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How Institutions Work

I wanted to say a bit more about Justin Logan's realist critique of today's column. I especially wanted to focus on the NATO/EU section, because I think it's useful to abstract a bit away from specific controversies over the UN. Disputations with Justin will be below the fold, but first a brief defense of abstracting. The UN is a complicated, highly imperfect institution. People can debate 'till the cows come home how it could be made better. People can also debate 'till the cows come home how the United States (or any other country) ought to respond to the fact that we need to make decisions now while the institutions we have are imperfect. What I find so especially objectionable about John Bolton is that my disagreement with him isn't about these "'till the cows come home" topics, it's about fundamental issues of goals. My big meta-point on the UN is that we should desire a world in which the UN can efficaciously handle global security issues, and, as we manage global security in the interim, one eye should be kept on the ball of bringing that about and not doing things that make that harder to accomplish. The EU and NATO are examples of, to my way of thinking, highly efficacious international institutions that can be discussed in terms of why we should desire the creation of a more efficacious UN.

Justin raises the expected realist objection to the view that NATO and the EU are responsible for the long post-1945 peace among the western powers. Rather, he says, we should credit the threat posed by the USSR and the post-1945 bipolar power dynamic. I don't think that's wrong, as such. It's worth noting, however, that the Cold War ended some time ago. When then happened many prominent realist scholars followed John Mearsheimer in predicting that with the Soviet threat lifted and bipolarity gone, the process of European integration would fall apart and the main European powers would return to armed competitiion. The results of this, he suggested, were likely to be catastrophic to world prosperity. The best way to prevent the return of prosperity-destroying war to the European continent would be for the United States to engage in a policy of selective proliferation of nuclear weapons to the large European powers besides the UK and France (which are already nuclear), primarily Germany. This would set up a nuclear deterrence situation, and prevent national rivalry from turning into war, thus generating a close second-best outcome to the ideal previously provided by the Cold War dynamic.

Needless to say, the Bush I and Clinton administrations didn't take this advice, and Mearsheimer's fears proved to be unwarranted.

The reason, I think, is that NATO and the EU really do work. NATO provision of absolute security guarantees altered, over the decades, the whole orientation of western security establishments and defense industries to create a situation where nobody thinks of capacity-building in arms-race or power-competition terms. At the same time, the EEC (the EU's precursor) created a kind of hyperinterdependence which has made the costs of defection from the institutions that built up around the long peace extraordinarily high. The evolution of the EEC into the EU has created institutional mechanisms for disagreements among European countries to be resolved purely through diplomacy, and treaty-revision process has created a precedent for handling things that can't be handled through the existing formal mechanisms of the EU. The advent of monetary union among most of the EU countries has, of course, only furthered this process.

It's important to note that accomplishing this was, in fact, the explicit purpose of the European Union and even when its functions were much more modest than they are today, those modest functions (pertaining to coal and steel) were chosen precisely because they were maximally-likely to render military conflict infeasible. You have institutions designed to produce a result, you have the result, and you have the skeptics that the institution could produce the result in the absence of an external threat making predictions that have been falsified.

Now where the realists are quite right is that none of this happened by magic or because the leaders of Europe in the late 1940s were just really nice guys. Rather, memory of the super-destructive preceeding era of conflict mixed with an overwhelming external threat to create a situation where leaders were, for perfectly good realist reasons, inclined to see the creation of these sort of institutions as favorable to the natural interest.

A better way of putting my point is that the creation of these institutions worked, at first, to facilitate a policy of cooperation that was adopted for independent reasons. Over time, however, those institutions began to gather momentum of their own, reaching a point where, today, they are basically self-sustaining. If Europe were disunited today, the nations of Europe would find no particular reason to embark on a project of integration. But the existence of decades-long project of integration along with a set of highly elaborated institutions changes the dynamic. There is now every reason to stick with unity and, to some extent, seek to both widen (by adding new countries) and deepen it. And I think that's a very good thing! The governments of Europe all have a lot less autonomy today than they would have if, back in the '40s, they had merely cooperated in an ad hoc, Bolton-style, non-institutional manner. And they would all be a lot worse off for it.

