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'We're going to need a lot of statesmanship'

David Shorr
Talking Points Memo
June 2010

"We're going to need a lot of statesmanship" ... is how one participant summed things up at a conference I co-hosted last weekend in Toronto. Another way to say it is that the global agenda is loaded with items that call for heavy political lifting. The order of the day for political leaders is to bridge diplomatic differences and take steps for which there are scant domestic incentives. Given the difficulties, the first question is why leaders would -- and whether they're at all likely to -- summon their inner statesman / stateswoman. Is there any realistic basis for hoping the world community will come together to stop nuclear proliferation, climate change, and the global permanent underclass, or is it a pipe dream?

The premise for optimism is the notion of a widely shared interest in the key predicates of global peace and prosperity. The counterargument is that the current political splits over these issues are there for a reason; common interests are beauty contestant talking points, national interests are reality. But for all the jaded skepticism that has been thrown at us interdependent-ists, I think the critique itself could use closer scrutiny.

We can stipulate that collective international problem solving is a tall order. The question on the table is whether it is a fantasy and/or American domination in sheep's clothing?

Let's start with the US agenda and the contention that American leadership is a source of global public goods, rather than being purely self-serving. The essential message of the US is a call for other nations to help meet the challenges of our times -- proliferation, economic stagnation, global warming, fragile states, underdevelopment... Is America truly asking for help with shared problems, or, like Tom Sawyer, trying to trick others into whitewashing its own fence?

Even a moderate exceptionalist like me wouldn't try to argue that US policy is selfless and benevolent. Here's how I'd describe the grand bargain for a more constructive and cooperative international discourse. If we're serious about fairness, the United States must be much more self-aware about the privileges in enjoys in the current international system. I won't deny that the US benefits from the status quo and has particular notions of what status quo powers should do -- notions that we're pitching to the emerging powers.

The other side of the bargain is a recognition that elements of the American idea of a status quo power have some validity as the basis for a solid international order, that the United States has learned some useful lessons during decades as a hegemon, that it isn't all one great scam. Back when I was an undergraduate religion major, one of my professors wrote the Ten Commandments on the board and asked us to look at them as a social contract. "Not a bad set of rules for a society, eh?" he said.

One reason the Iran negotiations draw so much attention is that they encapsulate so many of these issues. We interdependent-ists aren't unaware of the baggage that goes with our history with the Islamic Republic and our relationship with Israel. But we have a principled argument here that has everything to do with this issue of pet US preoccupations versus public goods. As my TPM readers and critics know very well, it's an argument over how the diplomacy of potential proliferators works. We're not arguing over whether we can take yes for an answer; we're arguing over whether holding off from any pressure and letting the proliferator set its terms would ever lead to the desired outcome, or to a nuclear capability.

Also, I've noticed a tendency to trace all diplomatic disputes to differences of national interest, with the effect of making every deadlock seem intractable. This isn't to minimize the diverging views, but nor should we inflate them. The Chinese leadership, for instance, has staked its politicial survival on continued annual GDP growth of 8-10%. Strictly speaking, Beijing's stances on carbon emissions and currency valuation, therefore, certainly qualify as core interests. For many other Chinese positions, the driver is a desire to avoid any more diplomatic exertion (and accompanying internal debate) than necessary. Now, there's no denying this is a strong impulse and consideration for China's leadership -- and a real impediment to international consensus on some issues. But if we were more accurate in describing the stumbling blocks for different issues as nations' differences in priority, policy preferences, or political affinity, would that strike as directly at the heart of the shared interests hypothesis?

Finally, I think the strongest case for the reality of common interests is the way nations share the consequences of the problems on the global agenda. This is my stock formulation:

Pick any major problem on the agenda and the trajectory without an infusion of international leadership and cooperation could lead to a dire foreseeable future: nuclear arms races in Northeast Asia and the Middle East, a generation of children in extreme poverty with their development stunted by malnutrition, a tipping point of irreversible climate change, mounting bitterness over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mounting suspicion that globalization is rigged for the benefit of the few. In sum, inertia is not a great option.
It's the same idea we hear from administration officials when they talk about the status quo being unsustainable for many of the issues we confront. And it's not hard to think of an anaology in day-to-day life. When we talk about individuals needing to make wise choices, we say it's in their "own best interests," which parallels pretty closely what we're talking about in international affairs. Why can't we envision the same consideration at work in the latter realm?

As I say, it's time for skepticism about shared interests to be subjected to the same scrutiny as interdependent-ism.
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