Monday, August 02, 2004

Book Review: A Liberal's Search for a New International Order

As we enter a new phase of international politics, one in which states cannot be assumed to have equal moral authority, in which sovereignty is decentralizing and changing, in which the stakes are raised because of proliferation, old institutions such as the United Nations have become outmoded, and a new framework for international law is required. As conservatives launch upon an overtly moral, aggressive, and power-politically astute framework centering on ‘coalitions of the willing’ as a basis for a new, precedent-driven international law, liberals struggle to find a place in our unstable world for their utopian ideals (witness John Kerry’s total lack of a coherent foreign policy). Anne Marie Slaughter’s A New World Order is a liberal’s attempt to describe precisely that -- an emerging, different kind of society of states along with a new and different idea of sovereignty. It is a book emblematic of liberals’ search for a new take on international law and politics. Having finished reading it, and it being thoroughly timely, I thought I might write a review.

At the core of Slaughter’s analysis iss the concept of the transgovernmental network -- collections of legislators, judges, or regulators performing the same role in each of their respective domestic polities collaborating together and sharing information. It is her hope that this diffuse institution will replace the more formal international institutions such as the U.N. that have proven their inefficacy, much to the chagrin of liberals. Slaughter’s ‘networks’ can have very positive effects from a practical standpoint. A ‘network’ can be, however, one of any of a large number of very different looking entities, with different purposes, sizes, forms, and styles. Some achieve their goals efficiently, others fail. Slaughter’s analysis brings a lot of deserved attention to this new phenomenon of governance, but her attempt to piece together an entire ‘new world order’ from this theoretically lower-level tool of governance leaves a lot to be desired.

Slaughter does highlight important things that networks already do and highlights possibilities for increasing their utility in the future. She divides networks generally into three types: enforcement, information, and harmonization. Networks of enforcement seek to efficiently enforce domestic rules where their targets are spilling over national borders. Information networks share their experience, best practices, and other information, allowing for collaboration and the development of useful dialogue between network members and efficient practices in their respective countries. Harmonization networks seek to harmonize rules and regulations, again with efficiency as a goal. Slaughter highlights several examples, including that of the Basle committee, which has harmonized capital adequacy standards in its member countries. Networks of regulators such as these, Slaughter points out, are not ‘organizations’ in the traditional sense. They are not created by treaty, and do not have traditional legal standing. Rather, through agreement amongst the regulator-members themselves, such networks act via ‘soft power,’ adopting informal agreements and setting standards amongst themselves. When the regulators return home, they use their domestic ‘hard power’ to enact that which they agreed on, thereby translating the ‘soft’ will of the network into ‘hard’ law. Such networks can thus promote regulatory efficiency and harmonization of practices and standards, ‘under the radar’ of the traditional framework of the state.

Slaughter has clearly highlighted an important phenomenon which is creating real change in the way states are governed and in the international system. She makes a mistake, however, when she moves from highlighting and evaluating these important developments to envisioning them as the core of a new international system of governance. Any theory which attempts to describe and advocate an emerging world order must do a number of important things if it is to be successful. First, any discussion of the international order must attempt to understand the nature of states individually. This means assessing states’ purposes and ends, their bases for legitimacy, their claims to power, and their areas of sovereign competence. Only by first investigating these things can one hope to envision how these entities might interact and create law amongst themselves.

Slaughter does not explicitly discuss any of these things. Her starting point seems to be a vision of the state as it has existed in the twentieth century. From there, she claims that there will be a ‘disaggregation’ of sovereignty as various transgovernmental networks become empowered to do things over which the sovereign state previously had monopoly control. She seems to assume that the ends of states and the society of states in general will continue to be those things that the nation-states of the twentieth century have pursued, the only change being that those ends will be more efficiently pursued via networks.

Slaughter does lay out an ideological conception of a ‘just world order,’ the realization of which she claims networks will help bring about. Her ‘just world order’, however, is a purely normative, specific set of Western liberal values, entirely disconnected from her discussion of the nature of the world order. Her set of ‘ends’ for the world order, most of which is widely accepted by the West as inherently good, includes respect for the dignity of the human person, liberty, and democracy. It also includes things like vigorous environmental protection and social justice. How can she posit such a set of values and advocate an entire world order of structures to aid in those values’ promotion without discussing the universal claim to truth and the good of this set of values, and its relationship to the nature of the individual states that make up the world order? She cannot and still maintain a coherent theory. Instead, she assumes the inherent choiceworthiness of her values without actually advocating them directly, and then sets out describing the world and its structures around them (a typical liberal move, one which attempts to obfuscate any kind of value judgment). Because of this move, her vision takes on a utopian character and she loses the sense of reality present in her purely descriptive discussions of networks.

