to the overrefined Houyhnhnms of Europe—and maybe get some patience and subtlety in return. That in turn would speed the defeat of the Islamists.
If, however, Mr. Steyn is right in his pessimism—and that’s the way to bet—then the United States will face a difficult future as a military superpower continually frustrated in middling matters by the resistance of international bodies.
This is a terrific, wide-ranging essay that incorporates much of the popular conservative thought on geopolitics. It’s too idea rich to treat here in any comprehensive fashion, however, much of what Mr. O’Sullivan writes depends on two things being true, neither of which appear to be: (1) that the Islamicists present enough of a long term challenge for the war on terror to be of some significant duration and intensity, even to be something of an existential challenge for nations not just in the Middle East but eventually in Europe; and (2) that, assuming they could overcome all the obstacles to unification, the Europeans would present a sufficient challenge that America would have to take them into account.
Events on the ground in nations across the Islamic world would suggest that it is actually Reforming far more quickly than most people initially thought it could. If the pace continues then the Islamic extremists, though they will remain a random danger, will be so contained as to be only a marginal concern. So we should continue to force that pace, but recognize that we are indeed winning the War on Terror and, realistically, are incapable of losing it.
Meanwhile, there’s ample evidence to indicate that integration of the European nation states into one superstate will be counterproductive–because of the problems associated with its becoming too large to function effectively–and will only contribute to the already rapid decline of the continent that is associated mostly with its demographic and spiritual crises. We should certainly try to keep our friends–the Brits, the Irish, the Poles, etc.–from getting sucked into the EU vortex but should do so in order to save them from themselves, not because the EU presents much threat to our own interests.
The Islamicists and the Tranzis are far weaker than they appear at first blush. Even if we were to retreat into the kind of splendid isolationism that a John Kerry and a Pat Buchanan can agree upon these two pathologies would not do us much damage. However, we should fight them, as we are doing, for the sake of their Muslim and European victims.