March 15, 2005 | Permalink


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Mr. Yglesias,

I think many of the proponents of the EU and such leave out an important point.

The US was the strong guarantor of security for NATO and the EU, the core of the alliance, and the main reason why nobody in Europe had anything to gain through conflict with any other country in Europe - the US would never have permitted it.

There was not only a common external threat but also a common hegemon, which had an interest in keeping its allies squabbles within limits. Therefore they worked things out.

To extend this to the UN - that too is not going to become something worthwhile without a core of power. The US isn't quite it, yet, but its the closest there is.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 15, 2005 4:44:30 PM

Good piece, and a nice addendum to the Angell thing.

It's also worth pointing out that US policy in Bush43 round one was to try to destroy the EU by pitting "old" against "new" Europe. This is explicitly recommend/applauded in An End to Evil, what with the focus on the evil France and Belgium, its pilotfish. For some reason I decided to download the audio copy of the book onto my iPod, and the effect is quite dramatic. I'm not sure who the reader is, but he manages to sound like he's sneering the entire time. Hyperbolic foreign polich advice (and horrendous title) aside, it's really quite well done as an audiobook.

Posted by: praktike | Mar 15, 2005 4:56:44 PM

Logan says this in his critique:

But what I don't believe for a second is that the reason we started the [first] Gulf War was because we sought to "strengthen and enforce a rule-based, global security regime."

I thought the '91 war was about maintaining unfettered, secure access to the world's largest energy deposits. I don't mean that in the "No Blood for Oil" sense, I mean it in the "Industrial Society Needs to Maintain its Lifeblood for the Good of Civilization" sense -- much like the Royal Navy's old self-appointed role as policeman of the world's trade routes. So if Gulf War One wasn't an exercise in enforcing a global security regime, what was it?

Posted by: sglover | Mar 15, 2005 5:17:28 PM

"My big meta-point on the UN is that we should desire a world in which the UN can efficaciously handle global security issues,"

You can desire that until you're blue in the face, and it doesn't mean that it's going to be possible. It doesn't mean that you don't happen to find yourself in a world where the choice is between having global security issues handled efficaciously, OR having the UN involved.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 15, 2005 5:27:06 PM

Mr. Sglover,

Thats what I thought as well. Thats why the US Navy was in the Gulf constantly in the 1980's, the "tanker wars".

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 15, 2005 5:32:00 PM


Curious if you've looked at the writings of Alec Stone Sweet on European integration? I haven't read that far into them but from the summaries I've heard he has some interesting analysis that could explain why the predictions of the realist vision (as you've described them) failed.

As I understand it he provides a significant elaboration on your comment, "Over time, however, those institutions began to gather momentum of their own, reaching a point where, today, they are basically self-sustaining." He argues that any time you have actors interacting when a dispute arises they have a choice of withdrawing from interaction or creating a mechanism to resolve the dispute. In practice it is more common for actors to create or find some court system to resolve the dispute than to solve it as a pure exercise of power. Hence his interest in the legal / constitutional structures of european integration.

Posted by: NickS | Mar 15, 2005 5:44:52 PM

"The EU and NATO are examples of, to my way of thinking, highly efficacious international institutions that can be discussed in terms of why we should desire the creation of a more efficacious UN."

To extend the point, consider that both the EU and Nato consist of developed, relatively free nations, where the rule of law is respected, and where if corruption exists, it at least knows limits.

The UN, by contrast, has a large percentage of members which fail on one or all of these measures. Even the Security council has members which are authoritarian or even totalitarian, and the general assembly is lousy with kleptocracies run by dictators and strongmen.

