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The Parties of Heaven and Hell

How are some countries seeking to deal with the hegemony of the United States?

October 26, 2004

How are some countries seeking to deal with the hegemony of the United States?

There are two groups of countries in the world today that simply do not agree with the American vision of world order.

One of these groups takes the ideas of the harmonic convergence to their extreme.

These countries want the international system to move rapidly towards a purely legal and administrative framework, in which American power — like the power of all countries — will be checked and limited by sovereign international institutions.

For much of the 20th century, the progressive imagination saw international politics emerging from a chaotic, hellish past of great power rivalry. According to this vision, politics was climbing laboriously toward an imagined future heaven where pure might would be firmly subordinated to right.

In that process, world government would put an end to war. In today's international politics, the "Party of Heaven" is often represented by countries like Germany and Canada.

These countries believe that heaven is within our grasp — if we would just reach out for it. The major precondition would be for the United States to submit its power to international institutions. Once that happened, the world would be well on the way toward permanent peace.

“The Party of Heaven” seeks to thicken the network of international institutions to cover more and more issues. For these countries, international institutions are a world government in waiting — and they don't want the wait to be long.

The other group includes countries like Russia and France. These countries still think in terms of traditional power politics — and they generally believe that American power needs to be kept in check.

They are realists in foreign policy and generally have little patience with idealistic dreamers and their fantasies of professional, impartial world government.

These countries’ diplomats are likely to roll their eyes and sidle towards the exit when earnest Canadians buttonhole them to lobby for tougher global regulations against cruelty to animals. And they believe that international relations will always ultimately revolve around power.

This might look like the "Party of Hell" from the standpoint of those who want effective and powerful international institutions. But Heaven and Hell can sometimes agree — usually on the importance of international institutions to limit American power.

From a U.S. standpoint, it is hard to say who is more annoying — the partisans of heaven or those of the other place? Russia, France and the other old-fashioned powers would like to dismantle U.S. hegemony — however liberal it becomes. They prefer for the world system to revert to the old anarchic habits of multipolar competition.

As they look to their own national interests and resist the accumulation of additional power by the United States, these countries spend a lot of time looking for ways to isolate the United States, harass and undermine the world system. Their general stance is to make trouble for U.S. policymakers.

From a U.S. perspective, however, the “Party of Heaven” can be just as frustrating. Washington believes that strengthening American national power is the best way to strengthen the peaceful U.S. international system that represents the closest thing to heaven planet earth is likely to experience anytime soon.

When Germans or Canadians lecture Americans over Washington's unwillingness to give up more power to multilateral institutions, American policymakers can feel like an ambulance driver rushing to an accident scene — but one who is pulled over and lectured by an officious policeman about speeding.

Victims may be dying, but the policeman still has a lecture to deliver — and the ambulance cannot proceed until every word of the speech has been heard.

Too often for Washington's comfort, the two parties combine. The “Party of Hell,” for its part, is cynical about the ability of international institutions to manage the conflicts of real life. At the same time, the members of this party have no intention of piously respecting international systems when they are established.

But they think that establishing the institutions can weaken and hobble the United States — or that, if America opposes the extension and improvement of the institutions, it will lose influence and friends as its hegemony looks less liberal and alluring.

The “Party of Heaven” meanwhile thinks institutions can, if strengthened, replace old fashioned foreign policy — and this party resists U.S. attempts to preserve its freedom of action.

If the United States tries to negotiate compromises in, say, the charter for the International Criminal Court in ways that would protect U.S. officials and military from abuses of the court's authority, the Party of Heaven will cry foul. It will claim that the United States is "weakening" and "watering down" important institutions. The Party of Hell joins in, gleefully and hypocritically.

The United States ends up frequently caught in a damaging crossfire between the forces of darkness and the armies of light.

It is clear that the two parties have diametrically opposed visions of the world and could never develop together a constructive alternative to the American project. But they can — and often do — agree to form a purely negative coalition to block, or at least perplex, the United States.

Truthfully, neither of the parties has a very logical position. The Party of Heaven essentially demands that the United States embark on military action only with the approval of the Security Council.

Since France, Russia and China have vetoes there, this position means that a non-democratic country like China, or believers in old fashioned power politics — like Russia and France — can block actions that threaten their interests.

In the end, the Party of Heaven's position means putting the Party of Hell in charge. A Security Council on which Germany, Canada, Denmark, Sweden and Vatican City held the permanent, veto-wielding seats might logically command the support of the Party of Heaven.

In its current form, the Security Council stands for the permanent veto of expediency over principle, of national interest over the common purpose of the human race.

The other party is just as inconsistent. Russia and France can — and do — argue that they have a legitimate right to use all available tools to defend their national interest against the dangerous and growing power of the United States.

Fair enough, and all of history and common sense is on their side. Yet, if the game is dirty power politics rather than high-minded international law, the United States has the right to play, too.

If countries like France and Russia have the right to oppose and limit U.S. power, the United States has an equal right to use its power and influence to reduce the power of its rivals.

In the old world of power politics, power can only be bound by power, not by fine words and paper treaties. If Russia and France are right about the way the world works, the United States has the right — and even the duty — to ignore the Security Council from time to time.

Excerpted from POWER, TERROR, PEACE & WAR by Walter Russell Mead. Copyright (c) 2004 by Walter Russell Mead. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf.