Richard Haass. A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order. New York: Penguin Press, 2017. 352 pp. $28.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-399-56236-5.
Reviewed by David B. Mislan (American University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2017)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
We are entering a transitional period in international relations. As Antonio Gramsci wrote, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” This interregnum is precisely where US foreign policy sits at this moment; we know that the old era is over but we do not know what the new era will bring. It is a period that is rife with anxiety. Americans who follow international affairs crave certainty at a time where there is a dearth of it. This is the context in which Richard Haass writes A World in Disarray, yet his book does not provide any particularly new insight that might comfort Americans’ unease.
Haass comes to his current project after a career of encapsulating trends with popular books. After a critical mass of Americans regretted the war in Iraq, he pointed out that it was not necessary in War of Necessity, War of Choice (2009). Most recently, when Americans questioned the tradeoff between domestic and foreign policy goals, Haass wrote Foreign Policy Begins at Home (2014). In each of these books, the author summarized the public mood and dispensed advice that suggested a mild adjustment to the status quo. His audience is broad, but his intention is to influence the direction of the foreign policy agenda.
A World in Disarray is laden with irony. Haass describes a world that has been turned upside down by social forces that scholars and practitioners are struggling to grasp. Because of globalization, modernization, democratization, cosmopolitanism, and technological advances, the world now has Brexit and Donald Trump. Haass describes a world that is increasingly skeptical of the old way of doing things, yet he prescribes doing things the old way, with a subtle twist. If books by opinion leaders like Haass are supposed to push the discourse in new directions, this offering fails to meet the mark. Put simply, in the interregnum, we need new ideas. A World in Disarray does not offer any.
Haass reveals his big idea in the final third of his book, after a long build-up. In the first part, he quickly reviews nearly four hundred years of world history. He weaves a story about order and what great powers have done since the Treaty of Westphalia in order to cement it. It is a quick-paced narrative that would be welcome in an introductory international relations class. As Haass begins to describe the late twentieth century, his grand thesis emerges: a combination of great power consensus and restraint is what makes a rule-based international order survive. This is a very agreeable conclusion.
The middle third of the book is what Haass calls “analysis,” or more aptly put, a quick overview of international affairs today. He suggests that order is breaking down between the great powers, in international organizations, and in some regions. How he makes this case, however, could be better. This section suffers from errors that should have been caught before publication. For example, Haass writes that the International Telegraph Union (ITU) was established in 1947 and is an example of enduring post-WWII great power cooperation (p. 143). In fact, the ITU is one of the oldest international organizations in the world, dating back to 1865, and is an example of cooperation in a very different type of international system.
The second type of error is more concerning: errors of omission. In his discussion of regional cooperation, Haass devotes unequal attention to different parts of the world. For the Middle East, he fills twenty-seven pages. For Europe, four pages. Latin America and Africa share three pages. Even then, the insight offered is scant, as if to suggest that other regions matter less to world politics today. When Haass writes about the Middle East, it is mostly a discussion of US involvement. The United States is not mentioned once regarding Latin America or Africa, though, confusing the very purpose of the chapter in the first place. Whether the author intends to interpret US foreign policy toward regions or intraregional politics is unclear. Even within the discussion of each region, major world events are absent. Thus, the author’s discussion of cooperation in the European Union (or lack thereof) never includes the extensive politics over the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis, perhaps the biggest imbroglio in the history of the European Union. Overall, the middle third of the book appears rushed; it was a missed opportunity to provide useful insight.
The final third of the book is what Haass calls his prescription for a new world order, or “World Order 2.0.” This is not the only catchy term the author rolls out. In this last section, Haass writes about the need for the United States to build a new legitimacy in the global order it established in 1945. The author coins the term sovereign obligation to describe “a definition of legitimacy that embraces not just the rights but also the obligations of sovereign states vis-à-vis other governments and countries” (p. 227). In short, Haass implores the great powers to respect each other’s boundaries while also acknowledging that cooperation is necessary to tackle transnational problems. He says that the United States should lead by example, embracing sovereign obligation, after which he expects other countries will follow.
Sovereign obligation is a new term, but an old idea. Fundamentally, it is realpolitik for the era of globalization. It is pragmatism over Wilsonian idealism or Jacksonian populism. Moreover, sovereign obligation is quite familiar to Americans because it describes the foreign policy of the Barack Obama administration over the last eight years: strategic restraint with an eye on global cooperation. It is not new. This is also true in the vast literature on world affairs. One can find Haass’s big idea, under different guises, in the writings of philosophers from John Locke to Reinhold Neibuhr; of international relations scholars from Headley Bull to John Mearsheimer; and of practitioners from Henry Kissinger to Joseph Nye. As far as big ideas go, sovereign obligation is a disappointing one. It is a recycled notion at a time when new ideas are urgently needed.
Despite its shortcomings, A World in Disarray has some bright spots. Haass offers a take on America’s relations with Russia and China that is both interesting and useful. He sees the origins of America’s current troubles with Russia in the expansion of NATO over a decade ago, thus questioning America’s role in shaping others’ threat perceptions of it. This is a refreshing view that could be quite useful in the current administration. Another smart insight comes during the author’s discussion of the responsibility to protect doctrine (R2P). Haass writes that Russia and China viewed the West’s invocation of R2P during Libya as a “bait and switch,” since the allies began the military campaign under humanitarian grounds but quickly transitioned to a regime-change operation once it had UN Security Council authorization (p. 162). Finally, Haass writes that recent administrations from both parties have been circumventing the vast and capable foreign policy bureaucracy when weighing options. Subsequently, he avers, the quality and long-term vision of foreign policy has suffered (p. 177). These and other valuable insights could be the basis of a very different book, one that would be much more critical of the status quo and a more valuable reflection on current and future US foreign policy.
Before the publication of A World in Disarray, few would have mistaken Richard Haass for a dreamer or visionary. Over the years, his analysis has mostly restated the conventional wisdom. Perhaps his body of work, including his most recent offering, can be useful as a type of historical record of how mainstream opinion leaders viewed some of the most pressing issues of US foreign policy.
. Antonio Gramsci, Selections of the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 556.
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