The place is like a neighborhood watch group where the inhabitants of the local crack house have a working majority. Fatally compromised.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 15, 2005 6:32:53 PM

We should not be assigning people to be ambassadors to institutions that those people don't believe in. That's really all there is to it.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 15, 2005 6:36:22 PM

Mr. Bellmore,

Europe in 1945 (or even 1955) wasn't as civilized as all that. It took quite a bit of US intervention, overt and covert, to steer things the right way - like making sure the Italian communists lost elections.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 15, 2005 6:39:08 PM

Can I summarize?

- Historically, we've become more cooperative because of particular threats (e.g. USSR).
- However, now that we've set up these cooperative frameworks, pure national interest dictates we uphold roughly this level of cooperation, even without an external threat.

Are you further arguing that it would be in our national interest to add more cooperation?

It's more easily believable that Europe stands to gain, maybe less so for us.

Posted by: mk | Mar 15, 2005 6:48:46 PM

similarity between New Deal infrastructure, strengthening of federalism, and the EU?

Cold War US vs USSR (and other minor players)

Tangential: US economy, EU economy (ie. Airbus) (Japan and others too).

Posted by: rse | Mar 15, 2005 6:56:26 PM

Just a few comments on international law and related issues, in connection with this and earlier posts:

First, it is simply not true that the "state" has a monopoly on the violence that occurs inside its own borders. That may be a nice theoretical ideal, but it is clearly not reality anywhere on earth, since everywhere on earth there is unauthorized violence occurring within the territory of some state, violence which that state can neither effectively punish nor successfully prevent. Americans should know this better than most, given our relatively high rates of violent crime.

The state, it may then be said, has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within its territory. But this claim seems to lack substantive content. First, to say a state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence seems to mean no more than that the state has a monopoly on the state-sanctioned use of violence.

And what does it mean to say that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence? Surely not that, even in the ideal situation, all legitimate violence within the state's territory is violence carried out by the state itself. What about, for example, boxing matches, or the violent punishments carried out by smaller local governments within the state's borders? So, to say the state has a monopoly on legitimate violence must just mean that the only legitimate violence that occurs within the state's territory is violence that is permitted by the state.

But putting these reflections together, we are left with something like this: For any state, the only state-sanctioned violence that occurs within the state's territory is violence that is permitted by the state. This seems close to tautologous to me, assuming there is not much difference between sanctioning and permitting.

Discussions of international law are often bogged down because the the disputants are mesmerized by the mythical power of the concept of "law", and its typical association with coercive force. So perhaps it is better to broaden the topic to include all sorts of international rules, laws, compacts, norms, conventions and standards. These human regularities are held in place by a variety of positive and negative sanctions - not just the use of violent force. Even the sanction of stigma plays a role, both in itself, and because stigma leads to other kinds of retributive sanctions. It is simply empirically inaccurate to say that the body of rules referred to collectively as "international law" are mere expressions of wishful thinking or myth. These rules are supported by a variety of sanctions that give them real efficacy, and make their violation risky. That even goes for the security realm - the perception among many of the world's populations and governments that the United States has violated international norms has lead to pressure from those populations on their governments to pursue policies designed to check and weaken the US. At least some of that pressure is due not just to the perception of dangerous levels of US power, but to the notion that the US has exercised that power outside the bounds of widely accepted international standards and rules. Such repercussions have an impact on the foreign policy of even such powerful states as the US.

One constantly hears from conservative nationalists claims of the form: "the UN will never be able to ..."; for example, the claim that the UN will never be able to prevent the United States from invading a country it wishes to invade. But most of the arguments for these claims strike me as weak - no stronger than parallel arguments that might have been made in 1785 that no American central government could ever prevent Virginia from invading Delaware. It is surely conceivable that the UN - or some similar body - could evolve into an organization with the concentrated, coordinated power to prevent and deter the use of force by one state against another, even very large states, although obviously the larger the state the more difficult the challenge. For example, suppose the UN were reformed in such a way that no single nation had a veto over security council resoultions, but those resolutions could be sustained with, say, a 2/3 majority. Then it is easy to imagine sanctions resolutions passed and carried out against a large state like the US. Because of the economic power of the US, it might be difficult to sustain such sanctions - but it wouldn't be impossible. And they need only be sustained to the extent of making it an ill bargain for the US to invade the chosen country. It is also possible to imagine that such a body could evolve to accumulate much greater military power.

