Why Conservatives Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the UN

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By Sam Roggeveen

Andrew Sullivan's reply to my previous post provides a neat segue into the point I wanted to make next. As Andrew points out, it is unusual to make an explicitly conservative case for negotiating America's decline as a world power.

"Straussian conservatism," as Andrew calls it, is much stronger on the American right than the Oakeshottian conservatism we both identify with. So there isn't a terribly receptive audience for the argument that, because America will almost certainly lose its preeminent strategic position in the world, the smart thing to do is not to resist this change but to make the transition as smooth and peaceful as possible.

But as unpalatable as that view might be, it's difficult to see that America has any other choice.

Here I want to introduce The Atlantic audience to the work of one of my colleagues at the Lowy Institute, Professor Hugh White, Australia's most prominent strategic commentator. Last year White wrote a major essay making the highly controversial argument that America should voluntarily relinquish its hegemonic status in the Asia Pacific in favour of a 19th-century, Europe-style "concert of powers" arrangement with China and Asia's other big powers. Here's how White presents the problem:

As China grows, America faces a choice of Euclidean clarity. If it will not withdraw from Asia, and if it will not share power with China, America must contest China's challenge to its leadership. That choice carries great costs -- much greater, I think, than most Americans yet realise.

China is going to demand strategic and diplomatic status commensurate with its economic might, and that is incompatible with American regional supremacy. So Washington must either resist Beijing, or accommodate it. The Straussians would insist that continued primacy is the only status consistent with America's sense of itself as an exceptional nation. But that stance carries potentially huge risks, up to and including nuclear war.

(By the way, last year we staged a major debate about Professor White's essay on the Lowy Institute's blog, The Interpreter -- you can read the whole thing in chronological order here. I'm not aware of any other think tank using blogs to stage debates among experts and the public in quite such an intensive and in-depth way. It's one of the reasons the Lowy Institute was recently ranked among the top ten think tanks in the world for engaging with the public online.)

So my argument is that America's best option is to accommodate the rise of China and other developing countries, and that the transition to multipolarity will be much smoother and safer if the U.S. recognizances the meliorative effect of an international society. But for the American right to recognize the necessity of such a shift in U.S. foreign policy would require a presently unthinkable cultural shift. American conservatives are used to looking on international institutions, particularly the UN, with great suspicion.

This represents a curious inversion of the positions that right and left take when debating the importance of law and tradition in the domestic realm. In domestic politics, the attack on institutions and traditions tends to come from the left, and is made largely in the name of freedom -- authoritative institutions and traditions, it is argued on the left, impose restrictions on how individuals can express themselves, and tend to favor the interests of elites over the powerless.

The conservative response is that, in fact, traditions and authoritative institutions are a precondition for the exercise of liberty. Freedom is not a natural condition of mankind but a historical achievement brought about, in part, by those very institutions and traditions. And without a common assent to the authority of national institutions such as a legislature and the courts, there would be no basis upon which to debate political differences.

So the right's attitude to international laws, institutions, and traditions stands in contrast to how it views the role of law and tradition in the domestic realm. This can mostly be explained by nationalism and the fear of a creeping "one-world government," and there is substance to the charge that international institutions such as the UN can undermine state institutions and erode sovereignty. To the extent that the UN, for instance, poses such a threat, it is because the UN in certain guises is an idealistic institution, one with defined aims toward which it encourages the international community to move -- the UN's Human Rights Charter is an excellent example.

But in other guises, the UN is a proceduralist law-making body, of the kind which conservatives can easily support. In fact, by far the stronger tendency within the UN is toward proceduralism. Although the UN had strong purposive and even utopian influences in its genesis, these were soon overwhelmed by bodies such as the Security Council, which still have a strong proceduralist character. In this proceduralist guise, the UN is no threat at all to national sovereignty, since its purpose is not to constrain sovereignty or guide states toward a particular idealistic vision in which the state withers away. Rather, it is merely there to provide the institutional framework in which states perform their freely chosen actions.

More broadly, international society, as I have tried to describe it in these three posts, shares this proceduralist character. It does not exist for any extrinsic purpose, and has not evolved over centuries so that a particular view of justice or equality or harmony can be pursued. So the promotion of a law- and tradition-based international order is in no sense a radical agenda or a recipe for 'one-world government'. In fact, it is an agenda that American conservatives can lead.

I have tried to show that the international realm, while certainly anarchical, is not chaotic -- it displays many elements of the law- and tradition-based order that conservatives value in their own societies. These are the facets of international political life which conservatives should protect. What must be nurtured is the growing but still fragile sense of authority carried by international institutions, for the anarchical international order is strengthened and made more tolerable as the authority of its laws and institutions rises, and the importance of power declines.

Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.

Sam Roggeveen is editor of The Interpreter, the blog of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.