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J. Martin Rochester

As we begin the new millennium, forecasting is a growth industry as many observers are speculating about what the future holds for the planet. One can find everything from extreme pessimism to extreme optimism. Perhaps the most pessimistic is Robert Kaplan (1994), whose article "The Coming Anarchy" predicts the entire world will eventually resemble Rwanda, complete with savage butchery and environmental devastation. A close second is John Mearsheimer (1990:35), whose article "Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War," written shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, lamented  "the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations." Perhaps the most optimistic is Allan Goodman (1993:7), who has predicted that "the twenty-first century will encompass the longest period of peace, democracy and economic development in history."

I must say that, in my own experience, teaching at a university and visiting a lot of high schools, I find young people in particular far more pessimistic than optimistic. For example, I visited about a dozen high schools earlier this fall and asked the simple question: "How many of you think the world will be a better place in the next century, say in the year 2025, than it is today?" Almost without exception B whether it was a public school or a private school, an all-girls school or an all-boys school, a poor black inner-city school or a rich suburban school B virtually nobody answered in the affirmative. Young people, and indeed much of the American public, tend to have a rather cynical view of the world. Joseph Nye's (1997) "In Government We Don't Trust" notes that in 1964, if you asked the American people whether they trusted the federal government to do the right thing, 75% said yes, whereas today it is down to 25%. Nye notes that the American public is distrustful of not only the government but large institutions generally, and that this is a growing phenomenon one can find in Western Europe, Japan, and globally. If one does not trust one's own government, what is the likelihood you are going to trust even more distant institutions such as the UN?

The first main point I wish to make, then, is that I think the cynicism and indifference we see displayed toward the UN today is symptomatic of a larger problem. Everywhere there is a negative attitude that reminds one of a Woody Allen line that appeared on the Internet recently: "Humanity is at a crossroads. One path leads to total destruction and devastation, the other to utter chaos. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

I think we are at a crossroads, but the choices are far more complicated than Allen suggests and are not quite as grim. To borrow from Charles Dickens, it is the worst of times and the best of times. That this observation has become a cliché does not make it any less real. We do have the potential for unprecedented conflict and disaster, in that we now have the capacity to destroy the human species in roughly 15-30 minutes; as former Colorado governor Richard Lamm put it, "in the event of a major war in the nuclear age, you will no longer be dying for your country -- you will be dying with your country." Yet we also have the potential for unprecedented cooperation and progress. And here is where the United Nations comes in.

For all its flaws, the UN is the most ambitious attempt at global institution-building in the million years we have been on the planet. Keep in mind that at the start of the nineteenth century there were no international organizations to speak of, and that the twentieth century has seen what Inis Claude (1986:25) has called the "habit of international organization," (i.e., the proliferation of intergovernmental organizations and the common understanding that these entities are part of the landscape essential to the continued functioning of the sovereign nation-state system). The question is whether we can take this institution-building to the next level in the next century and create not necessarily global government but improved global governance, what Barry Buzan (1983:97) has cogently characterized as  "a more mature anarchy" in international relations, where sovereign states pool their sovereignty and work together in pursuit of mutual interests.

We should not underestimate the seriousness of the problems and challenges that exist today and the difficulty of getting some 200 states to reach agreement on anything, whether it is a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty or a treaty on global warming or whatever. But we should also not underestimate the range of possibilities and opportunities. In thinking about the UN and international organization, we should avoid two tendencies that Giovanni Sartori (1965) warned against. One is the trap of "bad idealism," that is, being overly naïve and pollyanish and engaging in wishful thinking about what might be. The other is the trap of "bad realism," that is, being overly skeptical and fatalistic and resigned to what is. The posture that one should adopt is to have one foot on the ground, rooted in reality, and the other up in the clouds, exercising some imagination and vision. As I have suggested, the trap of bad realism B of being overly cynical and pessimistic B is the more common tendency today.

Indeed, it is very realistic to envision some hopeful possibilities for better global governance in the 21st century. For example, we forget how close the world has come, with the Law of the Sea Treaty, to getting almost every country on the planet to agree to a set of binding rules  governing virtually every human activity B fishing, navigation, seabed mining, and the like B over 70% of the earth's surface.

We forget, too, how in one region of the world B Western Europe B where for centuries interstate relations were defined by brutal wars, there is now a "security community" in which the probability of war between states has been reduced close to zero. If someone had told you in 1945, at the end of World War II, that within the span of a single generation or two not only would the probability of war between France and Germany be reduced to zero but that they and a dozen other states would share a common currency  and be moving toward a United States of Europe through something called the European Union, that person would have been considered loony.

Likewise, who anticipated the remarkable events that transpired between 1989 and 1991, when the Cold War ended without a shot being fired? One of the more memorable moments in my life occurred in March of 1986. I was attending a professional meeting in Washington, D.C., shortly after a guy named Gorbachev had come to power in the Kremlin while "Rambo" Reagan was in the White House, with the Soviet Union at the time being called the "evil empire" and Cold War tensions at a high point. The meeting featured a panel session on "The Future of US-Soviet Relations," with two high-level Soviet diplomats engaged in  a dialogue with two American counterparts. One of the Soviets began his remarks by quoting what he said was an old Roumanian proverb: "It is always hard to predict anything, especially the future." Indeed, who in that room or anywhere on the planet could have foreseen what was to come to pass by the end of the decade B the collapse of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, the demise of the Warsaw Pact alliance and the movement of communist societies toward market economies, and the Red Army Band and Chorus coming to the Kennedy Center in Washington in December of 1989 and leading President Bush and a gala throng of dignitaries in one of  the most stirring renditions of "God Bless America" ever heard in the nation's capital? And, of course, the Soviet Union itself was to disappear from the world map by December 1991 B all of this occurring suddenly, quietly, peaceably. It was perhaps the single most incredible moment in the 400-year history of the state system, and one which B had you predicted it in 1986 B you would have been labeled an idiot.