It does sometimes happen that sovereign agents are moved by reason to surrender some degree of their unilateral power in order to derive some benefit from cooperation. Perhaps the US would choose not to be a member of such a reformed international body. But that doesn't matter, because the body could surely choose to sanction or use force against non-members.

What is interesting to me is that so many contemporary "democracy-promoters" in America have such limited horizons so far as democracy goes. What they apparently want to promote is only the propogation of local, sovereign national "democracies" within a very disorderly and profoundly undemocratic global environment. And even these national "democracies" are only to be democracies in the limited American sense.

American political thought is beset by all sorts of weird Pickwickian definitions. For example, everyone would accept that the rule of the vast majority by a minority is not democracy. So, when faced with the phenomenon of the vast power of wealthy minorites in the United States over the lives of poorer majorities, Americans simply choose not to call that kind of exercise of power "rule", and like to classify it as "non-governmental" power, a kind of power that falls outside the realm of democratic strictures, even though the powerful surely have the ability to govern the behavior of the powerless. They are thus able to sustain the myth that they live in a democracy.

I suspect this is one of the things that makes the current American ideological obsession with democracy-promotion so incongruous. Perhaps if Americans were more committed to democracy within their own country, and in the world as a whole, their democracy reformation projects within individual countries would have more credibility. But, given how selective the commitment to democracy is, it is hard not to see the rhetoric of democracy-promotion as simply a tool for the extension of US power - just as in an earlier era the Soviet championship of "communism" was recognized as the defense of a none-too-communal totalitarianism.

It is a curious fact about political discourse in the United States that nationalist orthodoxy is so strong - something like a religious commitment - that even projecting an ideal of global governance, and working toward it, is regarded as heretical and somewhat treasonous. Of course, there already is such a thing as global governance. There are rules, standards, norms, conventions, compacts etc. for which violators can expect some negative sanctions, and whose adherents are rewarded by positive sanctions. The question is whether we want to strengthen, reform and extend the instruments of global governance, or weaken them. And do we want those instruments to be democratic, or tyrannical?

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Mar 15, 2005 7:25:42 PM

Europe was still a LOT more civilized than many of the nations that make up the UN.

The primary point, though, that world security is a goal, the UN is just a means to that goal. And Matt shouldn't be so fixated on this one means, that he presumes anybody who rejects it rejects the goal.

Oh, and if you think the UN is hopelessly compromised, a cess pool of corruption that has to be managed through it's hopefully less than cataclysmic decline into irrelevancy, Bolton is EXACTLY the sort of guy you want as your representative. You do NOT give a UN booster a job like that.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 15, 2005 7:30:50 PM

Oh, and if you think the UN is hopelessly compromised, a cess pool of corruption that has to be managed through it's hopefully less than cataclysmic decline into irrelevancy, Bolton is EXACTLY the sort of guy you want as your representative.

No, if you feel the UN is that compromised, you withdraw. Sending an "ambassador" who is as openly antipathetic to the UN as Bolton is even less useful than that.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 15, 2005 7:40:39 PM

Mr. Kervick,

It seems to me that most of the rules on which the world currently runs are sustained not just by risk of sanctions, but by US-administered sanctions and rewards, and more than that, because there is no practical method of international force available, again because of the overwhelming US power.

The world has always (well, consistently since the late 18th century or so) had these international rules - like the enforceability of international contracts, diplomatic immunity, trade, investment and cartel agreements, etc.

None of these things meant much when push came to shove.

I say they are stronger now because the US is here to make alternative means - the armies and fleets of the past - impractical. So international disputes are more often resolved on paper than by invasions because those are usually the only means available.

Thank God for the US.

