Jay Ulfelder recently pointed out that the preoccupation with failed states – one which permeates the popular discourse about foreign policy and the highest ranks of the foreign policy establishment – seems to wholly obscure major global trends. Failed states are not the main story of the 21st century, nor are they truly the source of primary threats to world security or the international order generally. What is more true, and, in many ways, more disturbing, is the idea that international order is being undermined by the success of its own ideas, models, and actions.
That tumult in one part of the world can reverberate across it is not a sign of impending collapse and failure, but the strength of the flows which permeate the international system. Of course, one can speak of the dark side of globalization, but this is to unnecessarily separate the trends. In that sort of scheme, the “dark” flows metastasize from an incompletely integrated periphery to the wealthy, safe metropoles, which in turn draw in the periphery with its beneficial flows of trade and ideas. This is an unduly Manichean model.
Hobbes famously predicated the basis for the horror of the state of nature was an equality of human desires and the scarcity and exclusivity of means to fulfill them. In a sense, the world is moving towards anarchy, but it is at a higher level. International order, so long as major preponderances of power existed between states, functioned partially as hierarchy as much as anarchy. Comparisons to the 19th century miss the point, in this regard. IR theorists, and especially those of the realist inclination, often talk about a return to the 19th century because European politics were multipolar. However, that does not explain how the balance of power in the rest of the world operated, since it was under varying forms of hierarchical influence from these European (and later American) states. Today, the legacies of that hierarchy are beginning to erode, with genuinely non-Western poles of power emerging in Eastern Eurasia. Continue reading