News that North Korea has detonated another bomb comes as no surprise; few things are as obvious in this crazy world as the fact that this murderous dictatorship is making steady progress on its weapons program. The Norks are getting better and better at making more powerful bombs and longer range missiles to put them on. President Obama, like Presidents Clinton and Bush before him, sputters indignantly and wrings his hands, but the tick-tock tick-tock of North Korean nuclear build-up goes on.
This tells us many things. It tells us that the security situation is going to continue to deteriorate in East Asia. It tells us that China has resigned itself to an era of confrontation with Japan. It tells us that both South Korea and Japan are losing confidence in America’s will and ability to do anything serious about the scariest security problem they face.
Beyond that, it’s a harsh reminder that, despite the illusions and the optimism of the liberal internationalists among us, the world still runs much the same way it did one hundred years ago. When hard power fails, all the UN Declarations of Human Rights, all the Security Council resolutions, all the noble speeches about the “international community” are just so much hot air.
Kim Jong-un is getting away with a nuclear build-up and a murderous dictatorship because he can. In theory, the world’s great powers have the ability to stop him. In practice, they are too divided, too busy knifing each other in the back, to cooperate against even a very small and poor country. China won’t cooperate with the United States to stop North Korea because the government in Beijing doesn’t think it is in its national interest to do so. The United States can’t compel China to change its mind about its Korea policy because we lack the strength.
Syrian refugees understand what kind of world we live in; so do the starving people of Aleppo. The victims of Boko Haram, now faced with a famine, get it, too. We don’t live in the world the “liberal internationalists” have imagined exists; we live in a world where, more and more, the law of the jungle applies.
We should not forget that stopping the North Korean nuclear program has been at the center of U.S. foreign policy since the Clinton Administration. Back in the 1990s, everyone praised the Clinton Administration for negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the North Korean nuclear program. The decision not to attack the North but to trust to the healing powers of diplomacy was almost universally applauded. It may still have been the right thing to do, but one can hardly call it a success.
President Obama has made non-proliferation one of his core goals; what hopes he has of a serious foreign policy legacy rest on the Iran nuclear deal (in many ways a less robust arrangement than Clinton’s deal with the Norks) and the essentially illusory climate agreement that he and Xi hyped in Beijing. That the Norks should mark President Obama’s final departure from the region he placed at the center of his foreign policy career with the largest nuclear blast in their history is, in its way, fitting; it is a useful reminder of how history actually works.
The problem isn’t that the goals of the liberal internationalists are bad goals. They are excellent goals: no war, the spread of democracy and human rights, limits on weapons of mass destruction, strong institutions. The world they dream of is a much better world than the one we have now. And the liberal internationalists are also right that the world can’t afford to go on in the old way. Given 21st century technology and the vulnerability of our large urban populations to anything that disrupts the intricate networks on which we all depend, old-fashioned great-power politics with its precarious balance of power shored up by recurring wars is a recipe for utter disaster and, maybe, the annihilation of the human race.
But the difficulty that over and over sinks hopeful efforts by liberal internationalists is this: Liberal internationalist methods won’t achieve liberal internationalist goals. Power, not communiqués, is what makes the world go round.
We move in the general direction of a liberal world system when a potentially dominant liberal power forms a strong coalition with like-minded allies, and when that liberal power acts wisely, purposefully and at times unilaterally in the service of liberal order. We move in that general direction, but we are very unlikely to get there. Much of the world dislikes liberal order. Sometimes this is for religious reasons, as in much of the Islamic world. Sometimes it is for power-political reasons, in countries like Russia and China that want to topple the United States from its dominant global position, and that see liberal principles as a threat to their social order and power. Sometimes it is because the United States doesn’t always know what it is doing, and while we are more powerful than other countries we aren’t smarter or better than other people. That means that we frequently get it wrong, and in the name of liberal order we do things that other people quite rightly resist.
The dream of some liberal internationalists, that someday a beautiful world system will arise that will essentially get other countries to follow the U.S. vision of liberal order without U.S. power to back it, is an illusion. Too many people see the world in too many different ways, too many countries have interests that widely diverge, and, at the end of the day, passion and emotions play too great a role in human psychology, and human reason is too weak and too biased an instrument, for a beautiful and self-sustaining world order to rise up like Botticelli’s Venus out of the waves.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has had the power and the alliance networks to move the world toward liberal order. We have sometimes acted wisely and purposefully in the service of that agenda, but even at our best our concepts of liberal order were too crude to work as well as we hoped. Too often, our actions were foolish and misguided. The last two Presidents in particular, Bush and Obama, were not up to the tasks of world leadership. Both are good men in their way, both sought the good as they saw it, but the wisdom fairy failed to stop by the White House. They were relatively young, they were relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs, they were under the thrall of inadequate ideas and they placed too much faith in their instincts just when they should have been doubting themselves.
No country, and especially no democracy, is ever going to be guided by an unbroken succession of great leaders. This is one of the reasons we’ll never reach the liberal internationalist goal; neither we nor anybody else is going to throw up a string of leaders with enough genius, wisdom, and will to get us there. There are more Clintons, Bushes, and Obamas than Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts in the gene pool, and most U.S. presidents, like most leaders in other countries, have been mediocre at best.
However we assign the blame, and there is plenty to go around, it’s been increasingly clear since 2001 that the world’s progress toward a stable and liberal world order began to slow under Bush and has reversed under Obama. The world is less peaceful, less stable and less liberal today than it was when Barack Obama took the oath of office in January, 2009; Kim Jong-un’s latest nuclear test, and the lack of an effective response by the United States, is merely a sign of the times.