Magnifying American Power

Magnifying American Power

"International institutions channel the United States’ power and enhance its security," say two Dartmouth political scientists.

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The source: “Reshaping the World Or­der” by Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohl­forth, in Foreign Affairs, March–April ­2009.

The institutions that govern international relations, from the United Nations Security Council to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regime, are about as well suited to their tasks as a 1950s Philco TV would be to screening  the next Olympics. Dartmouth political scientists Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth call the architecture of the world’s international institutions a “relic” of the mid-20th century, out of sync with today’s challenges of rising nations, terrorism, financial instability, and global ­warming.

In a 2007 speech, Barack Obama him­self named two of the agencies that critics think most urgently need reform, the United Nations and the World Bank. The UN Security Council, for example, is led by a different one of 15 na­tions every month, with important decisions subject to the absolute veto of any one of the five winners of World War II. The World Bank, which helps developing countries, always has a president from the United ­States.

America, far and away the richest and most powerful country in the world, has the means to lead needed reforms, and strong motives to do so. “Overall, international institutions channel the United States’ power and enhance its security,” argue Brooks and Wohl­forth. Such institutions can perform ­tasks—­think inspecting nuclear facilities, gathering intelligence about Islamic terrorism, or enforcing free-trade ­rules—­that would be much harder for the United States to do alone. Even building ­coalitions ­of ­the ­willing is an inefficient approach to national security, the authors say, because each potential part­ner must be recruited with a different set of carrots and ­sticks.

The Bush administration’s unilateralism hurt American pres­tige, but the damage can be re­versed, Brooks and Wohlforth believe. Even some nations that oppose the United States think that its “leadership is natural under the circumstances or the best that can be expected.”

In fact, the Bush administration was a “strik­ingly successful” inter­national leader when it put its mind to it. For instance, it pushed through the Proliferation Security Initiative, a framework for interdicting weapons of mass destruction at sea, on land, and in the air. Designed to give the U.S. Navy more latitude to stop ships that might be carrying weapons of mass destruction, the proliferation initiative was sold success­fully as a “global effort” even though it tended to benefit the Americans more than any­body ­else.

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