July 4, 2008


Balancing Act: The Other Wilsonianism (Peter Beinart, Summer 2008, World Affairs)

For close to a century, American liberals have had such a theory, even if at times it has been submerged by events. That theory has not been rendered moot by the passage of decades; to the contrary, it has never been more relevant. It is called collective security.

The phrase “collective security” will forever be linked to Woodrow Wilson, the leader who presided over America’s emergence as a great power. Wilson was a progressive, which meant, among other things, that he was an optimist about human cooperation. Against Social Darwinists who celebrated competition because it hardened the strong and culled the weak, Wilson insisted that selfishness was neither natural nor good. In a nation bitterly divided between rich and poor, urban and rural, immigrant and native born, he saw unregulated self-interest as leading not to progress, but to civil war, as America’s fractious tribes trampled one another in their drive for power.

When Europe collapsed into war in 1914, Wilson applied this view to the international scene. He blamed the carnage of the First World War on the balance of power system that for centuries had defined European statecraft. Echoing the Social Darwinists at home, balance of power advocates celebrated unregulated self-interest on a global scale. If nations focused narrowly on their own defense and security, they argued, banding together against whoever amassed too much power, they would create a rough equilibrium among rivals, almost like an evenly balanced scale. And with no one power, or group of powers, capable of overwhelming its rivals, the balance of power would keep the peace. For Wilson, however, the theory was decisively repudiated at the Marne. Even before America entered the fray, he began to imagine a new postwar order, one that replaced anarchy with rules, competition with cooperation. When the bloodshed finally ended, he hoped, the balance of power would give way to collective security.

Whereas in the past nations had banded together in competing alliances, Wilson envisioned them joining in a single global alliance: not against one another but against war itself. Every member would swear an oath against aggression, and if any nation violated the pledge, it would find itself in a war of one against all. The global alliance would be called The League to Enforce Peace or, later, the League of Nations. And through it, Wilson declared in May 1916, “Coercion shall be summoned not to the service of political ambition or selfish hostility but to the service of a common order, a common justice and a common peace.”

In the decades after Wilson exited the political stage, American liberals held fast to his vision, even as events made it impossible to achieve.

Even the Europeans aren't yet so soul-dead that they'll succumb to the EU, but Americans are going to shuck 88 years of opposition to the League? And the Left wonders why no one thinks them patriotic....
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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 4, 2008 11:06 AM

Collective security is what makes the family, the clan, the tribe, the nation band together. At that level their are repercussions for not contributing to the collective security.

It does not scale up, however. How do you make a nation in an alliance bear its fair burden of the costs of collective security? Break the alliance? Invade?

Norway could do nothing alone for Abyssinia; and if France and Britain were not willing to lead, then there was nothing Finland could do to help.

Belling cats falls on the largest. Unless the big boys are willing to do something an international bully gets his way. And that means keeping up a credible response - air, land, and sea.

The USA bells cats.

Posted by: Mikey at July 5, 2008 10:12 PM
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