Gulliver's Travails: The U.S. in the Post-Cold-War World

By O'Sullivan, John | New Criterion, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Gulliver's Travails: The U.S. in the Post-Cold-War World


O'Sullivan, John, 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. …

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