Leaning: Away

By Rothkopf, David | Foreign Policy, July-August 2013 | Go to article overview

Leaning: Away


Rothkopf, David, Foreign Policy


THERE ARE NO failed states. There is only a failure of our international system. Yet we persist in speaking of institutional and economic collapse, social discord, and the turmoil associated with dwindling resources as though they existed somehow separate from the world, as though calamity somewhere were not of consequence everywhere.

This is old think. Very old think: Westphalian nation-state nonsense that evokes a 17th-century mentality in which words like "foreign," "border," "us," and "them" meant something very different. But as we have seen during this 350-year nation-state experiment, this old think doesn't simply divvy up the world into manageable chunks--it also endows countries with the profound and fundamental right to be selfish. As much as it says, "Our business is our own," it also says, "We have the right not to care about others, to pretend they don't exist, to look away when they are in distress or torment or at war with one another."

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It is true that within each country's borders, different views exist of the obligations of individual citizens to one another, of provinces and cities to their neighbors, of the large and small private entities in the polity--corporations, churches, and other institutions--to society as a whole. Some countries elevate and value community. Some serve the state to the detriment of individual people. And some, like the United States, celebrate individuality to a fault. At least some Americans do, seeing the responsibilities manifest in the actions, sinews, laws, and regulations of government as overreach, an encroachment.

Americans celebrate this independent spirit. Their market ideology is more Charles Darwin than Adam Smith, suggesting somehow that if we value the survival of the fittest, then the casualties of the weak are merely part of nature's grand equation. Even those who don't embrace the most extreme aspects of this frontier fuck-you-ism at home almost certainly do abroad. It is a great American tradition. From George Washington's farewell admonition to avoid foreign entanglements to the isolationism that is by far America's greatest and longest-lasting international policy impulse--the same inclination that had only 17 percent of Americans in favor of getting involved in the war in Europe even as it raged in the middle of 1940--the view of this great nation has more often than not been that the world's problems are not its own.

Sure, Americans went off and fought two world wars. The United States has intervened throughout the past century in every corner of the globe and has put troops on every habitable continent at one time or another. But not only has it done so selectively--it has helped create international institutions that are only capable of doing so selectively. In the wake of World War If, the United States helped make an international system that had two main purposes: to create the illusion of having one and to help advance U.S. interests. The system's institutions by design are weak, toothless, and possessed of only limited resources.

This approach has clearly failed. Today the greatest problems we face are almost universally the global calamities that demand strong international mechanisms and a global sense of community that do not exist and are anathema to the selfish spirit that was the great contribution of the Peace of Westphalia: global warming, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the cancer of failed and failing states that destabilize their neighbors, spreading refugees and unrest across borders. …

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