The Worried Optimist: A “Broken Windows” Theory of World Order

David Brooks’s 4/30 column helps crystallize my own thoughts. I’ve argued here, and in my 2009 book, The Case for Rational Optimism, that in the big picture we’ve been progressing toward Immanuel Kant’s vision of a trading network of peaceful democracies. images-5As did Francis Fukuyama in The End of History, and Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. But lately a lot’s been going wrong.

Spiraling downward are nations like Venezuela, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Egypt, whose revolution is producing a regime even worse than before; creeping authoritarianism afflicts Turkey; sectarian bloodletting recrudesces in Iraq; unbridled Chinese nationalism bullies its neighbors; Islamist violence seems everywhere; South Sudan blows up; Israelis and Palestinians act not to resolve their conflict but entrench it; Iran holds truculent; and of course Syria descends into metastasizing nightmare, while Putin tramples about, instigating havoc and laughing at the puny sanctions incurred. Devils dance while angels cower.

Is it to time to change this blog’s title?

Paraphrasing Brooks, the perennial problem is the strong preying on the weak. Starting with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the world had been getting a grip on this. Nazis and Communists challenged the resulting liberal system but were successfully beaten back. Democracy has expanded phenomenally, and democracies don’t fight each other. All good. But Brooks quotes foreign affairs wise man Charles Hill that this centuries-long trend of geopolitical progress may be stalling out, images-2and entering a phase of deterioration. This is what “wolves of the world” like Putin are testing against, for what pickings among the weak they can grab.

Today, says Brooks, the system is under assault not by a single empire but a swarm of bad actors large and small. Whereas Nazis and Commies were unambiguously foes we had to fight, now we face a more insidious infection, a “death by a thousand cuts.” images-3No individual problem (Syria, Iran, Ukraine, etc.) may seem threatening enough to justify the cost and effort of wrestling it down, “but, collectively, they can kill you.” That is, kill the system undergirding world peace and prosperity.

“How,” Brooks queries, “do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?” While “people will die for Mother Russia or Allah,” few will die “for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places.” Few seem to understand it, and too many actually oppose it, never mind fighting for it. But we’re not actually talking about fighting and dying. While some (like Andrew Bacevich on the Newshour the other night) obtusely cast the choice as war versus no war, in fact much could be done without shooting, which is not being done. Brooks notes the West’s balking at even a little economic pain to deploy meaningful sanctions on Russia. And look what happened when President Obama merely suggested a modest action to punish Syria’s regime (far short of “war” or anything that might resolve the problem).

This is why Obama’s foreign policy of tiptoeing caution is actually so profoundly dangerous for the world’s future. Brooks again: ”The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous thing. Preserving that hard-earned ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and hard power enforcement.” Unknown-1

At least some enforcement is needed for rule of law to work; some cop on the beat. Recall the “broken windows” theory of criminology: tolerate a few broken windows, and pretty soon the whole neighborhood succumbs to disorder and lawlessness.

Only America is capable of the necessary global leadership. What’s at stake is not just a bit of Ukrainian territory (the “broken windows”); it’s the whole world, the liberal, democratic, peaceful environment that has brought so much prosperity and freedom to so many. 20140503_cna400Failure to meet the challenge bodes very ugly consequences. And, as of now, we are failing. The Economist’s latest cover wonders, “What would America Fight For?” Credibility, it says, is easily lost and hard to rebuild; the West is losing it; and “is so careless of what it is losing.”

Well here’s a positive proposal. The UN’s creation embodied lofty hopes, but thwarted by what proved to be a design flaw, the Security Council veto, making it too often an obstacle to resolving problems. We need a new organization: a league of democracies. Eligibility might be a tricky issue, though the EU’s application of strict membership criteria seems to work okay. A majority of nations would surely qualify, and such a league would enjoy great moral legitimacy, to fill the role the UN cannot.images

But don’t hold your breath waiting for this.

I remain an optimist; albeit a worried optimist.