The seemingly impossible does occasionally happen. Score one for idealism and against realism. So the second main point I wish to make is that I don't think the current cynicism toward the prospects for improved world order is justified.

Contrary to John Mearsheimer, I will not "miss the  Cold War." There is a temptation today to wax nostalgic about how much more manageable the Cold War system was than the contemporary international system is. The post-Cold War system is not more dangerous than the Cold War system, but it is admittedly messier and more complex, with power more diffused, alignments more fluid, multinational corporations, terrorists and other nonstate actors competing with nation-states on the world stage, and other complicating factors. A curious paradox today is that the need for coordinated problem-solving on a global scale B to deal with matters of nuclear proliferation, globalization of the international economy, global warming, and so forth B is arguably  greater than ever before, at the very same time that "central guidance" mechanisms may be less feasible due to the complexity I have just described that makes it harder to move the international system.

Hard but not impossible. We have a window of opportunity to move the system, to fundamentally change the world, but I fear we may be squandering this opportunity. It is the United States, in particular, which must provide the leadership, since, to borrow Madeleine Albright's phrase, we are "the indispensable nation." We cannot do it alone. As Joseph Nye (1996:2) has written, we cannot be the sole global policeman; at best, we can be the "sheriff  of the posse," at the head of  a group of like-minded states willing to work together in multilateral institutions like the UN. We are unlikely to mobilize such a posse without the kind of serious energy, effort, and commitment of resources that thus far has been sorely lacking in Washington.

To put it bluntly, the U.S. Congress along with the President B both political parties B have disgraced themselves in the 1990s by failing to give foreign policy the attention it deserves and failing to engage in the kind of heroic heavy-lifting that a previous generation of American leaders demonstrated after World War II, when they produced such major international institutions as the UN, the Bretton Woods economic order, NATO, and the Marshall Plan. Our current leadership in Washington remains clueless about what the "New World Order" might look like.

I think former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1993:45) has said it best: "The challenge for the United States today in the post-Cold War era is to define a role for itself in a world which for the first time in its history it can neither withdraw from nor dominate." Isolationism and unilateralism are not feasible options. If we are to survive and prosper, we need to learn how to dialogue, engage, mobilize, and cooperate with other states, and there is no forum better suited to facilitate this than the UN.

Rather than engage in polemical debates about the UN, as we so often do, instead do a careful, rational cost-benefit analysis in terms of what the UN cost us as Americans relative to the benefits we derive. You will find it is a no-brainer. Suffice it to say, the UN costs us peanuts B the annual budget of the UN is on the order of $1 billion, less than the budget of the New York City Police Department, and the U.S. pays roughly 25%, or roughly $250 million a year, which will not even buy you one-quarter of a bomber these days.  As for the benefits, we have the greatest stake in world order of any country on the planet, given the number of overseas embassies, foreign investments, and other assets we have abroad; and Americans could not routinely engage in commerce, mail letters or make phone calls or travel across national boundaries without the international regimes that the UN and its affiliated agencies are mainly responsible for.

It is bizarre and utterly irresponsible that the U.S. today is over $1 billion in arrears of our assessed dues payments to the UN, making us the number one deadbeat in the organization, at a time when we are enjoying almost unprecedented national economic prosperity and a budget surplus. So the third main point I wish to make is that it is essential that the American public B young people and old people alike B be educated about what is going on and that pressure be applied on our leadership to adopt a more constructive policy toward multilateral organizations generally and the UN in particular.

In conclusion, I don't think we should give up on the New World Order. Only a "bad realist" would write off future possibilities. I recall attending another scholarly meeting in Washington awhile back, where I heard a presentation by Richard Benedick, who was the U.S. ambassador to the ozone layer talks that produced the Montreal Protocol in 1987. The treaty was something he said at the outset of the negotiations was thought almost impossible  to achieve. Benedick quoted the old saw that "on the eve of most revolutions they are thought to be unimaginable, while on the day after they are thought to have been inevitable." A new world order is not inevitable B it is something we all need to work at B but it is within the realm of the thinkable if we are willing to pursue it.

Let me close with another quotation, this one from Abba Eban (1995:55), the former Israeli ambassador to the UN, who wrote a recent article in Foreign Affairs in which he spent 99% of  the article heavily criticizing the UN for its many failures, yet at the very end, on the last page, confessed the following:

"The world organization had the misfortune to be born with a grossly inflated vision of its interventionist power. Yet if expectations are reduced it might still be possible to reach a positive balance between vision and reality. It would be ridiculous if the first era of planetary interdependence  were to find the world without a unitary framework of international relations. With all its imperfections, the United Nations is still the main incarnation of the global spirit. It alone seeks to present a vision of humankind in its organic unity. At no other time have so many people crossed frontiers and come into contact with people of other faiths and nationalities. . . . In light of these slow but deep currents of human evolution, the idea of an international organization playing an assertive role in the pacification of this turbulent world may have to bide its time, but it will never disappear from view. History and the future are on its side."


1 These comments are condensed from a presentation made to the 13th Annual Interfaith Gathering for Peace in St. Louis, Missouri, on UN Day, October 24, 1999.


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Goodman, Allan.  1993. A Brief History of the Future. Boulder: Westview  Press.

Kaplan, Robert. 1994. "The Coming Anarchy." The Atlantic Monthly, February, pp. 44-76.

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