Summer 2008

Constructing a Better World Order: Can the Next US President Rediscover Diplomacy?

Douglas Hurd

The candidates for the American presidency have been jousting vigorously for months on the main issues of foreign policy. To some extent this will turn out to have been an artificial debate. There is plenty of room for genuine dispute about the past, and in particular about the justification for the Iraq War and its conduct. But if we look to the future, whether in Iraq or on other main issues, the scope for different policies narrows substantially. This is not because the Bush Administration has been proved right. On the contrary, it has been proved so abundantly wrong that it has been compelled to alter course during the President’s second term. This alteration is disguised by the fact that the rhetoric from the White House has hardly changed – but the substance of policy is different.

Who would have thought four years ago that the Bush Administration would have reached a compromise with North Korea, launched a peace initiative to secure a Palestine state, announced that Iran for the time being has ceased to prepare nuclear weapons, welcomed the French President to Washington, spoken enthusiastically of European defence and accepted the need for an international agreement on climate change to follow Kyoto? Even in Iraq, though the President is still capable of talking of victory, the Administration has settled down to achieve a draw, accepting an Iraq which is becoming like a larger and more violent Lebanon with Iran, rather than Syria, the dominant source of intrigue and occasional warfare among warring tribes and sects.

The main change in Washington will be the change itself. Bush will no longer be President. A decent and hardworking man who has done great harm to his country’s reputation will have gone. That harm cannot immediately be repaired and many memories will be bitter. But the sigh of relief across the world will give his successor an opportunity, not so much for success in the handling of day to day problems, but for a strategic vision which the world sorely needs and which only the United States can supply.

In the years after 1945 under brilliant American leadership, the international community agreed on a series of institutions designed to provide rules and procedures which would prevent a repetition of the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century, notably two world wars and a destructive economic depression. The UN and its family of specialised agencies, the World Bank and Fund, the GATT now the World Trade Organisation, and later NATO, the European Union and the G8 were all at the beginning of their lives highly imaginative constructions, offering a hope in their different ways that a world composed of nation states could advance by means of co-operation rather than conquest.

There these dignified institutions still stand, like palaces built on a distant hill. From a distance they still look impressive. When we approach however we find that all of them are showing their age, letting in the water when the storms rage about them, apparently unable to adapt the methods of the twentieth century to cope with the problems of the twenty first.

One poignant example is the whole question of humanitarian intervention. Our leaders are eager to show that they have learnt the lessons of the past. They go to Bosnia and Rwanda to proclaim in speeches that they will never allow those atrocities to be repeated. But this is merely mobilising buckets to collect the rain which is still pouring through the roof and which no one has had the wit or strength to repair. As they make their speeches the killings multiply in Darfur, Somalia and the Congo.

The world gathered after 1945 to build that range of international institutions because Europe and a large part of Asia lay in ruins. There was no alternative; a new start had to be made; there was simply no possibility of muddling through. But today for most of us in the western world the option of muddling through exists and is for many attractive. We do not believe that there will be a third world war. We are happy to clutch at sceptical arguments that climate change may not be too bad after all, even if a few distant islands disappear. We no longer believe that the attack of 9/11 on the US could galvanise the world into constructive action. Terrorism has now taken its place alongside the other evils of which we are more or less conscious – energy shortage, food shortage, population pressures, financial instability and savage but limited killings in far away places of which we still know little. These different dangers have come together at present in a more formidable combination than the world has been used to in modern history. But a new American President will not find, either in his own country or in the rest of the world, an overriding anxiety (as in 1945) which forces us to get rid of familiar prejudices, and sweeps away the obstacles to a genuinely new world order.

To meet this point Senator McCain has put forward the idea of an association of democracies who would use the force of the democratic idea as an instrument for a better world. The intoxicating attraction of a similar concept made President Wilson the idol of public opinion throughout Europe in 1919. Senator McCain is a more sophisticated operator and his League of the Free would rely on more firepower than the League of Nations. But I doubt whether the idea would survive the attempt to put it into practice. Who would qualify? Would South Africa join an organisation which discriminated between African states? Would India turn its back on its whole tradition of post independence foreign policy? What about countries like Thailand and Pakistan which lurch between democratic and military rule? Israel and Taiwan are by any rational definition full democracies; but an institution which included them but excluded China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia would not solve international problems but create new ones. This may sound nitpicking, but I fear that such an elegant machine, while it looks good on the tarmac, would never actually fly.

But at least Senator McCain is arguing about the right problem. What are the alternatives? For all its cracks and crumbling pillars the UN and its related structures, together with NATO and the EU are still the most impressive examples of global international architecture which the human race has so far contrived. In some cases, for example climate change, a fresh institution, a new palace on the hill, will clearly be needed to supervise whatever agreement can be reached to widen and carry further the Kyoto process. In other cases repair work is needed. The G8 needs to be completely reshaped to reflect the economic strength of China, India and Japan. The UN Security Council should include Brazil, Germany, India and Japan as permanent members. The role of the Secretary General of the UN should be enlarged, building on the provisions of Article 99 of the Charter which Dag Hammarskjöld used to good effect half a century ago.

The rules of humanitarian intervention now defined as the right to protect, should be spelt out more clearly. For its part NATO needs a common operational fund (so that the costs of a particular operation no longer lie where they fall) and an end to the national caveats which are crippling its enterprise in Afghanistan.

These are stray suggestions for repair from someone who does not pretend to be either architect or plumber. They and other suggestions require leadership and political will rather than huge ingenuity. The global institutions need to be supported by a more robust system of regional organisations than so far exist. As is inevitable each region is developing in its own way and there will be no tidy uniformity in the result. In Asia for example we see a balance of power forming. The agreement on North Korea was reached by a gathering of powers ‑Russia, China, Japan, the United States, and two Koreas — of a nature which Bismarck or Lord Salisbury would have easily recognised. It was through this kind of gathering that the peace of Europe was more or less secured between 1870 and 1914. Europe through the EU has moved further ahead in regional progress, but once more faces a tricky test in its handling of the Balkans. Next it has to welcome Turkish membership. Above all it has to forget the second rate efforts of Messrs Blair, Chirac, Berlusconi and Schroder in competitive flattering of President Putin’s Russia. A cool, calculating régime in the Kremlin has to be met with a cool, calculating and united European policy. In the Middle East a regional set up which did not include Israel and Iran would be useless; such an inclusive organisation is out of sight, which is why the Middle East remains the world’s most dangerous area. The African Union, still desperately weak, deserves all the technical help and support we can give it.

The next President of the United States will know that his or her country no longer has the power to force ideas or solutions on others. America will remain the strongest power in the world, but is no longer a superpower. That is to say, it can no longer hope to influence events decisively in every part of the world. But because of its history and its character the United States will retain the ability to inspire when it cannot impose. That ability has been soured by the present administration but can be restored to full freshness by a new leader. The next President may have answers less prosaic and more inspirational than those sketched above. Fine, provided that we are not treated to another set of aspirations which are unrelated to experience or to any real perception of the world as it is. When the next President reaches the White House, we should, at least for a time, silence our grumbles. It us hugely important for all of us that the new presidency should be a success.

Lord Hurd of Westwell, British Foreign Secretary, 1989–1995, and is President of Montrose Associates.