The Great Experiment Part 1




SIMON & SCHUSTER                   2008


Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end.

Isaiah 9:7

In my father’s house are many mansions.

John 14:2

Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them.

Thomas Jefferson

Introduction: A Gathering of Tribes

Some peoples wax and others wane

And, in a short space, the order of living things is changed

And, like runners, hand on the torch of life.


If I had a world to govern

Of kingdoms so contentious,

By far would I prefer

Never to have a realm at all.

Gottfried von Strassburg

The member states of the UN range alphabetically from Afghanistan, one of the most ungovernable nations on earth, to Zimbabwe, one of the worst governed. They vary in size from tiny relics of history, such as the principality of Liechtstein, a sixty-two-square-mile constitutional monarchy in the Alpine foothills, and newborn microstates, such as Kiribati and Vanuata in the South Pacific, to the Asian giants, India and China.

In the autumn of 1993, virtually all the presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs who were about to descend on New York City hoped to meet Bill Clinton, a newcomer to their ranks. Many would get face time with him. Some would have formal “bilats” at the American mission across the street from the UN, or at the Waldorf-Astoria, where the White House and State Department staffs set up camp. Others would be granted “pull-asides” at one of the numerous receptions every evening, or on the margins of the General Assembly itself.

  • From his first UNGA in 1993 to his last in 2000, Clinton looked forward to the several days he spent each fall in New York as a jamboree of networking that brought together some of the world’s most ambitious, accomplished, and self-confident extroverts.
  • The purpose of the United Nations is to take action against hunger, poverty, disease, aggression, and, in more recent years, outrages perpetrated by governments against their own citizens. But agreeing on exactly what action to take requires seemingly endless talk.
  • Churchill commented that “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war” and Eisenhower made the same point: “With all the defects, with all the failures that we can chalk up against it, the UN still represents man’s best organized hope to substitute  the conference table for the battlefield.”
  • Sometimes the UN must resort to force. On those occasions, the organization yields to the power of a few countries that are able to act. That often means yielding to the United States.
  • During the summer of 2007, there were 18 UN peacekeeping missions deployed on 4 continents, involving 100,000 personnel, many of them soldiers, from about 100 countries.
  • On a highly selective and circumscribed basis, the member states of the UN pool their authority and resources to achieve common purposes, often in concert with other international bodies. When the nations of the world take joint action they are practicing global governance and also learning to do it better.
  • The phrase “global governance” appears frequently in course offerings at universities and public-policy conferences of many countries, but less in the case of the United States, where the term is used with nervous caution.
  • To those inclined to see it that way, the UN is a stalking horse for a conspiracy to deprive the United States of its independence and its citizens of their freedoms.
  • The more powerful a state is, the more likely its people are to regard the pooling of national authority as an unnatural act. What is surprising is that in the 2nd half of the 20th century, 11 presidents – 6 Democrats and 5 Republicans – recognized global governance as a natural element in world politics and as a useful, even indispensable instrument of American foreign policy.
  • While they too called it by other names that emphasized U.S. interests and U.S. leadership, they made global governance an American project.
  • George W. Bush did not so much abandon that project as change the way in which it was conducted and perceived. He accentuated what he saw – and wanted the world to accept – as America’s right to make and enforce the rules by which other nations must abide.
  • More than any of his predecessors, he adhered to an uncompromising and extreme variant of American exceptionalism – a form of nationalism that ascribes to the United States superior qualities, universal values, global interests, unique responsibilities, and a divine dispensation to use its might on behalf of what its leaders deem to be right.
  • The test case was in Iraq, and the result was a failure and a backlash. In part because effective global governance and successful American foreign policy are closely linked, both enterprises fell on hard times, and they have to be resuscitated together.
  • Among the most urgent pieces of business Bush will leave his successor will be that of restoring American standing in the world.

In 2003, I started writing this book on a subject that I had been thinking about for several decades: how the origin of individual nations and the formation of the international system have been similarly motivated. Both occur when disparate people unite for the sake of safety and prosperity. Just as a nation is a gathering of tribes, so the international community is a gathering of nations – an incipient global nation, in the sense that humanity is learning to govern itself as a whole on those issues where it can do so to the benefit of all, and especially on those where it must do so to avert planetary disaster.