As for democracy - it seems to me that the US view of it, and capitalism, is pretty much the international consensus among wealthy nations. Only trivial differences separate the US, France or Japan in terms of political liberty and economic policy. You can prefer 10% more of this or 20% less of that, but in context of the world as a whole and of history they amount to a gnats whisker.

Posted by: luisalegria | Mar 15, 2005 7:56:26 PM

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, Bobo. As distasteful as it may be, we'll probably have to keep our membership in the UN until the day it disolves, just to help pilot it to a less destructive finish, a soft landing.

Nice discussion, Dan, but it conspicuously leaves out any mention of the most important non-state form of violence any legitimate state must permit to BE legitimate: Self defense.

OUR government is founded on the principle that soveriegnty originates from the people, who delegate some of it to the state, to advance their interests, and to protect their rights. But it is by no means a complete or irreversable delegation. The Weberian definition of the state has always been somewhat hostile to the principles THIS state is founded on.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 15, 2005 8:46:13 PM

Tip O'Neill famously said: "All politics is local."

And as Dan Kervick points out it is the American orthodoxy that nationalism (a political localism compared to internationlism) is best. Just as in the history of this country, States' Rights (Republicanism) vs Federalism won the day. Even John Adams' (a die-hard Federalist) son, JQ Adams, became a Republican. But even nationalists, like Bush, invent a reason to arrogate power to themselves when they rule. With apologies to my favorite insurgents' song, The Declaration of Independence (“all MEN were created equal” was two lies), Thomas Jefferson's most lasting contribution to this nation was the Louisiana Purchase. Abandon all hope, ye libertarians, if you let tax dollars be spent thusly. And who is so Republican today they are against a national bank? Or money spent on the National...er, Interstate Highways (federal tax dollars spent on an Interstate highway in Hawaii??1!!).

But the ulitmate assertion of the primacy of the Federal government over the individual states was Lincoln’s Civil War. “Oh no you won’t leave me, bitch” Lincoln told the states, and now he’s the Republicans’ darling. (I call it a case of the Stockholm Syndrome or was Bush’s election a vengeful “burning bed” act on the part of the states’ rights proponents?).

Yesterday’s Federalism is today’s truism. The word on "Republican" lips today is how to SAVE social security! Delightful.

The more local the political stand, the better it sells on the ballot-box level. Problem is, larger political conglomerations both mitigate our more fearful, violent, reactionary impulses, and make the nation stronger. It is the old Classicism vs Romanticism dichotomy. Of course we all live on a local level, with local food, music, rituals, etc. We live locally, we love locally, we vote locally. But the broad, (call it Federalist or widen the canvas and call it internationalism) enlightened view is one that recognizes the humanity in all cutures. Bush knows this, he is an eastern-liberal-education-elite. He gives the hicks who support him only lip service.

And now Bush finds Jesus in foreign affairs, adopting Carter's moral foreign policy that respects human rights above all. A new Allende? OK with Bush Negroponte and Bolton. Hallelujah, reason has won. A Shah in Iran? Never! The original Bush Doctrine, which stated that preemptive war is OK if a country presents as big a risk to the US as Iraq did in 2002 (OK, philosophers, as big a risk as Iraq presented to us in Bush's mind at that time, but do you really want to go there?), is no longer operative. The US is against dictatorship. The US has always been against dictatorship. Can Bush's "Nixon goes to China" moment, obeisance to an International Criminal Court, be far behind? And Hindrocket will swear Bush invented the idea.

Like morality, Bush evolves. What a wonderful country.

Imperfect law making and enforcing traditions, like the UN, will get better. And there's the rub. Is it inimical to US and human interests, to have an effective UN in the future? And if US interests, and the interests of human freedom diverge, wich side are you on? Mr. Bush?

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 15, 2005 11:10:24 PM

My big meta-point on the UN is that we should desire a world in which the UN can efficaciously handle global security issues,

I can't agree with this -- the UN is about implementing things that friggin' everybody agrees on. Global security, and in particular insurance against aggression, is not among these things.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Mar 15, 2005 11:43:29 PM

So, Matt, when did you take A-12?

