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You Have to Try

David Brooks asks:

We’re about to enter our 19th consecutive year of Truman-envy. Ever since the Berlin Wall fell, people have looked at the way Harry Truman, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson and others created forward-looking global institutions after World War II, and they’ve asked: Why can’t we rally that kind of international cooperation to confront terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation and the rest of today’s problems?

Uhh, becauce for the last eight years we haven’t even tried?

Seriously, this isn’t that hard. The institution building of the 1990s was imperfect, to be sure, but it was at least somewhat successful. The WTO came into being in 1995 and has been quite successful in promoting global trade, not withstanding the collapse of the Doha round of trade talks. The treaty for the International Criminal Court was signed in 1998 and the Court was officially created in 2002. It too has been quite successful, providing an avenue for prosecution for war criminals like Charles Taylor. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum first met in 1993 and has provided a useful forum for dealing with Pacific Rim issues, even if it is still a little vague.

But since 2000, forward progress on international institution building has stopped. As Brooks notes, we have been unable to make progress on terrorism, global warming or nuclear proliferation. Why? Look no further than who occupied the White House. Bill Clinton actively tried to build forward looking international institutions and was at least somewhat successful.

When George W. Bush took office in 2001 he was actively hostile to international cooperation, especially in the areas that Brooks identifies. On Global Warming Bush unsigned the Kyoto Protocols which, while imperfect, were a valuable starting point. His administration then spent the next 6-7 years denying global warming and doing everything in its power to hold up international cooperation on the issue.

On nuclear proliferation Bush has been just as bad. Starting in 2001 it has actively undermined the nuclear non-proliferation regime. It publicly rebuked Colon Powell for saying the Administration would continue the Clinton policy on North Korea. It pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It has pushed for the US to develop new nuclear bombs. In 2006 it signed a nuclear agreement with India, actively undermining the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s no wonder we haven’t gotten any new international cooperation on the non-proliferation front. The Bush administration hasn’t been interested in any.

Global terrorism is perhaps the most egregious of Brooks’ examples. In the aftermath of 9/11 there was a tremendous opportunity to create the institutions and norms for a global, united fight against terrorism. Yet the Bush administration utterly blew the opportunity. Instead of pushing for a new treaty to define the rights of terrorist suspects and international norms for dealing with them, a project that is sorely needed, the Bush administration decided to go it alone. They just ignored global standards like the Geneva Conventions and made up their own rules. Unsurprisingly, that hasn’t gone over too well with the rest of the world. Whereas Bush could have led a global push to deal with terrorism multilaterally, treating it as akin to piracy in that every country has an obligation to help stamp it out and any country has jurisdiction to prosecute it, but instead he decided to work around and ignore the patchwork international law on the subject. That isn’t even to mention going into Iraq while ignoring the UN.

While Brooks puts the dearth of new international organizations to deal with our pressing problems at the feet of multipolarity, the real answer is a lack of US leadership. In the post Cold War era some international organizations, notably the EU and WTO, have flourished. New institutions have been created. The ICC is still relatively new but has been surprisingly successful thus far, given the fact that the US refused to acknowledge its existence. Yes, power is more distributed now. But for the last 8 years we have had an administration that is actively opposed to such institution building. Is it any surprise new institutions haven’t flourished?

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