Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:59 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 00:59 | SYDNEY

Conservatives and global governance II


Sam Roggeveen


22 November 2011 17:10

Over at The Multilateralist, David Bosco has replied to my post about conservatism and global governance. A few further points in reply.

David says American conservatives are not going to buy into my argument that the US should latch onto multilateralism now because it will be increasingly important to them as the country declines in relative terms. Declinism is indeed a tough sell on the US Right, because of its refusal to accept limits to US power, and because of its dogmatic attachment to US exceptionalism. Were conservatives to accept American relative decline, they would be acknowledging that the US is a normal country.

I'm not saying my case for a conservative embrace of global governance will be a popular argument on the US Right. I just happen to think it's the correct one. And hoping that China's experiment with capitalism will implode or that India will collapse under the weight of internal contradictions is not a strategy. Those things might happen, but are you prepared to bet the house on it?

Moving on, David pointed out in a previous post that US conservatives aren't antagonistic to all international institutions, which is why he says in this latest post that he's 'not willing to concede that American conservatives are broadly hostile to the network of existing multilateral institutions.'

I agree. US conservative attitudes to international institutions are heavily influenced by the goals of those bodies. The UN (in particular the General Assembly and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) embodies what US conservatives see as a progressivist ideology, whereas the WTO, IMF and NATO stand for things many conservatives approve of (free trade, fiscal discipline, anti-communism).

This is a narrow and parochial view of international governance. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the aims of a given international organisation should not be foremost in the minds of conservatives when discussing the worth of those bodies. For instance, the fact that the UN has some progressivist characteristics is far less important than the fact that it is a body to which the vast majority of world states grant authority.

Authority is a somewhat slippery concept, but to my mind it is central to the conservative political tradition (a tradition from which modern American conservatism is increasingly divorced; how many of the GOP presidential candidates even know who Edmund Burke is?). Here are two earlier post I wrote on the subject.

The other value of the UN is that it now has sixty-some years of accumulated law, ritual and traditional practice, which is an inheritance that conservatism, properly understood, should also be concerned with...well...conserving. Here's what I said in a recent lecture on the subject:

The question of power is really only the beginning of managing a new Asia Pacific and global order. Yes, it is important to recognise the way power relations are shifting, but in order to cope with that change, an emphasis on power relations is insufficient. Power and coercion alone do not make social relations sustainable. What’s needed as a new global order emerges is the gradual and organic growth of common traditions and institutions of the kind that, in our own societies, prevent us from having to endure a Hobbesian existence where power and strength determine every question.

International society is certainly anarchical, but it is not chaotic – it displays many elements of the law- and tradition-based order that conservatives value in their own societies, and these are the facets of international political life which conservatives should protect. What must be nurtured is the growing but still fragile sense of authority carried by international institutions, for the anarchical international order is strengthened and made more tolerable as the authority of its laws and institutions rises, and the importance of power declines.

Photo by Flickr user UN Photo.