  • My parents were active in the international wing of the Republican Party in the late 40s and early 50s. They nudged me, at an early age, toward an awareness of how far the world had to go in learning to govern itself sensibly.
  • This book is a reflection on some of what I have leaned and an attempt to relate it to some of what I have seen, and done, in international politics.
  • I have traced the great experiment of global governance from the origins of the concept in ancient religion and philosophy through its evolution in the minds of political thinkers and in the strivings of political leaders.
  • A big idea becomes a good idea – not just logically sound and ethically noble but practical as well – through thousands of years of struggle and testing, incremental progress, and catastrophic setbacks.
  • The imperial system, which held sway for millennia, is the subject of Part One of this book. Alexander the Great, the Romans, Genghis Khan, the Qin Emperor in China, Ashoka and Akbar in India, the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the British established the basis for governance on a vast scale in two ways: by connecting remote regions and cultures and establishing networks of economic interdependence and cultural cross-fertilization; and by developing organizational practices and technologies that were capable of projecting great force and authority.
  • Many empires failed because they were inherently hierarchical and therefore unjust. As nation states broke free from empires, they found that being small required collective security. They entered into alliances and treaties to deter predatory behemoths and also to keep from going to war against one another.
  • Peace was conducive to trade, which, in turn, was regulated by commercial agreements. Beyond its economic benefit, the movement of goods and services, along with people, ideas, and technology, drew states into a web of associations, common practices, and mutual dependency – the components of what we today call globalization.
  • For centuries, Europe was a busy, bloody, yet productive laboratory for experimentation with ideas and institutions that would eventually replace empire.
  • A nation-states cam into their own, they shared a growing sense that they formed a single continental community. One result was the concept of balance of power among states as a replacement for imperial dominance.
  • Another European invention was federalism, which became an export to the American colonies in the 18th century and, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the basis for supranational governance under the flag of the EU. Despite its current doldrums, the EU is an undertaking of great boldness and promise, a model for what is possible in other parts of the world.
  • Before Europe could become the zone of peace that it is today, it spent centuries at war with itself and the forces of Islam. Then, having spread their commerce and culture to the far corners of the earth through their empires, the Europeans unleashed, within a 20-year period, two world wars.
  • The first of those conflagrations made Europe ripe for German fascism and Soviet communism. The United States was indispensable in rescuing Europe and the world from those monstrosities, in ending the age of empire, and in giving Europe the sense of security it needed to form the EU.
  • Part Two deals with America’s rise to unparalleled and unprecedented power. The Founding Fathers believed they were creating not just a new nation or even just a new kind of nation, but a new and better way for all nations to govern themselves. The first sentence of the Declaration of Independence promises to show ‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.’
  • American leaders acknowledged a debt to ancient Greece and Rome and to European civilization. In imbuing idealism with pragmatism, America has developed and sustained a sense of a global mission to advance values as well as interests, and to do so as much as possible by example and consent rather than by conquest.
  • In Woodrow Wilson, America had a leader who believed that if those tenets of national governance could be institutionalised internationally, the world would be safer, more prosperous, and more humane. The result, in 1919, was the League of Nations which ended in ruins. After a second global calamity, the world and the United States had a second chance, founding the United Nations in 1945.
  • The world required a new, highly specialized form of governance. The joint regulation of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals averted Armageddon and established the basis for a compact whereby most other nations agreed to forgo having such weapons.
  • Part Three deals with American pre-eminence since the end of the cold war, a distinction that the country used largely to its advantage and the world’s until the misadventure of Bush’s foreign policy and, in particular, the war in Iraq.
  • In those chapters I have drawn on experiences and observations from three stages of my career: 21 years at Time; 8 years at the State Department; and 6 years at Yale and Brookings.
  • I bring the story up to the onset of the 2008 American presidential campaign, in a conclusion, to what I believe should happen under the next president if the planet is to be spared the ravages of climate change and a new wave of nuclear proliferation.
  • These and other perils that cloud our future come with the modern condition. But the dilemma they pose – how to reconcile our tribal instincts with our common fate – is much older; it is part of the human condition, a theme in human history, and rooted in human nature.



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