Slaughter’s willingness to gloss over important distinctions and theoretical concepts in order to get more quickly to her overarching vision is apparent in her descriptions of the utility of networks. For example, in her description of regulatory harmonization networks, such as the Basle committee, she recognizes that there is tension between such harmonization and domestic authority structures that normally might control banking policy. Harmonization occurs by the network’s use of soft power, and domestic authorities are frustrated by this seeming intrusion on domestic sovereignty. This, to Slaughter, is evidence of a trend. She advocates the disaggregation of sovereignty, and envisions that in the future such networks will be given actual sovereignty. Their role will be more formal and recognized as legitimate by the community of states. This is a typical example of her (and liberals’) leap from description to utopian, value-laden vision. One could argue that the criticisms made by domestic political authorities are misplaced -- they are not so much criticizing the existence of networks as they are the model of the administrative state that allows such networks to develop. If a transgovernmental network can develop and harmonize capital adequacy standards like the Basle committee has, there has been a large delegation of power -- perhaps too large, and in the U.S. context, perhaps unconstitutionally legislative. Such a network can only exist where individual states have chosen to delegate very large amounts of power to regulators, and have selected similar policy goals. The individual sovereign states create the possibility of the network, and to the extent they feel they have given up too much, are likely to take away that possibility.

The trend Slaughter sees towards networks is thus only present in those few areas where powerful governments have already chosen to delegate large amounts authority to lower level bureaucrats and have adopted similar policy goals to begin with. When looked at this way, the trend does not seem so large and inevitable. Rather, to the extent networks are useful tools to achieve the preexisting goals of the individual member states, networks will be actively pursued and utilized. Groups of powerful states may even see networks as a way of spreading their own values and practices in their own national interest. They might utilize them, with carrot and stick, to encourage other states to behave in ways beneficial to the group. However, to the extent states see networks as aggrandizing themselves and moving away from the values and policy goals of the member states, they will be actively fought, and the discretion that allows the networks to translate their soft power into hard power will be removed. As soon as a network is no longer a useful tool for the state, it will be abandoned. Networks cannot, therefore, form the basis for a world order -- they are tools of the creatures of the world order.

While Slaughter is to be applauded for drawing attention to and analyzing transgovernmental networks, her grandiose and theoretically unsound description of an emerging world order based on them borders on dangerous. Slaughter nearly completely ignores the negative side of networks. She does pay lip service to common criticisms, such as their lack of democratic accountability and their tendency to be technocratic, and the difficulty the publics they serve may have in seeing them. In her solutions to these problems she merely restates her case for healthy networks -- that they be open, that they should have websites, that they work within existing political structures. She does not address the core of these concerns -- that networks, in their very efficiency and efficacy, are dangerous. Just as Slaughter neglects to discuss the nature of the state and the nature of states’ legitimacy, she neglects to discuss the attributes of human nature that create the need for states and governments in the first place. She fails to describe how networks can govern -- how they can deal with the inherent human qualities that governments are designed to either counterbalance or enhance. She, like many liberals, seems to assume that governments are created merely to solve peoples’ problems in an efficient matter. This is why she is so ready to replace talk of ‘government’ with ‘governance,’ which seems to merely be a loose, problem-solving, efficiency-based vision of regulation. Networks, she argues, can be very efficient and will solve many problems. Even though she recognizes that our government in particular is designed to be inefficient, she does not go further and address the core of such concerns even as she advocates the disaggregation of sovereignty and the empowerment of networks. She does not address the costs of networks’ efficient problem-solving, costs that may be difficult to see because they are not immediate.

It is an axiom of human nature that persons in positions of power will try to aggrandize their position’s power vis-à-vis the system of which they form a part. Networks, if they are empowered as Slaughter suggests, will provide fertile soil for such corruption. Individual members of networks, Slaughter notes, can use networks to improve their own position in their domestic governments. As networks do not have democratic input and are relatively technocratic, they provide cover for such aggrandizing movements of power. Members might eventually be able to combine significant amounts of legislative and executive power, the perfect prescription for tyranny. Such networks would destabilize political governments, create new, undemocratic and unchecked centers of power quite unconnected with any particular community’s shared values, thereby disrupting one of the primary purposes of states: to promote the shared morality and of a community, and its particular vision of the common good. Slaughter, in that she does not even suggest any theory concerning the nature of states and the purposes of government, cannot adequately respond to such criticisms. Although such fears may seem vague and unfounded, entire systems of government have been designed to combat them. A survey of history would confirm those fears, but history is also notably lacking from Slaughter’s account.

In the end, Slaughter’s work is a liberal's idealistic attempt to replace the outdated post-World War II international system with a system that is less violent and less morality-driven than that which the current battle-of-ideas-meets-WMDs is forging for us. As is typical, her attempt disregards the reality of our imperfect human condition. Luckily, the visionary, normative portions of her work are not nearly persuasive enough to be dangerous, although it is a small step in a dangerous direction. An analysis of how networks function best might bring about more efficient government problem-solving in a much more limited, controlled way than Slaughter envisions. The discussion, however, should be centered on how networks can be used as tools of governance within existing political frameworks, understanding their limited purposes and their potential for abuse. It should not stray into dangerous, utopian visions of a new world order. It cannot be liberals’ new archetype for a new international legal system, no matter how good their intentions for it are.

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