8 Responses to “The Worried Optimist: A “Broken Windows” Theory of World Order”

  1. Bumba Says:

    Fine article.

  2. mattw0699 Says:

    It helps to understand how collapses work in societies. Societies move forward in time just like forests. Too much stability (through collapse suppression) means problems get to grow and grow. Eventually there is a massive collapse – financial collapse and/or war.

    A big financial collapse after a long period of stability means your entire society is in trouble. For the US, a big war occurs 7 to 10 years after a big financial collapse.

    Maybe you should start digging a fallout shelter.

    A System Collapse Framework for Societies –

  3. njmolinari Says:

    I blame the baby boomers!

    I wouldn’t worry, though. As soon as Americans feel any meaningful impact from the world’s troubles (and I don’t mean more expensive gas) we’ll step up and kick ass like we always do.

  4. Citizen Dread Says:

    A very well-written piece. However, I think there are certain presuppositions underpinning your arguments that may not be the foregone conclusions you suppose them to be. For example, you postulate that America is the only one capable of stepping in and playing Universal Soldier…but this presupposes that someone should indeed be policing the situation. Is time to allow certain world “neighborhoods” to self-combust? Have we fought so long to create a glass bubble of utopianism that we have failed to remember that it was in war and conquest that the planet was settled? Perhaps the democratic ideal championed by the Occident is actually a sub-standard form of national organization which has been found wanting after its relatively brief trial run in the context of history’s multimillennial scope.Perhaps the reality of mankind’s primal lust for power is breaking through the veneer of postmodernism’s ideals of peace and tolerance.

    Do you not think that presupposing the unerring value of these paradigms is to presuppose away all of the pattern of human history which are sure to be repeated?

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    What a pessimist! “Citizen Dread” indeed. You should read Fukuyama and Pinker. In brief: the human propensity for violent aggression is not what many think. The vast majority of humans just want to live peaceably. A minority will use aggressive violence where they can. Civilization’s chief raison d’être is to reduce such opportunities, so that people can prosper in peace, and this has been increasingly successful in recent centuries. And the reason is that this comports with fundamental human wants and needs. The paradigm has not “been found wanting” — to the contrary. Most people prefer it greatly to the alternative. But the transgressors it seeks to control (like Putin) are very tough to control, requiring the forces of peaceable civilization to stand tough against them. That’s why the weak response to Putin is so dangerous, it’s practically an invitation for other bad guys to emulate him.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    You encourage me to read Fukuyama and Pinker (whom I will now add to my ever-burgeoning list) – I encourage you to read more history. Look at Gibbon’s analysis of the Roman Empire’s unprecedented descent into the abyss. The vacillating, uninformed masses played a central role. The innate selfishness of humanity has by no means been tamed; rather, it has simply assumed a state of hibernation in recent centuries. Are mun like Putin, Maduro, and Jong-il not simply displaying a vice which is common to all men – a vice which has been stirred and amplified by the power and prestige of their respective platforms?

    You must understand that I am not a rabid hater of democratic ideals. I am very much pleased with the benefits of living in a civilized society. I am merely pointing out that what modern Westerners view as the pinnacle of political achievement may be nothing more than a historical experiment, the future stability of which is, at the very least, highly questionable. As Winston Churchill so astutely observed, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

    We may strongly disagree, Optimist, but I very much respect your knowledge, intelligence, and ability to define and defend your position.

  7. rationaloptimist Says:

    I’ve read Gibbon. I’m glad you’re pleased living in a (democratic, liberal) civilized society. Fact is, most other people are too. Such societies did not emerge because the bad actors and bad motives went away — instead, societies found ways to control them. That’s a great achievement, sustained because, again, great majorities of people prefer it to the alternative. But it requires some effort to sustain the deterrence of the world’s Putins. I am worried that we’re falling down on that job.

  8. Lovetta Mcglaughlin Says:

    Are you a creative writing instructor at a university? How do you handle potentially dangerous students?

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