The Old World Order

Posted April 12, 2009, at 6:54 p.m.

Rather than see the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the beginning of a new, challenging world order, it could be seen as a return to reality.

Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and currently a professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who spoke at the recent Camden Conference, suggested that now, more than ever, the U.S. must not act unilaterally and must instead rely on collaboration to achieve its foreign policy goals. Instead of ushering in a new paradigm for understanding the world, the Sept. 11 attacks in fact ended a brief respite, he said. The attacks on American soil meant a brief period of U.S. hegemony was over. That period began in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Two other periods similar to that decade came after World War I and after World War II. Both times, U.S. foreign policy leaders sought to engage the rest of the world in keeping the peace, rather than rely on its might alone. After World War I, President Woodrow Wilson tried to launch the League of Nations, but failed to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty that created it. After World War II, U.S. leaders did a better job, Mr. Burns said, and the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, NATO, the European Common Market and other organizations were created.

Mr. Burns, who served under President George H.W. Bush, said he found it especially troubling that Senate Republicans in the 1990s wanted to cut the nation’s U.N. dues in half.

The new reality is that China, India and Brazil are emerging as world powers, while countries such as Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria and Indonesia are becoming regional powers. The U.S. would do better to acknowledge that reality and engage with those nations than strut on the world stage as if it were still a sole superpower.

Whether the U.S. seeks or shuns a role in the world, other nations expect it to be a moral leader in regional disputes. By initiating conflict resolution, and then enlisting the emerging powers who are neighbors to rogue nations, the U.S. can retain its voice, but perhaps do so with less spending on military hardware.

“There’s no combination of powers that can approach us in terms of military power,” Mr. Burns said. In fact, “the next 10 to 15 countries combined don’t spend as much as we do.” That’s not to suggest that the U.S. relinquish its top-dog role, but it ought to rely more on the use of what he called “soft power,” and employ persuasion over threats.

It is not too late to rethink how much the U.S. relies on military might, and instead how it might use diplomacy. Mr. Burns noted that there are more lawyers working in the Pentagon than there are people in the U.S. diplomatic corps; putting people in a position to lead in collaborative diplomacy in such hot spots as Israel-Gaza, Pakistan-Afghanistan and the Korean Peninsula would be a good start.

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