Posted by: Noah Snyder | Mar 16, 2005 12:34:49 AM

Never took it! It always seemed to me that one should avoid the really popular classes, because you could just learn whatever was being taught in them via osmosis talking over lunch.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Mar 16, 2005 2:09:50 AM

What Dan Kervick said, only shorter: strong world government is the future, whether you like it or not. It's either world government or the end of civilization.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 16, 2005 2:28:46 AM

I mostly agree, but just to play the devil's advocate, I will add this:

One of the reasons that Mearsheimer's position was falsified was the realization that Europe wasn't the center of world politics, but rather getting squeezed out from America, an ascending Japan (in early nineties) and China down the road.

A competition at that point would be detrimental to the interests of all parties involved (save perhaps England!) and would condemn Europe to irrelevancy.

A problem which she's also partly facing today now that most issues of contention have moved from Europe to the Middle East and down the road to East Asia.

On the other hand, while conservatives get foam in their mouth at the thought of any institution that might curtail america's power, especially when suggestions for doing so come from France and Germany, they don't understand that France and Germany have practiced what they preached; to a large extent they have curtailed their power and degree of autonomy in exchange of peace, long-term stabillity and consensus from smaller European powers on other issues. Thus for example, while according to Realist theory you would expect a great deal of resentment and fear from smaller parties against Germany which is the 400 lb gorilla, there's none. Why?

Because Germany has tied down herself. Some food for thought for the next time a hardline american administration ignores everyone and does her own thing.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Mar 16, 2005 3:15:53 AM

To simplify things enormously, the reason the EU is more "efficacious" than the UN, particularly on security, is that the EU is to a large degree the "world government" that conservatives caricature the UN as. Because it encompasses a whole range of things from trade to tax to security, it has a formal and all-encompassing set of mechanisms to resolve disputes and non-violent means of enforcing them. Member states accept the jurisdiction of, for example, the ECHR in a way that UN member states (most obviously the US) do not accept the jurisdiction of UN bodies like the ICJ. This is possible to a large degree because the EU nations are fewer and more homogeneous than the UN.

I fundamentally disagree that disparate European nations wouldn't integrate if they started over now. The formation of the EU was a long and gradual process, and the accession of 10 new member states demonstrates that for all its flaws, integrations has overwhelming benefits.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Mar 16, 2005 4:46:50 AM

The governments of Europe all have a lot less autonomy today than they would have if, back in the '40s, they had merely cooperated in an ad hoc, Bolton-style, non-institutional manner. And they would all be a lot worse off for it.

Just pointing out that many of us -- perhaps a majority -- disagree. The EU is much more unpopular among its members than the UN is among its, so if the UN follows that path, you can expect at the very least to get to the state which we have today, where in some countries 10% of the electorate see leaving the EU as the single biggest political issue.

The reasons for the EU have all gone. Unfortunately, you are correct in describing the institutions as self-sustaining.

Posted by: Andrew McGuinness | Mar 16, 2005 4:53:07 AM

Given the nature of nationalism, 10% is a remarkably low figure. If the UN had the same powers and supra-national sovereignty as the EU, I think a lot more than 10% of Americans would have leaving it as their highest priority. The point is that practically all countries have enormous vested interest in staying in the EU, so the vocal minority will never win out. Remember that it was the Tories who took Britain into Maastricht. Britain has one of the largest and loudest anti-EU factions in Europe, including a viciously anti-Europe tabloid press, but still a substantial majority prefers to stay in than out.The reasons for the EU have evolved - currently the strongest arguments are a large common market and ensuring the successful development of Central and Eastern Europe.

There are many problems with the EU's institutions, and they need to be made much more directly accountable. But to suggest that Europe would have been better off without them, or would be in future, flies in the face of the evidence.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Mar 16, 2005 6:56:27 AM

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