All Commentary
Wednesday, December 1, 1999

World Disorders: Troubled Peace in the Post-Cold War Era

Outsiders Cannot Solve Intractable Problems in Foreign Countries

Harvard professor Stanley Hoffmann is an unbridled interventionist. Although he decries any American role as the global policeman, he proposes intervening for so many purposes and under so many circumstances that chevrons begin to form on his shoulders.

Hoffmann rejects the argument that the United States should withdraw from entanglements and international commitments. Although he admits that few threats to American vital interests exist he makes an exception for the Middle East—he declares that a world of diffuse disorder could rapidly become a dangerous place. He argues that societies and economies are too interdependent for the United States to be sure that what happens in small, poor, weak nations will not affect Americans. He maintains that apathy about what happens in “far away countries of which we know nothing” can lead through contagion and through the message that passivity sends to trouble-makers—to “creeping escalation of disorder and beastliness that will, sooner or later, reach the shores of the complacent, the rich, and the indifferent.” In short, Hoffmann endorses the domino theory of instability.

He then goes even further, taking issue with those who say that U.S. foreign policy should be based on interests and not values. Hoffmann asserts that morality is a national interest.

Thus Hoffmann advocates intervention in foreign internal crises when the turmoil threatens regional or international security or when human rights violations become so massive that they cannot be ignored. His broad definition of massive human rights violations includes genocide, mass killings short of genocide, ethnic cleansing, brutal and large-scale repression, mass rape, famines, epidemics, massive breakdowns of law and order, and flights of refugees.

Not only does Hoffmann favor unilateral U.S. intervention under those circumstances, but he advocates the formation of an international military force under United Nations auspices with member nations pledging earmarked forces for use by the Security Council. The international force would conduct limited police operations against minor troublemakers or deter aggression against threatened states that ask for U.N. troop deployments. He laments that no international taxation exists to support such a force. Given the record of the United Nations in peacekeeping missions, the potential for catastrophic bungling in more ambitious military missions makes this proposal scary.

Our author has an activist military agenda but fails to provide priorities for intervention by a nation that has limited funds and military assets. Even the sole remaining superpower has its limits. More important, although Hoffmann understands that interventions can be difficult, he should realize that in many cases they fail (clan warfare continued after the United States left Somalia, and Haiti is sliding back into dictatorship) and that often outsiders cannot deal with intractable problems that have been around for decades or centuries.

Hoffmann identifies and labels three groups in the American foreign policy community: sheriffs, missionaries, and beacons. The sheriffs want to stop the bad guys of the international community at high noon. The missionaries eschew force and advocate foreign aid and public and private programs to export democracy and market capitalism. In contrast to the other two camps, the beacons merely want the United States to be a showcase of liberty and free enterprise for other nations to emulate. It is unfortunate that this book gives short shrift to the beacons and so extols the costly, dangerous alternatives.

Ivan Eland is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.