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Conservatives and global governance

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16 November 2011 17:58

ForeignPolicy.com blogger David Bosco has started a series of posts on his Multilateralist blog exploring the relationship American conservatives have with multilateral institutions. In his opening post, David referred to a three-part series I wrote as a guest blogger for James Fallows at The Atlantic earlier this year which argued, in part, that American conservatives ought to embrace multilateralism. 

The first thing I would add to David's thoughts is that the suspicion and hostility toward international organisations among the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, which David summarises in his second post, is more acute than it has been in the past in the GOP. The Republican Party is moving to the right in most areas of policy, and foreign policy is no exception.

To put it another way, figures such as Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan would have a hard time getting nominated in 2012, in part because their foreign policy views would be seen as dangerously moderate. Yes, the Republican Party has always had a 'black helicopter faction' (I believe the phrase is Bill Clinton's), but that fringe belief has grown in recent years, and Republican presidential candidates have to pay obeisance to it.

The second point I'd make is that this suspicion toward multilateral institutions is growing on the American right at exactly the moment when the US ought to be making greater use of such institutions.

One of the themes of the series I wrote for the Atlantic was America's relative decline. I suspect American conservatives have either not internalised this change yet (nor have Democrats, for that matter), or they acknowledge it but only to argue that it must be resisted. Leading right-wing foreign policy pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, for instance, argue that decline is a choice

Krauthammer is right, in one sense. It is up to Americans alone whether they continue to suffer crippling deficits, crumbling infrastructure and a dysfunctional political system. Absolute decline is in American hands. But relative decline is not; the developing world, led by China, is catching up, and will likely overtake the US in raw economic power in the next decade, no matter how strongly the US recovers from its recession.

The international environment is moving away from US hegemony and toward a balance of power, yet the tone of much right-wing American commentary is that this change can be resisted through an act of sheer will on America's part.

Not only is this unlikely, it would be undesirable for America to even try, because such a stance will face resistance from China, in particular, which wants to take a more prominent place in the Asia Pacific and on the international stage. It would be far preferable for the US to accommodate the rise of China and other powers in a way that suits America's long-term interests. And that entails enmeshing these rising powers in a rules-based international order so that the inevitable competition between the great powers is tamed or sublimated.

When you're a hegemon, you can afford to ignore international institutions which bring a degree of order and law to the anarchical international environment. When power is shared, it is far preferable that international relations are conducted within a framework laws, conventions and traditions to which all players grant a degree of authority.

Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

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